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.