Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser|
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The thought continues to haunt him, and symbolically releases an evil spirit that preys on Clyde's weakness:
Indeed, it was now as though from the depths of some lower or higher world never before guessed or plumbed by him... a region otherwhere than in life or death and peopled by creatures otherwise than himself... there had now suddenly appeared, as the genie at the accidental rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp - as the efrit emerging as smoke from the mystic jar in the net of the fisherman - the very substance of some leering and diabolic wish or wisdom concealed in his own nature, and that now abhorrent and yet compelling, leering and yet intriguing, friendly and yet cruel, offered him a choice between an evil which threatened to destroy him (and against his deepest opposition) and a second evil which, however it might disgust or sear or terrify, still provided for freedom and success and love. (482-483)
The reference to the efrit - that is, a mythical being like a genie or djinn - is seen as both enticing and obsequious, willing to charm Clyde while clearly being repulsive. However, this is a being that is clearly a manifestation of Clyde's own self, "concealed in his own nature" and thus a kind of external manifestation (albeit purely symbolic) of the freeing of moral restraints that would not permit him to commit such a deed as murder. By projecting it as a separate being, as voices that are of Clyde but not from him, we have yet another careful distinction that allows Clyde to further excuse himself from the consequences of his crime. The choices offered up at the last sentence are between two evils, but the second is what appeals to Clyde as it offers "freedom and success and love" - a temptation that makes him accept the horrible cost.
The murder is carried out in an unexpected fashion at the lake, as much from neglect as intent:
And then Clyde, with the sound of Roberta’s cries still in his ears, that last frantic, white appealing look in her eyes, swimming heavily, gloomily and darkly to shore. And the thought that, after all, he had not really killed her. No, no. Thank God for that. He had not. And yet (stepping up on the near-by bank and shaking the water from his clothes) had he? Or had he not? For had he not refused to go to her rescue, and when he might have saved her, and when the fault for casting her in the water, however accidentally, was so truly his? And yet - and yet -” (515)
Already, we see the basis for his post-murder rationalizations and the counter-argument: he "had not really killed her" in that he delivered a killing blow, but the "and yet" that is repeated nudges at his conscience, points out that he could have done more to save her. At this very moment it would be enough to describe the murder as an act of omission - a failure to do something right, instead of an active attempt to do something wrong - yet Clyde does not see it as such, and that refusal is the basis for his defense.
When Roberta's body is discovered and the enormity of the crime becomes apparent, Fred Heit suggests to Orville Mason that it may be used the advantage of their political party:
“You know what the political situation here is just now. And how the proper handling of a case like this is likely to affect public opinion this fall. And while I certainly don’t think we ought to mix politics in with crime there certainly is no reason why we shouldn’t handle this in such a way as to make it count in our favor.” (529)
This is an obvious rationalization, an admission that what is being suggested is not of the highest moral character, but that it's acceptable because the two sets of interests - prosecuting the crime and advancing a political party's standings - happen to run in the same direction. Of course, this does not mean the interest of justice and the interests of a political faction always run together, as we see when the trial begins in earnest.
Once Clyde is captured for the murder of Roberta Alden, the case earns a national audience:
And then out of the north woods a crime sensation of the first magnitude, with all of those intriguingly colorful, and yet morally and spiritually atrocious, elements - love, romance, wealth, poverty, death. And at once picturesque accounts of where and how Clyde had lived in Lycurgus, with whom he had been connected, how he had managed to conceal his relations with one girl while obviously planning to elope with another - being wired for and published by that type of editor so quick to sense the national news value of crimes such as this. (605)
The phrase "out of the north woods" helps center the reader geographically to the center of media attention - New York City --and the description that follows is bold in its simplicity, as well as obvious in its titillation. The typical Dreiserian syntax winds around a long sentence showing what details are being focused upon by the media, concluding with an oblique reference to "that type of editor" who values sensationalism over sympathy.
Already the deck is stacked against Clyde, in part because of his ambitions and connections:
For upon the face of the data so far, unquestionably public sentiment would be all against Clyde and in favor of the dead girl and her poverty and her class, a situation which made a favorable verdict in such a backwoods county seat as Bridgeburg almost impossible. For Clyde, although himself poor, was the nephew of a rich man and hitherto in good standing in Lycurgus society. That would most certainly tend to prejudice country-born people against him. (617)
Clyde has been trying to move himself up socially, and now this counts against him: there is an acknowledgment that he came from a poor background, but it didn't matter because he was upwardly mobile and related to a rich family prominent in the area. It's worth noting that this bias against rich people by the poor people of rural areas is taken for granted by the very tone of the writing, with words such as "unquestionably" and "certainly" lending an authoritative air to these pre-judgments. Nothing that happens in the novel contradicts such a bias.
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Mescallado, Ray. "TheBestNotes on An American Tragedy".
. 09 May 2017