Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier is the story of Frank A. Cowperwood, a Philadelphia businessman who seems destined for greatness. Even as a young man Cowperwood excels in business with his calculating logic and aversion to risk. As he grows into his career as a fancier even his aptly suited personal traits cannot save him from the lure of money and power. In an attempt to feed his ever growing need for consumption Cowperwood becomes involved with some shady politicians and begins embezzling mutual funds. While playing the risky market he has dismissed as irrational his entire life, a panic causes Cowperwood’s misdealings to come to light. Identified as the scapegoat, Cowperwood is sent to jail even though he does not believe he has done nothing wrong. Upon his release Cowperwood puts his instincts to the test reentering the world of finance, only to emerge a millionaire once more.
Dreiser’s novel touches on two main themes of our class: the question of whether great leaders of business are born or made, and the role of morality in business.
It is clear from Cowperwood’s first introduction that Dreiser believes in the idea that inherent character defines an individual’s lot in life. Even as a young man Copperwood possessed business qualities like efficiency, directness, critical analysis, and self assuredness. “Curiously, after only three or four minutes of conversation with the boy, he sensed this marked quality of efficiency. Something told him he would do well.” (pp. 25) Despite the fact that Cowperwood is born with the qualities to be great, his success is still determined by his choices. As his wealth grows, his taste for material possessions intensifies and he becomes unable to deny himself any luxuries. Cowperwood looses site of his own rationalization because of his mounting greed. “The sight of his new house going up made Cowperwood feel of more weight in the world, and the possession of his suddenly achieved connection with the city treasurer was as though a wide door had been thrown open to the Elysian fields of opportunity.” (pp. 98) His desire for the finer things in life causes him to turn his back on his long standing belief that markets are irrational and therefore unwise investments. Dreiser is arguing that just because you are born to be great, that greatness is not guaranteed.
There is no morality in Dreiser’s Philadelphia. Nor is there lament at its absence. Cowperwood does not look at situations in a moral light of right and wrong, rather he enters into most affairs with a cost benefit analysis. He cares little about the politics of his time and is neutral on issues of slavery, infidelity, and embezzlement. “Cowperwood’s laissez-faire attitude” allowed him live with a “cold, direct, ‘I satisfy myself’” outlook on life. (pp. 268) It is for this reason that he cannot see his use of state funds for personal gain as wrong. Though he is caught and sent to jail, this is not a turning point in Cowperwood’s life. He leaves jail an unchanged man and immediately reenters the market, making back his millions. This is not a story of punishment and a search for moral consciousness, rather it is a statement on the cool, calculating, mechanical nature of the market and who is able to thrive in it. “A man, a real man, must never be an agent, a tool, or a gambler – acting for himself or for other – he must employ such. A real man – a financier – was never a tool. He used tools. He created. He led.” (pp. 42)