Study Guide

Boardwalk Empire Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    In many ways, Atlantic City has always functioned as a little self-sufficient empire. After all, everything goes back to the boss. This is especially true in Nucky's case; he rules his operation like "a decadent monarch" (5.3), holding sway over every decision big and small. Of course, Nucky would say that he's only doing this for the sake of his city, but it's pretty clear that he does it for one reason alone—to gain power.

    Even Hap, who the book depicts as a good-hearted dude, rules the town with an iron fist. Although this little Boardwalk Empire eventually falls (or is annexed by Donald Trump, depending on how you look at it), no one can deny the heights of power reached by the leaders of this little seaside resort town.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Things are finally looking up for Atlantic City. Gambling is now legal; Donald Trump is chilling "on the bridge of his $30 million yacht, the Trump Princess" (12.1) after investing massive sums into giant, garish casinos; and for the first time in decades, the regular people that live and work in Atlantic City are optimistic about the future.

    If there's one thing you should've learned by now, however, it's that good times can't last forever. Atlantic City actually took a marked downturn after the publication of Boardwalk Empire, with many analysts predicting (for the umpteenth time) the city's demise.

    This shouldn't be anything new to longtime Atlantic City residents. The city has gone through more dramatic changes than Madonna, at one moment seeming like the happiest place on earth and the next like an urban wasteland. So yeah, we think it would be unwise to count Atlantic City out—you should always bet on the house.

  • Setting

    Atlantic City

    Atlantic City goes through some serious ch-ch-changes over the course of Boardwalk Empire. What begins as a tiny island village grows into mecca for tourists and gamblers—a place where super-wealthy businesspeople like Donald Trump call the shots. Buckle up, Shmoopers, because this is going to be a wild ride.

    Island in the Sun

    Atlantic City is located on Absecon Island, a small barrier island off the coast of New Jersey. Before Jonathan Pitney comes along, the island is sparsely populated, wildly unkempt, and generally a rough place to spend your time. Things don't improve much after Atlantic City is founded, either. One year, a massive "plague of insects […] nearly closed the resort down" (1.52), and there isn't even any fresh water on the island. Pitney may have a grand vision for this isolated resort town, but it just keeps getting blurrier and blurrier.

    With time, however, Atlantic City thrives. The city reaches its peak under Nucky Johnson; in particular, "the 'Roaring '20s' were golden years for both Nucky and his town" (5.35). Prohibition helps, too, as it drives an increasing number of tourists to the city in the hopes of scoring some booze. Regardless of the reasons, though, Atlantic City explodes in popularity, its days filled with throngs of visitors and its nights with wild parties and world-class performances. These are high times for Atlantic City, but you know the rule: What comes up must come back down.

    There and Back Again

    At a certain point, collapse becomes inevitable. First the repeal of Prohibition ends Atlantic City's veritable monopoly on alcohol sales, and then the growing availability of modern technology makes tourists less prone to spend their hard-earned dough on a vacation there. Finally, the collapse of Nucky Johnson's political machine seals the deal. What was once "a prosperous and bustling seaside resort" has devolved into "a sleazy saltwater ghetto" (9.4). Ouch.

    The legalization of gambling in 1976 changes everything once more, though. Gambling has long been a part of Atlantic City culture, but this is the first time in history it's in the hands of businesspeople rather than mobsters. Enter Donald Trump and his billionaire cohort, who build giant casinos that look "custom-baked for someone with more money than taste" (12.32). This transforms Atlantic City's economy, giving its residents a fighting chance for the first time in decades. For longtime Atlantic City residents, however, this is just another day at the office.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    If the people who came to town had wanted Bible readings, we'd have given 'em that. But nobody ever asked for Bible readings. They wanted booze, broads, and gambling, so that's what we gave 'em. - Murray Fredericks

    What's up with the epigraph?

    Well, it's true, isn't it?

    After all, it's not like the dudes who ran Atlantic City were awful people or anything. Though they did some pretty shady stuff, they did it for one reason—to support their city. They only got into illegal activity in the first place because that's what the customer wanted, and the customer is always right.

    This becomes especially true when you remember that most of the city's visitors hailed from Philadelphia. At the time, Philly was "a conservative and traditional town" (4.13) founded on strict Quaker morals. During the Industrial Revolution, however, new immigrants flooded into the city to work in factories. These blue-collar workers weren't too interested in going to church, though—they just wanted to have a "hell-raising good time" (4.14). Understandable when you consider how hard they worked.

    So can you blame Atlantic City for giving them what they want? That would be like getting mad at Taylor Swift for incessantly instagramming photos of her cats—you can't blame someone for being who they are.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    The hardest thing about Boardwalk Empire is keeping track of all the people—otherwise, it isn't a difficult book by any means. Johnson writes with a simple style that emphasizes clarity above all else. No need to keep a dictionary handy as you plow through this one.

  • Legalized Gambling

    Although gambling has always been an important part of Atlantic City's economy, it's not until its legalization in 1976 that we see how powerful the industry has become.

    Fed up with their decline from "a prosperous and bustling seaside resort" to "a sleazy saltwater ghetto" (9.4), Atlantic City residents pour their hopes into legalized gambling. After all, widespread (illegal) gambling was Atlantic City's most effective tool for drawing in tourists until the local political machine collapsed, bringing racketeers and gambling houses down with it. So maybe legalizing it will help bring the tourists back.

    Legalized gambling represents a new approach to an old system. Instead of placing the reigns in the hands of political bigwigs or conniving Mafiosos, the people want to see respectable businessmen running the show. Of course they might have reconsidered if they realized that their "respectable businessman" would turn out to be Donald Trump, but hey—you win some, you lose some.

    Ultimately, the rise of legalized gambling reflects growing changes within Atlantic City and America as a whole. Gone are the days when local political parties and criminals run the show—"criminal types […] never had a prayer of dominating Atlantic City as they had" (11.51) before. Atlantic City is now corporate turf and only time will tell if this is a change for the better.

  • John Young's Million Dollar Pier

    At the time, John Young's Million Dollar Pier must have been as mind-blowing as Disney World. This was a spectacle no one had ever seen before, one so awe-inspiring that it changed the fabric of American society. Or that's how John Young would tell it, at least.

    John Young is the first of his kind. He instinctively realizes that his customers have "simple tastes" and "wanted a high time at a bargain price" (2.3), using this knowledge to make boatloads of cash. Part circus ringmaster, part savvy businessman, and part snake oil salesman, Young is the first to deliver an experience to tourists that they simply can't get anywhere else.

    In a way, this represents the birth of modern consumerism. As Young and his competitors grow their businesses, they realize that they need to work hard to make customers drop serious dough. And they do. In time, these ambitious fellows "were, in large part, responsible for institutionalizing the concept of the spending spree in American culture" (2.38). So the next time you shop 'til you drop, just think—you might not be doing so without John Young and his Million Dollar Pier.

  • Railroads

    The rise of the railroad is a reflection of the changing landscape of 20th century America. And in this case, we actually use the word landscape literally. The Camden-Atlantic railroad, constructed by Pitney and Richards, transforms South Jersey, connecting isolated small towns to major urban centers. Though "things had changed little" in "the two generations following the American Revolution" (1.3), it's a whole new world now.

    Things change even more after Richards builds the first discount rail line to Atlantic City. Richards's new railroad is a minor technological marvel—"there had never been a railroad constructed at such a speed" (1.63) outside of a war. This just goes to show that technological growth isn't always about making things bigger and flashier; it's also about making things more efficient, inexpensive, and accessible to the masses.

    Ultimately, the construction of railroads throughout Jersey transforms the region, just as they did across the United States and the world. Without these railroads, Atlantic City would never become the gambling mecca it is today. All aboard!