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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY FREE CHAPTER SUMMARIES

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Summary

Clyde experiences both self-loathing and exhilaration after his adventure at the brothel - and while he has no interest in prostitutes, he does want to a find a girl to romance and have sex with. Ratterer and Hegglund, who’ve detected a superior attitude in Clyde, continue to cultivate his friendship. Ratterer invites Clyde home one evening, a household which contrasts sharply to the Griffths’ by its complete moral laxity. Ratterer and his sister have parties at the home with their circle of friends, which Clyde becomes part of. On his first visit, Clyde meets Mrs. Ratterer but Louise is late home from work. Before Louise arrives, two of her friends drop by, Greta Miller and Hortense Briggs.

The two girls vie for Clyde’s attention, out of sport more than any actual romantic interest. Louise arrives home and is also introduced to Clyde. Clyde is attracted to Hortense and flirts with her. The girls invite him to a dancing party but, as he doesn’t know how to dance, all three teach him. Bert Gettler arrives to escort Hortense to the party, which disappoints Clyde. Ratterer warns Clyde of Hortense and her reputation for leading on men, but agrees to attend the party. There, Clyde sees moral laxity in the form of alcohol, dancing, flirting, and spooning. He berates Hortense for being a flirt and says he can spend a good deal of money on her; while put off by his earnestness, Hortense is attracted to his looks and willingness to spend on her. Hortense leaves with her date, but agrees to meet Clyde Tuesday night for dinner and a musical comedy.

Notes

We get the first hint of Clyde’s passionate nature with women, and the extremes it can take him.


CHAPTER TWELVE

Summary

Clyde is absolutely enchanted by Hortense, whose charm and looks are beyond compare in his narrow perspective. On Tuesday night, they were to meet at 6:30 PM but Hortense arrives at 7:00, claiming she forgot about another date she had made. She was going to cancel with Clyde but realized she couldn’t reach him, so instead she broke off her date with Charlie. Clyde hates having such rivalries brought up, but is ecstatic to be with Hortense. He buys her flowers, an act which mildly impresses her. She talks incessantly about herself - her busy social life and the pains of her work life - but remains distant with Clyde. She wasn’t fully interested in Clyde, but wanted to hold onto him to see what she can get.


Notes

Hortense’s deceptions mirror Clyde’s own behavior in Book Two. However, her decision to keep Clyde at a distance, while manipulative, is also seen by two girls with less mercenary impulses: Roberta Alden and Sondra Finchley, who both believe in restraint for its own sake, instead of as a means to string along interested men.


CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Summary

Clyde and Hortense dated non-exclusively - at least, non-exclusively on Hortense’s part. Clyde tries to win her over with gifts and attention, and she keeps him on line with small, promising signs of affection. Four months pass and Clyde knows he’s made no real progress. At home, Clyde has noticed how his mother was receiving letters and suspects they’re from Esta. Around the time he started pursuing Hortense, Elvira asks if he knows how to obtain $100 quickly. Clyde is torn by conflicting duties - to family and to self - and says he doesn’t know any way. Elvira decides to have Clyde pawn some family keepsakes and borrow the rest of the money from Mr. Murch. She’ll pay Murch back, but Clyde needs to give her an extra $5 a week in the meanwhile to cover that repayment. Clyde pawns the keepsakes for $45 and, with $10 his mother already had, needed $45 more from Murch. For the next nine weeks, then, Clyde must pay his mother $10 instead of the usual $5. Clyde knows how much she sacrifices but wants the money for himself, especially in his pursuit of Hortense.

Soon after, Clyde sees his mother on Montrose Street, looking for a room to rent; when he asks her about this that night, she claims it’s for somebody who’s sick and has little money. A month later, Clyde sees his mother on Missouri Avenue with a heavy bag. Seeing Clyde, Elvira ducks into an apartment building. Clyde sees her leave cautiously, furtively, which puzzles and intrigues him. A week later, Clyde thinks he sees Esta, his sister, near Eleventh and Baltimore. He brings this up to his mother, who pretends to be surprised but does a bad job of it. One day a month later, Clyde sees Elvira on the streets with a small basket. He follows her to a rooming house in Beaudry and soon sees Esta looking out the front window.

An hour later, Elvira leaves and Clyde goes in to see Esta. She’s surprised and happy to see him, and he quickly realizes she’s pregnant. She tells Clyde she’s been back a month, confirming his earlier sighting of her. Sensing discomfort at the situation, Esta asks Clyde not to tell their mother what he knows. When she begins crying, Clyde asks if she was married and is told that’s not the case. The man she ran away with had left her in a Pittsburgh hotel with no money. Elvira sent her $100 and Esta worked at a restaurant while she could, ashamed to admit she had been abandoned. Finally, though, she decided to return. Elvira doesn’t want Julia or Frank to know about Esta’s pregnancy, but Esta is lonely and scared in her current situation. Clyde promises to visit Esta again and offers to help; after leaving, he thinks of the abandoned girl at the Green-Davidson and the similarities with Esta. He sees how different his reactions are when something such as this happens to family and not strangers.

Notes

Elvira entrusts Clyde, not Asa, to handle the pawnshop; this trust placed in him shows the ineffectiveness of Clyde’s own father, but is also misplaced since Clyde is holding back on giving his family more of his earnings. Money is equated with entitlement in Clyde’s mind. He believes if he pays his family more, he is entitled to more consideration by them. When reuniting with Esta, Clyde sees the consequences of running away from home - he wanted to escape as well, but now considers what could happen if planned poorly. The contrast between the Green-Davidson girl and Esta is instructive, as it shows how naturalism tries to turn the harsh realities of life into more personal stories that move readers.

 

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