Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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“But this is not what I should be doing either, is it? This is Lycurgus. I am a Griffiths, here. I know how these people feel toward me - their parents even. Do I really care for her? Is there not something about her quick and easy availability which, if not exactly dangerous in so far as my future here is concerned, is not quite satisfactory, - too quickly intimate?” (212)

There is a certain clumsiness to the way the last sentence is phrased: one would not think such complex moral conundrums come naturally to Clyde, though it's within reason. However, the phrasing is much more in keeping with the narration than Clyde's thoughts, exposing one of the more clumsy attempts of Dreiser to fit his ideas into other characters' mouths.

Despite being poorly handled by his doppelganger cousin Gilbert, Clyde finds reason to admire him because of his arrogance and riches:

How wonderful it must be to be a son who, without having had to earn all this, could still be so much, take oneself so seriously, exercise so much command and authority. It might be, as it plainly was, that this youth was very superior and indifferent in tone toward him. But think of being such a youth, having so much power at one’s command! (223)

The ease of Gilbert's affluence - "without having had to earn all this" - is admired as much as the affluence itself, indicating the moral laxity on Clyde's part, who works his way up because he has to work and sees no reward or spiritual fulfillment in the work itself, in the attempt to better oneself. In other words, he is not interested in the journey which builds character, but the end result alone. In this sense, as a role model - as Clyde's very double - Gilbert stands as a figure as seductive and tempting to Clyde as any of the women he encounters. And in the manner that Clyde eventually wields unfair power over Roberta in the workplace, he mirrors Gilbert's own abuse of power against Clyde. And yet, this is exactly what Gilbert admires.

Roberta's parents, especially her father, earn close scrutiny by Dreiser to help explain her own character and moral standing:

As for the parents of Roberta, they were excellent examples of that native type of Americanism which resists facts and reveres illusion. Titus Alden was one of that vast company of individuals who are born, pass through and die out of the world without ever quite getting any one thing straight. They appear, blunder, and end in a fog. Like his two brothers, both older and almost as nebulous, Titus was a farmer solely because his father had been a farmer. And he was here on this farm because it had been willed to him and because it was easier to stay here and try to work this than it was to go elsewhere. He was a Republican because his father before him was a Republican and because this county was Republican. It never occurred to him to be otherwise. And, as in the case of his politics and his religion, he had borrowed all his notions of what was right and wrong from those about him. A single, serious, intelligent or rightly informing book had never been read by any member of this family - not one. But they were nevertheless excellent, as conventions, morals and religions go - honest, upright, God-fearing and respectable. (251)

This is an impressive description of a distinct type of person: workers who lack in imagination but have strong work ethics and moral convictions, who often go ignored by the American public but make up a large part of its population.

Roberta is virtuous, but not completely so. Along with succumbing to Clyde's pressure for sexual relations, she is as vulnerable to the lure of material wealth and self flattery as any other youth:

There was, however, another mental as well as emotional phase in regard to all this and that related to her clothes. For since coming to Lycurgus she had learned that the more intelligent girls here dressed better than did those about Biltz and Trippetts Mills. At the same time she had been sending a fair portion of her money to her mother - sufficient to have equipped her exceptionally well, as she now realized, had she retained it. (280)

Roberta, like Clyde in his bell hop days, has become aware of the inadequacy of her clothes in comparison to other girls and how that places her at a disadvantage in pursuing a desirable boyfriend. Unlike Clyde, she has given a "fair portion" of her pay to her mother - something Clyde avoided precisely to augment his wardrobe.

Clyde's unfairness to his parents - his desire to find a more advantageous position by which he can gain pleasure and stature --translates to an unfair attitude towards Roberta, as well:

At the same time so innately pagan and unconventional were his thoughts in regard to all this that he could now ask himself, and that seriously enough, why should he not be allowed to direct his thoughts toward her and away from Roberta, since at the moment Sondra supplied the keener thought of delight, Roberta could not know about this. She could not see into his mind, could she - become aware of any such extra experience as this unless he told her. And most assuredly he did not intend to tell her. And what harm, he now asked himself, was there in a poor youth like himself aspiring to such heights? Other youths as poor as himself had married girls as rich as Sondra. (325)

Here we have another example of the complex interior monologue that Dreiser has created for Clyde. In this passage, Clyde excuses himself from blame for cheating on Roberta by saying he should be allowed to pursue the stronger interest, that Roberta doesn't know what he's thinking, and that he was entitled to pursue wealthy girls anyway. None of these are valid excuses, but they heap onto each other in typical Dreiserian density to accurately reflect the constant justifications Clyde must make for himself as he becomes further immersed in deception. Note the use of the phrase "innately pagan and unconventional", an indication of a low morality in Clyde that is part of his true self, not imposed from outside influences such as his rearing or his current status. If anything, it is his willingness to listen to that amoral aspect of himself, the one that craves pleasure and ambition at whatever cost, that contributes to his downfall.

Sondra's own motivations are explained as such:

Sondra was of the exact order and spirit that most intrigued him - a somewhat refined (and because of means and position showered upon her) less savage, although scarcely less self-centered, Hortense Briggs. She was, in her small, intense way, a seeking Aphrodite, eager to prove to any who were sufficiently attractive the destroying power of her charm, while at the same time retaining her own personality and individuality free of any entangling alliance or compromise. However, for varying reasons which she could not quite explain to herself, Clyde appealed to her. He might not be anything socially or financially, but he was interesting to her. (332)

Dreiser brings out the obvious connection between the women in the novel, as Sondra is equated with the much pettier, much shrewder Hortense. The comparison to Aphrodite bestows a mythic danger to her character, one that has its own pettiness and egotism. Unlike Hortense, however, there is a grudging allowance that Sondra is genuinely attracted to Clyde, although to what degree is left vague. As for Roberta, who is of a type quite different from Sondra or Hortense, Clyde is conflicted by his treatment of her:

For it pained him not a little to think that some one of whom he had once been so continuously fond up to this time should be made to suffer through jealousy of him, for he himself well knew the pangs of jealousy in connection with Hortense. He could for some reason almost see himself in Roberta’s place. (373)

Again, we see a kind of doubling as Clyde realizes - if only dimly - that he's placing Roberta in a situation similar to what Hortense had done to himself. This shows that Clyde still retains some empathy for Roberta, has not given up on her completely... and yet he behaves in such a manner to her as to do them both harm and ultimately take both their lives.

During their protracted search for a "solution" to the pregnancy - that is, repeated attempts to end it - Clyde makes Roberta visit Doctor Glenn. We find again another of Dreiser's finely honed descriptions of a certain type of person in modern America:

In answer to her ring the door was opened by one of those exteriorly, as well as mentally sober, small-town practitioners who, Clyde’s and Short’s notion to the contrary notwithstanding, was the typical and fairly conservative physician of the countryside - solemn, cautious, moral, semi-religious to a degree, holding some views which he considered liberal and others which a fairly liberal person would have considered narrow and stubborn into the bargain. Yet because of the ignorance and stupidity of so many of those about him, he was able to consider himself at least fairly learned. In constant touch with all phases of ignorance and dereliction as well as sobriety, energy, conservatism, success and the like, he was more inclined, where fact appeared to nullify his early conclusion in regard to many things, to suspend judgment between the alleged claims of heaven and hell and leave it there suspended and undisturbed. (413)

Note again how Dreiser carefully draws distinctions that make Doctor Glenn a more complex character than he could initially have been. Glenn is sympathetic but has strong moral beliefs, is neither completely enlightened about progressive ideas nor completely ignorant of them. Falling in a middle ground - the most that can be afforded him in his community - he believes himself a superior person to those around him, much in the same way the bell hops of the Green Davidson believed themselves to be living the most sophisticated life possible on their Nights of Joy.


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