The Society of An American Tragedy

I made a critical error and picked An American Tragedy back up one night this week, ignoring the onslaught of forthcoming deadlines which punctuate the end of my undergraduate journey with a series of exclamation points. (Or maybe, more accurately, “@$#%!*”.)  Big mistake.  Now I’ve spent the week throwing aside the literally fifteen books I have to read for my Russian Revolution class research paper, and I instead find myself sucked into an orbit around the Kindle, unable to resist the gravitational pull of Planet Dreiser.

Planet Dreiser is populated by the society of the 1920s.  If anyone’s seen Boardwalk Empire, you might imagine that the twenties were filled with topless women and gunfire.  (Thank you, Hollywood, for your ever-accurate history lessons–though I shouldn’t judge too harshly, as I imagine the criminal underground did have plenty of both those things to go around in the twenties. I just think it’s a mistake to think that small circle of folks are representative of society.)  But society in An American Tragedy is a prison. Both Roberta and Clyde are inmates, but in different ways.  Considering my feminist leanings, (and considering that Clyde is highly unlikable at this point in the novel) I’m much more moved by the way Roberta is imprisoned. Clyde is trapped by society in that he can only think about the struggle to climb upwards in rank.  But Roberta is a different story.  Clyde pressures her into forsaking her moral qualms about sex with his unspoken threats of not just withdrawing his affection but also making her time at work an emotional nightmare.  Then, when she becomes pregnant–hardly a surprise in a society that considers the subject of birth control taboo–her options are few and terrible.  And the very society that makes her options so terrible is what has placed her in the position in the first place.  Women are supposed to serve the needs of men but remain pure.  Women are to show deference to men’s authority, to be meek and compliant,  yet they are ostracized if they allow men access to their bodies.  But this is an old, old complaint, of course, with roots in the familiar reductionist Madonna/whore dichotomy.  I think Roberta is a perfect example of how real human beings are neither one nor the other.    But her society must slap polarizing labels on her, and her time as the Madonna is about to end.

A good example of this is when she finally finds access to a doctor who, as rumor has it, has performed an abortion before.  Thanks to Dreiser’s inclusion of the doctor’s internal monologue, we get to hear him wavering back and forth as he tries to make a judgement about who Roberta is.  First, she seems too innocent to have that kind of problem, so surely she is here about some trivial health problem which makes an exceedingly modest girl shy.  Then, he remembers how even the most innocent-looking patients have had the darkest, most immoral secrets.  When he finally understands her situation–that she is unmarried and pregnant, he is consumed with distaste toward the situation.  In his defense, his excuse that there is no reward in performing the abortion, only risk to his career and danger to her…well, that seems pretty unarguable.  And yet, he clearly possesses this Madonna/whore mindset that is so prevalent in An American Tragedy’s society–either she’s an innocent, sexless waif or a scarlet woman meant for the streets.  I love Dreiser because a reader can clearly see how the people in his books want to reduce things to categories of black and white.  The reader, at the same time, sees at the same time how resistant to categorization these characters are.  Complicated characters struggling to uncomplicate each other.  This is Planet Dreiser.

Back to Planet Russian Revolution Research, whose gravitational pull is no match for that of luxury reading these days.

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