The Flivver King Summary and Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

The Flivver King

  • 102-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 92 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by an English teacher with a PhD in Philosophy
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The Flivver King Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 102-page guide for “The Flivver King” by Upton Sinclair includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 92 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 26 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Capitalist System Benefits the Few at the Expense of the Many and Money Owns People (and Not the Other Way Around).

Plot Summary

The Flivver King: A Story of Ford-America (1937) tells two intertwined stories: that of industrialist Henry Ford (1863-1947) and that of a fictional Ford Motor Company employee, Abner Shutt, and his family. The narrative is told by an omniscient third-person narrator.

The novel opens before the founding of the Ford Motor Company, when the young Henry Ford is in the process of inventing his first working automobile. It traces Ford’s progress from hopeful inventor to automobile industry magnate and one of the richest men in the world. The young Ford is hardworking, friendly and approachable, and spends his free time tinkering with his invention and explaining the principles behind the combustion engine to neighborhood children.

Once Ford has perfected his automobile, he begins to produce it for sale. Although others are initially skeptical about his business model, which involves mass-producing the automobiles and selling them for low prices rather than creating a luxury product for the rich, his company succeeds, in part because Ford fires or buys out all those who disagree with him. Gradually, the company becomes an empire, with Ford involved in fifty-three different industries. Ford becomes a billionaire.

Along the way, the initially idealistic Ford grows increasingly hardened and callous. Once happy to speak to his workers individually, he increasingly regards them only as human capital, not as human beings; he subjects them to exhausting and dehumanizing working conditions, puts down attempts to organize for better wages and working conditions with brutal force, and eventually employs a whole “service department” dedicated to spying on and policing the workforce with the help of thugs and gangsters.

Ford’s political activities shift along with his managerial policies. Once a pacifist, Ford becomes a virulent anti-Semite, even supporting the Nazi regime and circulating anti-Semitic propaganda both in the US, via the Dearborn Independent and a variety of pamphlets, and in German translation, with the cooperation of Hitler’s party.

Abner Shutt’s story unfolds parallel to Ford’s. At the beginning of the novel, Abner is a young boy and a neighbor of Ford’s. He delights in watching Ford work on his automobile and worships Ford as a brilliant inventor. Later, Abner personally asks Ford for a job and is hired; for the next thirty years he considers himself a Ford employee and is loyal to the company for life.

At first, Abner’s fortunes rise along with Ford’s: he is promoted to sub-foreman, earns a good living, and is able to buy a home and a car. However, as a result of economic downturns and the increasingly mechanized and sped-up work processes Ford introduces, his ascent into the middle class is repeatedly interrupted and reversed; by the end of his life, he is no richer than before and has suffered a great deal.

Abner’s children grow up in the shadow of the Ford “empire” and respond to it in a variety of ways: John goes to work for the Ford Company and clings desperately to his upper-middle-class status; Daisy, whose future is initially bright, becomes disillusioned with Ford after she and her husband suffer a reversal of fortune; Hank, the problem child, enters a life of crime and is eventually co-opted into Ford’s empire as one of the “service department” spies; Tom, the youngest, earns a college degree and aims to correct the Ford Company’s abuse of its workers by helping to organize the United Automobile Workers’ union. However, Tom must contend with the Ford Company thugs.

By the end of the novel, Ford is completely isolated by his wealth and indifferent to the human suffering he is causing; Tom is beaten to death, or nearly so, by Ford Company thugs. However, the reader knows (even if the novel’s characters do not) that the United Automobile Workers did win a collective bargaining agreement with the Ford Company in 1941.

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