Again, it was so very evident, in so many ways, that force was the answer–great mental and physical force. Why, these giants of commerce and money could do as they pleased in this life, and did. He had already had ample local evidence of it in more than one direction. Worse–the little guardians of so-called law and morality, the newspapers, the preachers, the police, and the public moralists generally, so loud in their denunciation of evil in humble places, were cowards all when it came to corruption in high ones. They did not dare to utter a feeble squeak until some giant had accidentally fallen and they could so so without danger to themselves.
So Frank Cowperwood found matters in Philadelphia in the 1870s as he made and lost his fortune and then made it again, hurt and then helped by the panics which shook the financial markets in those years. This novel is comparable to books like Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and Conrad’s Nostromo in its depiction of what an energetic and resourceful man may do to gain his ends. This is not some abstract universe. The details of the financial markets and their interface with political power are described in detail. Morality consists in knowing what one can safely do without getting caught. If “everybody” does it, then everybody is safe enough until some outside event, like the Chicago fire or the failure of a great railroad enterprise, takes everyone down. Then the political power may well look for a scapegoat.
Cowperwood is Darwinian in his view of the system. If it survives and flourishes, then he and his family, his wife and his mistress will all benefit. It is smart to build alliances, but every loyalty is limited to, again, what works in your own interest.
Morality and immorality? He never considered them. But strength and weakness–oh, yes! If you had strength you could protect yourself always and be something. If you were weak–pass quickly to the rear and get out of the range of the guns. He was strong, and he knew it, and somehow he alway believed in his star.
Dreiser is clear eyed in presenting this model financier. We see him at his work, in his family, with his mistress and, when events turn against him, in prison. He does not change. He still believes in his star and his own powers. The strength of the book, I believe, does not derive from Cowperwood’s character, but from the author’s reportorial skill. We learn the details of the market manipulations, we hear the politicians decide who to support, and we experience the petty humiliations of prison life. It’s the real world and Cowperwood is real to us because he is embedded within it.