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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

The lives of Axel and Mary Jordache are embittered by their futile struggles to achieve social respectability and financial independence. Mary marries Axel to raise herself from the poverty of orphanhood, but she is repelled by Axel's sexual demands. Her recourse is emotional withdrawal and threats of suicide. Axel's response...

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The lives of Axel and Mary Jordache are embittered by their futile struggles to achieve social respectability and financial independence. Mary marries Axel to raise herself from the poverty of orphanhood, but she is repelled by Axel's sexual demands. Her recourse is emotional withdrawal and threats of suicide. Axel's response to his wife's coldness is physical brutality. Their efforts to run a business are as unsuccessful as their marriage. After twenty years of long hours and little pay, their bakery remains a precarious operation. When an urban renewal project threatens to destroy their building. Axel gives up and ends his life. Mary becomes a recluse, approachable only by her youngest son.

Tom, Gretchen, and Rudolph Jordache struggle with the legacy of their parents. Each seems headed for as awful a life as their parents. Tom inherits Axel's temper, lust, and proclivity for violence. He is often in trouble until a boxing career provides an outlet for his animal passion and the means to earn a living.

Gretchen inherits her mother's desire for respectability and her father's passionate nature. She combines these characteristics to get ahead on her looks and her body, first as the mistress of a wealthy man and then as an actress.

Rudolph suppresses the violent and sexual in his nature and channels all his energy into pursuing social acceptance. He attends college and becomes manager of a local department store; he forgoes romantic involvement to concentrate on his career.

If the Jordaches are the poor men of the title, Theodore Boylan is the rich man. Boylan's wealth is crucial in the lives of Gretchen, Tom, and Rudolph. Gretchen's fascination with Boylan's good life turns her into his mistress. Tom's hatred of Boylan's seductive wealth leads him to a violent action. Rudolph's determination to be like Boylan (thus garnering financial security for himself and Mary) makes him the rich man's protégé.

The novel traces the lives of the Jordache children from 1945 to 1968. It is crammed with minor characters with whom the Jordaches hate, love, compete with, or lust after. Despite adversity, the Jordache children build lives with affection and success their parents could not have envisioned. Tom, Gretchen, and Rudolph all find true love amid the heartbreak of disastrous affairs. Tom finds his place as a sloop captain battling the sea rather than other men. Gretchen succeeds as a film editor in Hollywood. Rudolph becomes rich and is elected mayor of the town where they were all raised. But success is not without loss: Gretchen's husband dies in an accident, Rudolph's political career ends during a mishandled student riot at the local college, and Tom dies protecting Rudolph's wife.

For Axel and Mary Jordache, life was two steps backward for one step forward. For their children, life moves ahead.

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