An American Tragedy–The Manufactured Scarcity of Hortense’s Presence and Dreiser’s Daring Characters

It’s been a bit, yes.  There’s this whole thing where I’m in school and have to produce an amount of writing and research that would kill a mere mortal.  Luckily, I am not a mere mortal.  I prove this now and will continue to prove this later by not dying.

After a flurry of holiday activity, I am happily back to reading Dreiser.  Actually, I was happy to read most of this semester’s selections as well–Keats, the Shelleys, Gretchen Henderson’s amazing Galerie de Difformite, the lesser-known charlatan William Hazlitt, and some super-interesting art criticism.  Frankly, though, I’m relieved to come back home to the book I’ve been trying to find time to read all semester, and I’m really loving it.  More about why later.

Though I’m well into Part Two of An American Tragedy, the thing I’m most interested in writing about is the captivating section in Part One in which two teenagers are beginning to understand the politics of dating.   Hortense (what a name, huh?) is blossoming into a full-blown gold-digger in record time.  She has discovered that she has looks upon which she can capitalize, and now she is fine-tuning her ability to manipulate circumstance so that she gives the least and gains the most.  She has already divined a counterintuitive fact:  the more spoken for she appears to be, the more attractive she is to others.  So Hortense continually makes it clear that her free time is consumed by dates in order to make Clyde feel as if he is lucky to get a mere moment of her time.  She procures “gifts” the same way.  If so many men are willing to buy her things, as she implies, Clyde must prove he is different.  He plays right into her hands, setting himself apart by his willingness to spend the most money on her.  She balances affection, condescension, and rejection perfectly, making herself just impossible enough to win.  This balance–not her looks or her personality, as he would think–keeps Clyde’s attention.

Clyde is ruled by hormones.  Though it might seem as though he is the tragic hero in this situation, and Hortense the villain, he is just as ruled by crooked motives.  He is focused solely on conquering her and would have little interest remaining once the challenge was over.  Hortense is smart to keep him wanting more.

They feel out the same game, and they play it by the same rules: it’s a sex/bribery quid pro quo, almost explicitly discussed between the two. But they understand the game in fascinatingly different ways, and their ideas of fairness evolve as the stakes go up.  It’s  a delight to read, and it’s agonizing that it’s left unresolved.  I desperately wanted Clyde to give up on her.  Just I felt as if it was going to happen, Dreiser makes the novel take a dramatic turn.  I suspect I’ll hear more about that later on in the book.

Dreiser books with male protagonists are better than his ones with female protagonists.  Why is this?  Dreiser exhibits so much sympathy to the plight of the nonconforming woman.  Yet his books about them are maddening because the women are awful.  They are too sweet, too submissive, too self-sacrificing.  His men are needy and immature, but they have an independent streak that keeps me reading with delight.  They are daring.  Now, Sister Carrie was quite good, and I think it’s because Carrie had her moments of daring (quite unlike Jennie Gerhardt).  But most of the book shows her acquiescing to the desires of men.  In contrast, even as Clyde follows Hortense like a puppy, we hear his inner monologue, and it displays the thoughts of  a bitter, despondent, and rebellious character, not a gentle lamb.

At any rate, I am really loving An American Tragedy.  Clyde is a selfish, shallow, sour character, but I don’t have to like him to be interested in what happens to him.  I just have to think he has daring, apparently.

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