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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 8 - 19th Century Prose Narrative 


Naturalism in the American Novel

Theodore Dreiser began his writing career as a journalist in the midwest. He incorporates that experience in his third novel, The Financier (1912), which draws on newspaper accounts of the career of Charles T. Yerkes. Yerkes was well-known at the time for amassing a fortune by building the street-railways of Chicago and London. His activities were not strictly legal, however, and he spent some years in prison. Scandals in recent years over insider trading on Wall Street make an apt comparison to Yerkes' crime: he bought land cheaply and then profited enormously because he had illicit information that city contracts were about to be signed that would make the land suddenly valuable when new railway routes were built there.

As a naturalist, Dreiser gave considerable importance to the art of looking and seeing. He believed that to observe carefully is a prerequisite for acquiring knowledge and insight. Therefore, Dreiser's descriptions, which sometimes border on the notes of a laboratory clinician, read like the methodology of a scientist.

The excerpt below is quite Darwinian in tone, emphasizing the brutal and awful realities of nature, which show how the world functions. In this passage, from the first chapter of The Financier, the young Frank Cowperwood (the character modeled on Yerkes) soon learns the lesson that will govern all his future dealings -- that only the fittest survive.

Excerpt From The Financier, Chapter I

He was forever pondering, pondering -- one fact astonishing him quite as much as another -- for he could not figure out how this thing he had come into -- this life -- was organized. How did all these people get into the world? What were they doing here? What started things, anyhow? His mother told him the story of Adam and Eve, but he didn't believe it. There was a fish-market not so very far from his home, and there, on his way to see his father at the bank, or conducting his brothers on after-school expeditions, he liked to look at a certain tank in front of one store where were kept odd specimens of sea-life brought in by the Delaware Bay fishermen. He saw once there a sea-horse -- just a queer little sea-animal that looked somewhat like a horse -- and another time he saw an electric eel which Benjamin Franklin's discovery had explained. One day he saw a squid and a lobster put in the tank, and in connection with them was a witness to a tragedy which stayed with him all his life and cleared things up considerably intellectually. The lobster, it appeared from the talk of the idle bystanders, was offered no food, as the squid was considered his rightful prey. He lay at the bottom of the clear glass tank on the yellow sand, apparently seeing nothing -- you could not tell in which way his beady, black buttons of eyes were looking -- but apparently they were never off the body of the squid. The latter, pale and waxy in texture, looking very much like pork fat or jade, moved about in torpedo fashion; but his movements were apparently never out of the eyes of his enemy, for by degrees small portions of his body began to disappear, snapped off by the relentless claws of his pursuer. The lobster would leap like a catapult to where the squid was apparently idly dreaming, and the squid, very alert, would dart away, shooting out at the same time a cloud of ink, behind which it would disappear. It was not always completely successful, however. Small portions of its body or its tail were frequently left in the claws of the monster below. Fascinated by the drama, young Cowperwood came daily to watch.

One morning he stood in front of the tank, his nose almost pressed to the glass. Only a portion of the squid remained, and his ink-bag was emptier than ever. In the corner of the tank sat the lobster, poised apparently for action.

The boy stayed as long as he could, the bitter struggle fascinating him. Now, maybe, or in an hour or a day, the squid might die, slain by the lobster, and the lobster would eat him. He looked again at the greenish-copperish engine of destruction in the corner and wondered when this would be. To-night maybe. He would come back to-night.

He returned that night, and lo! the expected had happened. There was a little crowd around the tank. The lobster was in the corner. Before him was the squid cut in two and partially devoured.

"He got him at last," observed one bystander. "I was standing right here an hour ago, and he leaped up and grabbed him. The squid was too tired. He wasn't quick enough. He did back up, but that lobster he calculated on his doing that. He's been figuring on his movements for a long time now. He got him to-day."

Frank only stared. Too bad he had missed this. The least touch of sorrow for the squid came to him as he stared at it slain. Then he gazed at the victor.

"That's the way it has to be, I guess," he commented to himself. "That squid wasn't quick enough." He figured it out.

"The squid couldn't kill the lobster -- he had no weapon. The lobster could kill the squid -- he was heavily armed. There was nothing for the squid to feed on; the lobster had the squid as prey. What was the result to be? What else could it be? He didn't have a chance," he concluded finally, as he trotted on homeward.

The incident made a great impression on him. It answered in a rough way that riddle which had been annoying him so much in the past: "How is life organized?" Things lived on each other -- that was it. Lobsters lived on squids and other things. What lived on lobsters? Men, of course! Sure, that was it! And what lived on men? he asked himself. Was it other men? Wild animals lived on men. And there were Indians and cannibals. And some men were killed by storms and accidents. He wasn't so sure about men living on men; but men did kill each other. How about wars and street fights and mobs? He had seen a mob once. It attacked the Public Ledger building as he was coming home from school. His father had explained why. It was about the slaves. That was it! Sure, men lived on men. Look at the slaves. They were men. That's what all this excitement was about these days. Men killing other men --negroes.

He went on home quite pleased with himself at his solution.

"Mother!" he exclaimed, as he entered the house, "he finally got him!"

"Got who? What got what?" she inquired in amazement. "Go wash your hands."

"Why, that lobster got that squid I was telling you and pa about the other day."

"Well, that's too bad. What makes you take any interest in such things? Run, wash your hands."

"Well, you don't often see anything like that. I never did."

He went into the back yard, where there was a hydrant and a post with a little table on it, and on that a shining tin-pan and a bucket of water. Here he washed his face and hands.

"Say, papa," he said to his father, later, "you know that squid?"


"Well, he's dead. The lobster got him."

His father continued his reading. "Well, that's too bad," he said indifferently.

But for days and weeks, Frank thought of this and of the life he was tossed into, for he was already pondering on what he should be in this world, and how he should get along. From seeing his father count money, he was sure that he would like banking; and Third Street, where his father's office was, seemed to him the cleanest, most fascinating street in the world.

Questions For Discussion

  1. What does the nearby fish-market symbolize for Frank?
  2. What is the nature of Dreiser's description? Can you see a connection between his background as a journalist related to his technique as a novelist?
  3. Why was it an important artistic decision to have Frank stare at a fish tank in a store window? What role is played by spectators looking into a store window? How would this episode be different if, for example, Frank had seen a dog run over in the street?
  4. Where does the human world fit into the natural world? How is Darwin a presence in this chapter?
  5. What do the final paragraphs contribute to the chapter? What is important about Frank's parents' reactions? What is the reason for the reference to Third Street and the activities that take place there?
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