The first volume of the Trilogy of Desire was published in 1912. There Dreiser describes the early Philadelphian period in the life of the prosperous financier Frank Algernon Cowperwood as well as business and moral problems related to it.
Dreiser’s inspiration for the protagonist was the famous American millionaire Charles Tyson Yerkes, who gave an external storyline to “The Financier”: the beginning of business activity at the age of seventeen, the first work in a grain commission house / the position of a clerk in Henry Waterman & Company, opening of a brokerage house / note-brokerage business, trading on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, cooperation with the city treasurer Joseph Marcer / George Steiner according to the novel, a bankruptcy due to the Great Chicago Fire, a conviction for theft, early release after seven months / thirteen months according to the novel, rebuilding his fortune in ten years / in six months according to the novel.
The main idea of the novel is connected with a kind of a person new for America – an honest successful businessman, guided by the motto “I satisfy myself”. Frank Cowperwood is not a positive hero, but not a villain. Dreiser defines him as an “intellectual egoist”, literary critics – as a person with “zero morality”. The protagonist of the novel shows the consistency of judgments and deeds in business as well as in love. In business he is guided by common sense, in relations with women – by feelings. The transition of love into a documentary category (the divorce from Lillian and the wedding with Aileen) is automatically transferred by Cowperwood to the rational area and is solved by a simple logical thought expressed to the wife: “I don’t love you anymore, and I don’t feel that I want to keep up a relationship, that is not satisfactory to me”.
From the point of view of a person of the 21st century, such a position looks straightforward and honest. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was impossible because of the social moral principles that have been laid down for decades and placed the family above all. Frank, who understands that “life cannot be put into any mold”, refuses to obey an alien rule. Aileen, who was in love with him and who “current religious feeling and belief” never “could control”, gives free play to her emotion and feeling of inner rightness in the relationships “between those who were mutually compatible”.
Unlike Lillian, who is “a natural conservator of public morals”, afraid to reveal herself even alone with her husband, bold and determined Aileen Butler immediately attracts Frank’s attention with her liveliness and cheerfulness. An impatient and vain girl always becomes a center of everyone’s attention and attraction everywhere, whether it be a family or a high society. She is the best that the world of women can offer to Cowperwood, and he turns to her, feeling a similar inner strength and character in Aileen.
Independent, bold, fervent, crafty, suspicious, goal-oriented, calm, forward-thinking, cautious, accurate – this is the set of qualities that Dreiser gives to his hero. It is thanks to them Frank Cowperwood becomes what he is – a born financier, intelligent, observant, and able to draw the proper conclusions person.
In childhood, thinking about the tragedy taking place in a market aquarium, where day by day the lobster tears the pieces of the body from the live squid and eventually eats it, Frank comes to the conclusion that “things live on each other”. At thirteen, Cowperwood realizes that he is ready to fight for his place in the sun, and says to his family: “I don’t want to be a boy. I want to get to work”. Having started his financial activity at seventeen, by the age of thirty-four, Frank has grown to the level of a large stockbroker and a majority stockholder in one of the profitable street-railway business.
The life of a young financier has been ruined by unforeseen accident – a catastrophic fire in Chicago that caused panic on the stock exchange, and his own imprudence regarding the check conversion amid the upcoming bankruptcy. The intimate relationship with the daughter of one of Philadelphia’s three prominent political figures completes the chain of tragic coincidences. Frank fails, goes to jail, but does not lose either Aileen or his unique moral courage, which helps him to overcome all the hardships of solitary imprisonment and earn a million dollars in six months after his release.
A straightforward, enough cynical and tough hero of “The Financier” expresses an unusual point of view on most of the serious problems peculiar to his contemporary America. He takes the civil war between the industrial North and the slave South as an annoying hindrance, hampering the business development of the country and bringing nothing to him personally. Frank sympathizes with the tight situation of slaves, but not much, as he can see that “the vast majority of men and women are not essentially above slavery”. “There were just two faces to the shield of life from the point of view of his peculiar mind-strength and weakness” and both were equally bad for slaves and people, “the weak mind” and “the weak body”.
Cowperwood takes the legal base of the USA just as “a mist formed out of the moods and the mistakes of men”. The law as well as the war, according to Frank, does not help, but prevents a person from realizing his business and public endeavors. It stands to reason that the prison which the hero is put into has a figurative image of an octopus consisted of seven corridors – “arms” ranged around the central building and only waiting to eat up “a squid” -Cowperwood.
“The Financier” is a realistic novel. There Dreiser describes in detail the appearance of each hero, the architectural and interior features of buildings, all nuances of exchange activities and American legal proceedings. Along with long speeches “The Financier” includes bright and lively dialogues, descriptions of the inner experiences of the characters, and a peculiar lyrical component expressed, for example, in the color characteristics of objects that Frank Cowperwood sees around him after the verdict – in “a last tingling gleam of lavender and violet” showing over “the cold white snow”, in “the house of gray-green stone”, in “cream-colored lace curtains”.