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AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BY THEODORE DREISER BOOKNOTES
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Mescallado, Ray. "TheBestNotes on An American Tragedy".
. 09 May 2017