Gain and Loss in the Circle of Life
In Richard Powers’ novel, Gain, he intertwines two fictional stories to analyze the growth of large corporation in America and the deterioration of the individual as a potential result. He tells the story of the rise of a family soap making business, J. Clare and Sons, into a large-scale corporation over a span of 150 years. As a second story line, he incorporates the end of the life of Laura Bodey, a divorced real estate agent with ovarian cancer living in Lacewood, a town centered around the corporation’s headquarters. He makes a unique statement about the increasingly detrimental nature of business as it grows in scale. He never condemns Clare International nor does he overly-victimize any individual character that the corporation effects. He does not tell the story of J. Clare and Sons nor that of Laura Bodey perfectly objectively, but his opinions are subtly placed so that he leaves the reader with the ability to decide for themself whether or not current American businesses do more harm than good. He uses the characters of the two founding members of Clare International as tools to analyze the different elements and theories of capitalism and different motives for gain. He also uses the death of many characters in the novel to analyze the effect that the swelling growth of corporations has on individuals in its path. The story of the creation of Clare International begins with two of the Clare brothers, Resolve and Samuel. Resolve, the business savvy brother, embodies some of Marx’s criticisms of capitalism, but Powers does not necessarily present his character in an overly critical way. He drives the company to success by his never-ending need for improvement. He takes capital, turns it into commodity, only to re-invest in some new capital, constantly striving to more efficiently yield his product. When he cannot find an outlet to re-invest, he buys out another local business and strips it of its useable inventory. Powers says of Resolve, “His genius lay in seeing that progress demanded the destruction of much that had once been considered wealth” (118). While Resolve respects the commodity for what it is, he merely sees it as a tool for success rather than seeing the value of the commodity itself. Resolve also dabbles with the limits of labor exploitation for which Marx so adamantly criticizes capitalism. When gaslight threatens the 19th century demand for candles, Resolve goes to Samuel to request an increase in production through labor. Samuel shoots down the proposal, saying “work had sped up and stretched out to its outermost limits. The workers had taken to singing ironic choruses…enough times to lodge in Samuel’s conscience” (119). Even after presenting the reader with Resolve’s increasingly exploitive business tendencies, Powers does not villainize him. When Commonwealth v. Hunt is passed, he describes Resolve’s reaction as one of naïve astonishment that his labor supervision tendencies could warrant a need for such a verdict. He is the most power hungry out of all of the brothers, and most exemplifies the criticisms that Powers has of capitalism, but still, the reader remains fairly grounded in the middle regarding their opinions of him. In Samuel, Powers creates a stark contrast to Resolve: a more people friendly brother, and one who exemplifies the work ethic upon which Weber places so much value. Through his language, the reader sees that Powers most appreciates the part of capitalism that Samuel embodies, referring to him often as “benign.” (151). For J. Clare and Sons, he is the moral compass, and the conscience of the company. The author describes Samuel’s leadership style as “benevolent direction,” and refers to him as the partner that “would force his brother Resolve to return an overcharged dollar on a billing of one hundred…the one who refused to follow the common practice of underweighing, however widespread” (122). Through the character of...
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