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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BY THEODORE DREISER BOOKNOTES

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Summary

In considering sex relations, Clyde determines it’s not the deed that is troublesome but the consequences if not prepared. Hortense is torn between liking and disliking Clyde. She also comes from a poor family and when she entered the workforce she began interacting with men that attracted her - or at least offered her some kind of material gain. She knew how to lead men on, to not give up too much of herself but still keep them interested.

Her use of Clyde became more focuses when she was walking along Baltimore near Fifteenth with Doris Trina and saw a beaver fur jacket in a shop window. She desired the coat and, returning the next day to look at it, was allowed to try it on by the shopkeeper, Isadore Rubenstein Jr. Rubenstein and Hortense haggle over the price of the coat, bringing it down from $200 to $125. Rubenstein made overtures of a romantic arrangement to pay for the coat, but Hortense resisted this. Instead, she ponder over which of her current paramours could get her the coat and she decides on Clyde. Rubenstein says he’ll sell it to her for $115 and will save it for her until next Wednesday or Friday.


Notes

Clyde’s musings on sex is a fateful foreshadowing of what will happen in Book Two. Regarding the coat that Hortense lusts after, Dreiser’s language again subtly indicates how working class standards are different from those of a higher class.


CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Summary

Hortense knew Clyde was hungry for “that ultimate condescension” - that is, to have sex with her. She already provides such condescension to two other men and was now allowing the possibility to give this favor to Clyde if she would purchase him the coat. Even if he didn’t pay it immediately, he could arrange an installment plan with the shopkeeper and it would all be a “loan” to her. Hortense was considering ways to see Clyde while still feigning disinterest in him, when Clyde showed up at the store where she worked. She told him of her busy dating schedule, then asked if he was available that evening. He had work, unfortunately, and came in to ask if she’d go on an automobile ride with him next Sunday. A friend of Hegglund’s has a Packard and they were planning a trip to Excelsior Springs. Hortense puts off a decision on the trip but agrees to meet Clyde the next night at 6:30. They meet as planned, Hortense wearing a hat Clyde asked her to wear. As planned, Hortense directs Clyde past Rubenstein’s shop window. She had been talking of Tom Keary, provoking Clyde’s jealous streak, and he takes the bait, offering to help her buy the coat. Hortense pretends to not know the price of the coat but will check, Clyde promising to cover the hypothetical $125 she thinks it will cost. They go dancing after dinner and she gives him more attention than usual.

Notes

The phrase “ultimate condescension” is highly indicative of Hortense’s opinions about sex: it is not an act of romantic union or a special bond between lovers, but something one does in defeat and capitulation, something bartered away for material gain.


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Summary

Hortense talks to Rubenstein about getting the coat, wanting to take it immediately after putting some money down. In turn, Rubenstein insists it must be all paid for - by installments, if necessary - before she can take it out of his store. Hortense passes the information along to Clyde, who accepts the arrangement but feels guilty for putting his money to such use instead of helping Esta. Two weeks later, with $50 of the coat payment in his pocket, Clyde is approached by his mother at home. She tells him of Esta and she tells her he already knew, assuring her that he didn’t tell Frank or Julia. Esta needs a doctor, Elvira says, ad needs $50. Can Clyde borrow that from his friends? Clyde lies, says he can’t but will at least try, then gives her $5 and says he’ll try to get $10 more soon.

Notes

Arguing with Hortense about installment payments, Rubenstein poses a hypothetical, “But supposin’ the next day after you take the coat an automobile runs you down and kills you? Then what? How do I get my money?”

 

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