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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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ONLINE STUDY GUIDE FOR AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BY THEODORE DREISER

IMPORTANT QUOTATIONS - QUOTES AND ANALYSIS (Continued)

As the extended "search" for a solution draws too long, Clyde begins to ponder the possibility of simply abandoning Roberta:

It might be his duty as the world would see it - his mother would say so - to at least extricate Roberta. But in the case of Esta, who had come to her rescue? Her lover? He had walked off from her without a qualm and she had not died. And why, when Roberta was no worse off than his sister had been, why should she seek to destroy him in this way? Force him to do something which would be little less than social, artistic, passional or emotional assassination? And when later, if she would but spare him for this, he could do so much for her - with Sondra’s money of course. He could not and would not let her do this to him. His life would be ruined! (442)

This is one of many fine examples of Dreiser encapsulating the rationalizations and excuses Clyde allows himself in order to behave the way he does. Of course, this opens up the possibility to thoughts of murder, as we see below:

But later - and because of that, and as he was putting out the light before getting into bed, and still thinking of the complicated problem which his own life her presented, he was struck by the thought (what devil’s whisper? - what evil hint of an evil spirit?) - supposing that he and Roberta - no, say he and Sondra - (no, Sondra could swim so well, and so could he) --he and Roberta were in a small boat somewhere and it should capsize at the very time, say, of this dreadful complication which was so harassing him? What an escape? What a relief from a gigantic and by now really destroying problem! On the other hand - hold - not so fast - for could a man even think of such a solution in connection with so difficult a problem as his without committing a crime in his heart, really - a horrible, terrible crime? He must not even think such a thing. It was wrong - wrong - terribly wrong. And yet, supposing, - by accident, of course - such as thing as this did occur? That would be the end, then, wouldn’t it, of all his troubles in connection with Roberta? No more terror as to her - no more fear and heartache even as to Sondra. A noiseless, pathless, quarrelless solution of all his present difficulties, and only joy before him forever. Just an accidental, unpremeditated drowning - and then the glorious future would be his! (457-458)

Notice how the chain of descriptive terms "noiseless, pathless, quarrelless solution" compares to the earlier quote of fear for his own "social, artistic, passional or emotional assassination". What he sees as his own metaphoric death is horrible and described as such. By the end of this passage, however, the description of Roberta's murder is offered - even if only momentarily - as ideal for its lack of conflict, for its ability to solve all of Clyde's problems with a minimum of fuss. It's worth observing that he posits Sondra in the role of victim for a moment, but quickly dismisses the notion because Sondra can swim well - a momentary lapse that shows how irrational his thoughts are become, as well as an attempt to fool himself into thinking that this is just a careless notion that could be about anybody, when the reality is that he can only think of Roberta in that horrible situation.


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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