Study Guide

Boardwalk Empire Themes

  • Technology and Modernization

    In many ways, Boardwalk Empire documents the birth of the modern era. We watch as railroads connect small towns to big cities for the first time ever, and as the Industrial Revolution transforms the way we live and work. We even get a front row seat to the monumental changes that happen in the boom period after World War II.

    Throughout all this, we see these broad societal shifts reflected in Atlantic City, transforming it from a tiny resort town with a serious mosquito problem to a destination for gamblers and Donald Trump enthusiasts alike. After all, Atlantic City was built on the principle of giving the people what they want. As those wants change, so does Atlantic City.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. How do developments in transportation affect Atlantic City?
    2. Does industrialization ultimately benefit Atlantic City? Why or why not?
    3. In your opinion, how does Atlantic City manage to survive in the modern era?
    4. What technological development touched on by the book is the most important? Explain.

    Chew on This

    cThe development of railroads was the most important contributor to Atlantic City's early success.

    The shift from trains to automobiles has a significantly negative effect on the Atlantic City economy.

  • Visions of Atlantic City

    Atlantic City is a one-of-a-kind place, for better or worse. Founded by Jonathan Pitney, Atlantic City has always had one driving purpose—to snag themselves some tourists. Sometimes they do it by presenting the biggest spectacle you can see outside of a Super Bowl halftime show. Sometimes they do it by offering easy access to illicit thrills; sometimes they just straight-up lie to folks.

    It's hard to judge the powers that be for their maneuvers, though. There might be some shady stuff happening at the fringes, but at the core of Atlantic City has always been its hard-working, resilient, and at times, cynical residents. As you'll learn while reading Boardwalk Empire, longtime Atlantic City residents have seen some serious stuff in their lives.

    Questions About Visions of Atlantic City

    1. Does Pitney's dream come true? Why or why not?
    2. How do residents adapt to their corrupt government? How does this compare and contrast to the way the government adapts to its residents?
    3. Will legalized gambling save Atlantic City? Why or why not?
    4. In what ways does the population of Atlantic City change over the course of the book?

    Chew on This

    With the advent of legalized gambling, Jonathan Pitney's dream for Atlantic City has finally come true.

    Though legalized gambling benefits Atlantic City, it's not quite enough to live up to Jonathan Pitney's vision for the town.

  • Politics

    The politicians we meet over the course of Boardwalk Empire aren't exactly savory dudes. There's Nucky Johnson, who rules the local Republican Party and the local criminal underworld with an iron fist. And then there's Hap Farley, a seemingly respectable state senator who's actually as corrupt as they come. In other words, this town ain't run by boy scouts. Ultimately, the foibles and follies of these flawed fellows reveal a lot about the political environment of America during the 20th and 21st centuries. You think modern politicians are shady? Those dudes would get eaten alive in this Boardwalk Empire.

    Questions About Politics

    1. How does Kuehnle shape the Atlantic City political machine?
    2. Why does Nucky believe politics to be below a true boss? Explain.
    3. Is Hap a good state senator? Why or why not?
    4. Are Atlantic City residents better off now that the local Republican Party has been dismantled? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although he does some corrupt stuff, Hap actually turns out to be a stellar politician.

    Although he pretends to be an honest, hard-working politician, Hap is as corrupt as anyone who has come out of Atlantic City.

  • Power

    Everything we know about power we learned from Nucky Johnson. The dude has it made: He runs Atlantic City's local Republican Party, rules the criminal underworld with an iron fist, and most importantly, he always spends his night in the company of beautiful ladies.

    As fun as this all might sound, though, all of this power comes with its fair share of downsides. Everyone is gunning for your throne, other powerful people are scheming to take you down, and even your closest friends can't be trusted. As we watch Nucky and his successors struggle to adapt to life at the top of the food chain in Boardwalk Empire, we get a first-hand lesson in the way that power can change us—and not always for the better.

    Questions About Power

    1. Which of Atlantic City's bosses become the most powerful? Explain.
    2. Compare and contrast Nucky and Hap's response to gaining power.
    3. Does Nucky use his power wisely? Explain.
    4. In your opinion, why does Nucky willingly give up his power after getting released from jail? Back your answer up with evidence from the text.

    Chew on This

    Although all of Atlantic City's bosses are powerful men, no one can quite compare with the power-crazed Nucky Johnson.

    Unlike Nucky, Hap doesn't abuse his power, instead using it build up Atlantic City rather than build up his own ego.

  • Society and Class

    Although the spotlight stays on guys like Nucky Johnson for the bulk of Boardwalk Empire, the real stars of the show are the blue-collar workers who build Atlantic City from the ground up. Atlantic City was built by Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants; by African-Americans who fled Jim Crow for brighter pastures; by working-class tourists from Philadelphia.

    The people in charge want us to believe that Atlantic City has always been a playground for the rich and famous, but the truth is that the resort town would never have survived without major contributions from ordinary people. In many ways, the successes and failures of Atlantic City reflect growing changes happening to American society at large. Keep an eye on the little guy for a sense of how regular folks are faring in society in general.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How do racial tensions play into the class system in Atlantic City?
    2. What would have happened to Atlantic City if Richards had never built a budget railroad?
    3. Is there tension between the working and middle class in Atlantic City? Explain.
    4. In what ways does the story of Atlantic City reflect changes throughout American society?

    Chew on This

    In truth, Atlantic City only succeeded because its leaders had the foresight to market to the working and middle classes instead of only the upper class.

    The flight of the middle and upper classes from Atlantic City in the mid-21st century is a primary contributor to the city's deterioration.

  • Manipulation

    The dudes we meet over the course of Boardwalk Empire are so manipulative that they might as well be starring in The Wolf of Wall Street. We meet corrupt politicians who fix elections, steely businessmen who shake down tourists for their last dollars, and opportunistic criminals who flaunt every law in the book.

    Sometimes their manipulations work like a charm; sometimes they fail miserably. Still, the course of Atlantic City history is shaped by the backroom machinations of these powerful people, their subtle manipulation of the masses, and their blatant corruption. It might not exactly be a heart-warming tale, but it's one that needs to be told.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. How does Atlantic City contribute to consumer culture? Be specific, please.
    2. Are Atlantic City businessmen justified in manipulating tourists? Explain your answer.
    3. Which of the Atlantic City bosses is best at manipulating people?
    4. Are Atlantic City residents being manipulated by their leaders? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although each of Atlantic City's bosses have their strengths and weaknesses, no one is better at manipulation than Nucky.

    Atlantic City's manipulation of its visitors helps created modern consumer culture.

  • Race

    The tricky truth is that race plays a big role in the development of Atlantic City. After the Civil War, many newly freed slaves made their way up North in hopes of a better life for themselves and their families. A good number of these families ended up in Atlantic City, the hottest resort town on the East Coast.

    Although the city is happily integrated in the early days, white residents becomes increasingly hostile to their black neighbors, eventually enacting de-facto segregation. Though their struggles remained ignored for most of American history, black residents of Atlantic City are finally getting their stories told in the pages of Boardwalk Empire.

    Questions About Race

    1. Why do white residents become increasingly hostile as more black families move to Atlantic City?
    2. How does the Civil Rights Movement affect Atlantic City?
    3. How would Atlantic City history be different if black workers were treated like white workers?
    4. Why does the black church play such an important role in the community?

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, the rejection of black craftsmen and artisans from the workplace only hurt the economies of places like Atlantic City.

    Although white residents have no problem with their black neighbors at first, tension grows exponentially after they feel like their majority is being threatened.

  • Criminality

    In the wacky world of Atlantic City, there's a very fine line between criminals and politicians. We don't even mean that metaphorically—throughout the city's history, criminals have been protected by the local government. Weird, huh? This unique relationship is integral to the development of Atlantic City, shaping the political machine that dominates the region for over fifty years. We're not just talking about Mafiosos and politicians either—as we see in Boardwalk Empire, tons of regular folk just like us eventually become dependent on criminal enterprises to survive. Where's Batman when you need him?

    Questions About Criminality

    1. Why does organized crime flourish in Atlantic City?
    2. Is Atlantic City better off now that gambling has gone corporate? Explain.
    3. What is the effect of Prohibition on Atlantic City's criminals?
    4. Why do the major national crime bosses want to meet in Atlantic City? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Ironically, Prohibition is just about the best thing that ever happened to the criminals of Atlantic City.

    Atlantic City would have never become the criminal paradise it eventually becomes if not for the repressive morality of Philadelphia.