Clyde feels alone, superior to his immediate surroundings but also unacknowledged by the society he wished to keep. Roberta is cut off in her own way, following the strict moral code of the Newton household but disdained by the church the Newtons attended, whose members were more established and better off than Roberta or Grace. Clyde and Roberta were mutually attracted to one another but both were also aware of the restricted behavior expected of them. Still, each admired the grace and refinement they detected in the other. One noontime, returning from lunch, Polish Mary recounts how a “feller” offered her a beaded bag if she would be his sweetheart. She was unsure what to do and wanted to know what others thought. Lena Schlicht advised Polish Mary to keep both bag and feller; far from scandalized, Roberta noted that good men are rare and agreed with Lena. Clyde overheard all this and was pleased at Roberta’s ability to be graceful during such a low conversation.
One day soon after, Gilbert came through the stamping department, prompting
Roberta and Hoda Petkanas to compare Clyde to Gilbert, finding Clyde better
looking and friendlier. Hoda mentions that Clyde may move up and leave
this department. As a result, Roberta felt unsure of Clyde: given his
relationship to the Griffiths and his potential to rise, how could he
be interested in her - and if he was, how could it be noble intentions?
Implicit in the discussion among the girls is the buying of sexual favors
in exchange for being a sweetheart.
Clyde remains confused over Roberta - he knows his obligations to both family and company, but still continues to consider Roberta better than the other girls in his department and someone it’d be alright to become involved with. To distract himself, he continues to visit nearby towns and lakes on the weekends. He particularly enjoys canoeing, a romantic and picturesque experience - it would be even more so, if he wasn’t alone and often reminded of his loneliness by the young couples in other canoes. One afternoon he was on Crum Lake at the same time as Roberta and Grace, who received approval from the Newtons to visit this particular lake. Clyde daydreams while he paddles along, thinking of what it would be like to be part of his uncle’s social world, and of being with Sondra Finchley. If not Sondra, he reasoned, then why not Roberta?
At that point he actually sees Roberta at the lake shore and approaches her.
She’s as surprised as he is at this chance encounter and he tries to convince
her to get in the canoe with him, so that she can better fetch the water
lilies she’d been collecting. Roberta demurs, asks if Grace can join,
but Grace is a distance away and pre-occupied. Roberta gets on the canoe
with Clyde, who now tells her he’d been thinking of her. Roberta tells
him he shouldn’t talk like that and fears scandal if she’s seen with her
boss in such a setting. However, she’s also thrilled to be with Clyde,
and in such a romantic situation.
While such a meeting may seem highly coincidental in other novels, Dreiser
goes out of his way to make plain that it was a realistic, even inevitable,
turn of events. He had long established Clyde’s romantic nature and his
penchant for traveling outside Lycurgus. Further, he established the strict
rules of the Newton household as well as Roberta’s own restlessness. Thus,
through two very different set of circumstances, these characters meet
at an advantageous moment.
Clyde and Roberta enjoy their time canoeing and even pick up Grace when she arrives. When they return to the boathouse at the end of the day, neither Clyde nor Roberta wish to be seen returning to Lycurgus together. Fortunately, Fred Shurlock - another boarder at the Newton home - comes by in a car, offering them all a ride back to Lycurgus. The girls accept, Clyde declines. The next day at the factory, Clyde approaches Roberta in secret and tells her he wishes they were out at the lake again today.
He later makes mistakes at his work, which reminds him of the dangers of the
situation: he does not want to forfeit his chance at social and financial
ascent but also wants to pursue Roberta. He decides that meeting Roberta
again in an “accidental” fashion would be acceptable. He goes to her home
in the hopes of seeing her that night, but that doesn’t work. He gets
up early the next morning and on his way to work spots Roberta with Grace
and decides not approach. For her part, Roberta is nervous and, when she
makes a mistake with a bundle of collars, takes it to Clyde. They talk
furtively and Clyde finally convinces Roberta to meet him Wednesday night
near her home. Both are excited at this prospect, but Clyde is also thrilled
at the secretive nature of this romance.
Clyde’s romantic nature loves the secrecy of their romance and as a result he’s blinded to just how many people are aware of his actions involving Roberta. This will prove a fatal mistake when he plans out his murder of Roberta, as he works under the assumption that there are no traces of his relationship with her for anyone to discover. For her part, Roberta is frightened at the secrecy of the romance, afraid of being discovered and exposed. Considering what happens to her, both with the pregnancy and her murder, this is a valid fear.
Cite this page:
Mescallado, Ray. "TheBestNotes on An American Tragedy".
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