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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BOOK REVIEW

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Summary

Hegglund’s friend with a Packard, Willard Sparser didn’t own the vehicle; rather, he was the chauffer of the person who did own it, Mr. Kimbark. Sparser’s father was also employed by Kimbark as superintendent of a farm, which Willard felt wasn’t impressive enough. However, word that Kimbark would soon be returning from his trip to Asia meant that young Sparser to move up the date for the car excursion: the group settles on Friday instead of Sunday. The total number for the automobile party are ten: Clyde and Hortense, Ratterer and Lucille Nickolas, Higby and Tina Kogel, Hegglund and Maida Alexander, and Sparser was set up with Laura Sipe. The plan was for the boys to meet at a remote location in Kansas City, so the car wouldn’t draw attention, then pick up the girls and head to the Wigwam Inn in Excelsior. Hegglund suggests skating on the frozen lake, which Ratterer finds silly. Clyde is uneasy about using the Packard without the owner’s permission, but Ratterer & Hegglund reason that it’s not their responsibility but Sparser’s, so why worry? On the day of the outing, they proceed as planned, though picking up Hortense provides a small delay and detour. Further, Sparser shows an interest in Hortense, who in turn is also interested in him. Arriving at the Wigwam Inn, Hortense and Sparser flirt and dance, sending Clyde in a jealous rage. Hortense talks Clyde out of his jealousy, though the interest between her and Sparser remained unabated.


Notes

Ratterer and Hegglund refuse to take responsibility for the stolen Packard, reasoning that they did not play a direct, conscious role in taking it. Similarly, Clyde will refuse to take responsibility for the murder of Roberta Alden, claiming he did not intend to hit her nor knock over the boat when it happened. That he had planned for such an eventuality is beside the point, showing a propensity to draw fine distinctions when it suits his purpose - just like Ratterer and Hegglund.


CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Summary

Spurred on by Hegglund, the group runs to the frozen lake outside the Wigwam Inn. Clyde tries to restrain his jealousy but remains wary of Sparser. The group decide to hold hands and “crack the whip”: Hortense and Sparser hold hands and when the whip is cracked, fall onto each other. Clyde watched this and joined the next whip, but Hortense held Sparser’s hand and not his. When Clyde and Hortense were alone, he again asked why she was spending so much time with Sparser and she again placates him. He opines that she only likes him based on what he gets for her; she gets angry about how close he is to the truth, forcing him to back off on his statement. Though Clyde strongly suspects she’s pretending, Hortense’s claims to love him wins him over in the meanwhile. They’re holding hands and kissing when Hegglund calls everyone, telling them it’s time to return to Kansas City.

Notes

Clyde shows a lack of self-control in his dealings with Hortense: while he believes she has wronged him, she simply shows more affection to soothe his anger. The temptation of immediate gratification often wins out over common sense in Clyde, as seen by Roberta Alden becoming pregnant after Clyde develops a relationship with Sondra Finchley.


CHAPTER NINETEEN

Summary

The group speed back to Kansas City but are delayed by train crossings, then traffic. In an attempt to take a shortcut so that the Green-Davidson bellhops can get to work on time, the car runs over a little girl. Panicked that the girl was killed, Sparser drives away from the scene. The police and others chase after him, he turns off the Packard’s lights to avoid being spotted and, taking a shortcut, hits paving stones on a construction site. The car overturns, knocking everyone senseless and doing serious injury to Sparser and Laura Sipe. Ratterer gets out and helps others out of the car. Hortense panics at the blood on her cut face and runs home, unaware and uncaring of the others. Sparser and Sipe were left in the overturned car when a passerby sees the accident and offers to help. The police were on their way and everyone else flees the scene; Clyde hears the police arrive as he makes his escape.

Notes

The murder and escape obviously mirrors the events at the end of Book Two. In this case Clyde’s guilt is less clear than in Book Two, as he was not driving the Packard nor did he plan for such an eventuality. However, his refusal to take responsibility is similar and becomes a pattern that Clyde himself would acknowledge later in the book.

 

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