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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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FREE SUMMARY AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BY THEODORE DREISER

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER THREE

Summary

Contributing to Clyde’s dark mood is his sister Esta running away with a man. Despite her religious demeanor, Esta has similar weaknesses as Clyde - longing for material goods and romance, wishing to lead a more traditional youthful life - but lacks his resolve. So when a “masher” (a term used for what we would today call a “player”) set his sights on Esta, pledging love and fidelity, she becomes easy prey. One Saturday night, Clyde returns home to find his mother concerned about Esta’s whereabouts. Clyde eventually finds a letter on Esta’s bed and shows it to his mother before reading it; she shares the letter with Asa, and refuses to reveal its contents to Clyde or the other children. After conferring on their own, Clyde’s parents reveals that Esta has left them, but they hope she will soon return. She further warns her children that, if asked, Esta had gone to visit relatives in Tonawanda. All this further reinforces Clyde’s belief that the mission work is not as effective as his parents claim.


Notes

We see more doubling that foreshadows future events. Esta is a stand-in for Roberta Alden in Book Two - both become pregnant outside of wedlock. Similarly, the masher (we later learn his name is Nixon) is a double for Clyde, who also whisks his pregnant girlfriend away from her family and abandons her, albeit in a more fatal manner. Clyde’s lack of forethought - that is, finding Esta’s letter but not being told its contents - is an example of his inability to control the events around him, most notably in planning Roberta’s murder but also in the accident that ends Book One. Clyde’s already well-established doubt about his parents’ mission work - and in a broader sense, the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment - is dealt a huge blow by Esta’s actions. He would not seek spiritual peace until the end of the novel. Further, the use of deception to cover up bad appearances is first established by Elvira’s warning to her children regarding Esta’s whereabouts. In a sense, her admonishment for her children to lie is no different from Clyde’s later lies about his family.


CHAPTER FOUR

Summary

With Esta off on her own, Clyde more seriously considers his own eventual escape from the Griffiths family mission. He is already working odd jobs and using the money for pursuits his parents frowned upon, such as attending the theater. Wishing to have regular employment and feeling himself too far behind to continue schooling, he acquires a position as an assistant to Albert Sieberling, soda water clerk at a cheap drug store. The position offers various pleasures for Clyde: free ice cream sodas, an excuse to be away from home for extended periods, potential access to the theater next door, and a regular flow of alluring female customers. Seeing such girls with well-dressed boyfriends, Clyde yearns even more for a romance and stylish wardrobe of his own. Unfortunately, his job is limiting, as Sieberling uses him primarily for menial tasks and resists showing him the actual trade of a soda clerk.

Two things happen, however, to make sixteen-year-old Clyde consider living on his own: his parents considering a move to Denver, and the replacement of Sieberling with a clerk uninterested in Clyde. Thus, Clyde decides one Friday to seek work elsewhere, and goes to a more prestigious drug store to see if they are looking for soda fountain assistants. The manager, Mr. Secor, is not looking for such help but directs Clyde to an open position for bell boy at the Green-Davidson, the hotel next door. Instructed to ask for a Mr. Squires at the bell station but to not mention Secor’s name, Clyde proceeds to the hotel and is awed by its lavishness and by the quality of people present. Locating Squires, Clyde mentions Secor and asks for the position. Dismissively, Squires tells this boy to come back Monday afternoon for an interview.

Notes

While attending movies is a hint of the lifestyle - and transgressive behavior - that Clyde desires, his experience in the drug store is his first true indulgence of sensual and material pleasures. However, this is in the service of a less-than-virtuous man, Sieberling, who takes advantage of Clyde. In seeking his own advancement, Clyde will become a pawn repeatedly throughout the novel, most clearly in Book Three when his trial is used for political gain. The nomadic existence of Clyde’s family is reinforced by talks of moving to Denver, whereas Clyde himself seeks stability; indeed, the only time we see Clyde moving around in a significant manner is when his life is in turmoil. Clyde shows initiative when he pursues a new job, but also a certain untrustworthiness after mentioning Secor’s name to Squires though Secor specifically asked he not do so. The focus of the novel shifts at this early stage from Clyde’s home to the Green-Davidson hotel - from poverty and the pursuit of spirituality to unbounded affluence and the pursuit of material, sensual pleasures.

 

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