Rich Man, Poor Man Themes
The central theme of the novel is that those who want to achieve the American Dream must make many moral compromises. Success in America involves the individual in sexual, economic, and social conflicts less violent but not less deadly than combat.
The American ethos is less humane than it seems. Sex is separated from love; the marketplace is a ruthless jungle of exploitation rather than an arena for honest competition; and social prominence causes others to be envious and become rivals. In most stories of upward mobility, the second generation becomes successful because of the first, immigrant generation's personal virtue and hard work. In Rich Man, Poor Man the opposite is true: Axel and Mary Jordache bestow upon Gretchen, Tom, and Rudolph a heritage of confused sexuality, physical violence, and a longing for material success. Such a legacy insures that their offspring have difficulty finding happiness commensurate with their worldly pleasure and success.