A Quick Observation on An American Tragedy Upon Completion…

A bout of insomnia allowed me to finish An American Tragedy at about 3:30 AM this morning.  Here’s where I announce the fact that this quick post contains a


SERIOUS SPOILER–Abandon all hope of surprise, ye who have not read and enter here.



Have you left?  Okay.


Clyde never once feels bad about killing Roberta.  (And by the way, he totally killed her–I don’t think that was ever really up for debate.)  He feels bad that he will be forever haunted by the deed, he feels bad that he got caught, he feels bad that he’s done something society thinks is wrong, he feels bad that he lost everything important to him, he feels bad that his mother is freaking out, he feels bad about all sorts of things. But does he ever feel bad that he took someone’s life, as if it was his to dispose of as he saw fit?  Does he ever feel bad that Roberta was once alive, had thoughts, had a past, a family, ideas for the future, and now is dead–because of him?  Not even at the very end does he feel actual remorse for anything except that his life went in a downward trajectory instead of an upward one.  

Clyde is one of the most repulsive characters I’ve ever encountered in literature.  My disgust was physical during the portion of the novel where he was contemplating killing her–I could feel my face scrunching up as I read, and I felt like I was going to throw up.  I’m not a believer in capital punishment, and I’m a little ashamed to say I found the electric chair to be an satisfying ending for this character.  There have been a lot of baddies in literature, but I don’t think anyone has turned my stomach quite like Clyde.  

Dreiser is an AMAZING author. I know–it’s no secret I think that.  But I’m again struck by his character development. It’s his way of taking you inside the character’s mind, showing you how the character came to be…he does it so naturally and with such finesse.  The way he handles long periods of time and subtle changes is perfect.  Clyde’s supposed to be our protagonist.  We watch him grow up.  We see his struggles.  We understand why he is the way he is.  It’s most natural that we’d sympathize with him, root for him even when we don’t really want to.  Dreiser makes his personality turn ugly in such a convincing way that I actually wanted to see him sent to the chair.  That’s something else.    

An American Tragedy was one of the most satisfying, moving literary experiences I’ve had in awhile.  I don’t know if I would call it a delight to read, the same way I wouldn’t call Othello or Wuthering Heights a “delight.”  But it’s a masterpiece. I don’t read for warm, fuzzy feelings, anyway.  I read because there’s nothing like getting wrapped up in the experience of an author displaying his/her craftsmanship.  Dreiser is wonderful for that.

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.

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.