Roger W. Smith, “An American Tragedy: Clyde Griffiths vis-à-vis Roberta Alden and Sondra Finchley”

 

clyde-vis-a-vis-roberta-and-sondra

 

note – downloadable file above

 

 

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In Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, which was based on an actual murder case, the protagonist, CLYDE GRIFFITHS, kills his pregnant girlfriend ROBERTA ALDEN. Both Clyde Griffiths and Roberta Alden were based on real life prototypes.

There is a third major character in the novel, SONDRA FINCHLEY, an invented character. She becomes a love interest for Clyde, and the ensuing love affair between Clyde and Sondra – plus the fact that Roberta Alden (who was and still is Clyde’s girlfriend despite his new relationship with Sondra) becomes pregnant – which will perhaps force Clyde to marry her – underlies Clyde’s plot to murder Roberta, which he carries out (accidentally, he says).

Roberta is portrayed sympathetically by Dreiser. She is a winsome farm girl who is now working in the factory where Clyde is a supervisor.

Sondra Finchley, Clyde’s other love interest, is portrayed by Dreiser as being alluring—in fact, beautiful — but Dreiser also makes it plain as day to the reader that she is vain and self centered.

Clyde is attracted to Sondra on many levels, which include her wealth and social position as well as her beauty.

It seems to me that many readers have missed subtle points being made by Dreiser in the novel: for example, about romantic love vis- à-vis sexual desire; about class and privilege as factors underlying romance; about love that is admixed with the desire for wealth or status or with other ulterior motives; about tensions revolving around consummated versus unconsummated passion.

It seems that there are many who claim to be acquainted with — or feel that they are acquainted with — the book who have not actually read it but have seen the film A Place in the Sun and, therefore, think they know what the book is about.

A Place in the Sun distorts key elements of the novel, especially the relationship between Clyde and Sondra, and (to a lesser extent, when speaking of distortion) the relationship between Clyde and Roberta. The film seems to ascribe to the Sondra character traits that in the novel she lacks (such as love surpassing or trumping vanity and her own ego), and to deny to the Roberta character traits that in the novel she does have (such as attractiveness, charm, and a certain refinement or delicacy of feeling that she comes by naturally).

In the film, the names of the characters have been changed, so that Clyde becomes George Eastman, Roberta becomes Alice Tripp, and Sondra becomes Angela Vickers.

I have reexamined An American Tragedy closely to see how Dreiser actually portrays these three central characters – in expository and narrative or descriptive passages and through interpolated comment, and through direct and indirect discourse – throughout the novel. What does this say about their fundamental characters and about their desirability as love objects vis-à-vis one another?

 

–Roger W. Smith

     September 2016

 

Note: The attached Word document contains additional content, namely, extensive excerpts from the novel which illustrate my analysis, as per the discussion above.

 

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Book One, Chapter I

We get a first glimpse of Clyde as an adolescent with his family, who are engaged in street preaching: “A tall and as yet slight figure …”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde is not stupid (he is “keenly observant”) and is curious about the larger world. He is physically appealing.

 

 

Book One, Chapter II

“Casual examination of himself in mirrors….”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde is good looking but vain. And his vanity is offended by his parents’ occupation. which he is ashamed of.

 

Book Two, Chapter X

Clyde meets Sondra for the first time.

Summary and Analysis: Clyde “flips out” over Sondra upon their first meeting. The attraction is immediate, without her doing anything to foster it.

 

Book Two, Chapter XII

Clyde meets Roberta when she comes to work at the factory.

Summary and Analysis: Roberta (portrayed by Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun as dowdy) is attractive, more attractive than the other factory girls in Clyde’s department. Not only does she have good looks and charm, there is a sense of native intelligence and refinement about her.

 

Book Two, Chapter XIII

“because of a warm, imaginative, sensuous temperament, she [Roberta]  was filled … with the world-old dream of all of Eve’s daughters … that her beauty or charm might some day and ere long smite bewitchingly and so irresistibly the soul of a given man or men…. “

Summary and Analysis: Roberta is more than a drudge (unlike the character played by Shelley Winters).

 

Book Two, Chapter XIV

“… Clyde, on encountering her [Roberta], was greatly stirred.”

Summary and Analysis: The attraction between Clyde and Roberta is real. Meaning that Sondra is not the first beauty he falls in love with and that he did not get involved with Roberta merely because she was easy pickings.  Also, we see that Roberta — while she is conscious of rules about relationships in the factory, does not want to be a loose woman, and wonders if she is of a high enough social status to interest Clyde — is not a prude.

 

Book Two, Chapter XV

“In loneliness and resentment and disappointment, his mind now wandered from the Griffiths and their world, and particularly that beautiful Sondra Finchley, … to Roberta and the world which she as well as he was occupying here.”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde already has aspirations to belong to the “higher world” represented by his Griffiths relatives. Yet, his attraction to Roberta is “chemic” (to use a Dreiserism) – he can’t help it. The attraction is real. By no means does Roberta set out to ensnare him.

 

Book Two, Chapter XVII

“… the sight of his dark hair blown by the wind, the pale blue outing shirt he wore open at the neck, his sleeves rolled up and the yellow paddle held by him above the handsome blue boat, quite thrilled her.”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde represents to Roberta the fulfillment of all her desires. She is immensely attracted to him, also a “chemic” attraction.

 

Book Two, Chapter XVIII

“They went about the floor once more, then a third time, before the music stopped and by the time it did, Roberta was lost in a sense of delight such as had never come to her before.”

Summary and Analysis: The attraction between Clyde and Roberta is intense and magnetic on both sides, both sexually and temperamentally. Clyde is already thinking of Sondra vis-à-vis his relationship with Roberta – he already has social climbing aspirations.  But this is not at this point in the novel seen by Clyde as a real possibility – as something to pursue — a relationship with Sondra, that is — because she is out of his reach, class wise.

 

Book Two, Chapter XX

“Pain constricted her heart and whitened her lips. [Roberta] stood there numb and silent–unable to voice anything, even the name Clyde …”

Summary and Analysis: This is the first time that Clyde hurts Roberta, prefiguring his emotional cruelty to her throughout most of the novel. Robert has refused to consent to having sex with Clyde (for good reasons that do not involve him). Clyde acts totally self centered, is indifferent to Roberta’s legitimate concerns about the consequences.

 

Book Two, Chapter XXI

“[Roberta] retired to the rest room at about three in the afternoon and there with the aid of a piece of paper found on the floor and a small bit of pencil which she had, she composed a brief note.”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde gets his way.

 

Book Two, Chapter XXIII

“And then, one November evening as Clyde was walking along Wykeagy Avenue, …”

Clyde meets Sondra accidentally.

Summary and Analysis: The stage is set by Dreiser for a romantic entanglement between Clyde and Sondra. He sets it up as an unlikely occurrence that arises from unforeseen coincidental happenstances. We get a hint of interest from Sondra in Clyde and see at the same time that there are elements of vanity here – she is flattered by Clyde’s diffidence, and is always thinking of ways to even the score with Clyde’s cousin Gilbert Griffiths.

 

Book Two, Chapter XXIV

“The effect of this so casual contact was really disrupting in more senses than one. For now in spite of his comfort in and satisfaction with Roberta, once more and in this positive and to him entrancing way, was posed the whole question of his social possibilities here.”

Sondra invites Clyde to a dinner dance.

Summary and Analysis: This section of the novel is critical to understanding what subsequently occurs. It establishes that: (1) Clyde does not regard his just established sexual relationship with Roberta as anything sacred or that special; (2) Clyde, we learn, has promised to marry Roberta if sex between them results in her becoming pregnant -– he is confident he knows how to prevent this; (3) Sondra has decided to condescend to being nice to Clyde and “take him up,” mostly for selfish motives that do not have to do with Clyde.  The foundation for Clyde’s betrayal of Roberta has been laid.

 

Book Two, Chapter XXV

“But in the interim, in connection with his relations with Roberta no least reference to Sondra, although, even when near her in the factory or her room, he could not keep his thoughts from wandering away to where Sondra in her imaginary high social world might be.”

Summary and Analysis: We see how confused Clyde is. He does care for Roberta, we are told, yet he is dazzled by the “actinic rays” of Sondra and the allure of her world of luxury and privilege. He is inclined to avoid Roberta henceforth, but he knows that, by conventional moral standards, this will be regarded as wrong, not proper (considering that he has seduced Roberta).

 

Book Two, Chapter XXVII

“The ensuing December days brought to Clyde some pleasing and yet complicating and disturbing developments. For Sondra Finchley, having found him so agreeable an admirer of hers, was from the first inclined neither to forget nor neglect him. But, occupying the rather prominent social position which she did, she was at first rather dubious as to how to proceed.”

Summary and Analysis: We see how the vain, self centered Sondra’s mind works in deciding how to proceed with Clyde. An interesting thought: just as Clyde’s motives with respect to Roberta turn out to be devious (although he was at first genuinely attracted to her not only physically but also as a person), Sondra’s motives could also be categorized that way.

 

Book Two, Chapter XXVIII

“And he was thinking to himself as he went what to say now. What to do? How in the face of this suddenly frosted and blanched affection to pretend an interest he did not feel–how, indeed, continue with a relationship which now, as alive and vigorous as it might have been as little as fifteen days before, appeared exceedingly anemic and colorless.”

Summary and Analysis: The relationship with Roberta, “as alive and vigorous as it might have been as little as fifteen days before,” now appears to Clyde “exceedingly anemic and colorless.” He has become completely calculating. (“As contrasted with one of Sondra’s position and beauty, what had Roberta really to offer him?”)  The fulcrum of the novel is in place, the “real American tragedy” which Dreiser had wanted for years to write a novel about (lover of poor girl murders her after finding rich girl).

 

Book Two, Chapter XXXI

” ‘Do you like that Miss Finchley very much?’ she suddenly asked, looking up at him in the shadow, her desire to obtain some slight satisfaction–some little light on all this trouble–still torturing her.”

Summary and Analysis: What is happening to Roberta is cruel. She suffers greatly. She is a central character in the novel, with whom the reader empathizes, and a far more complex and compelling character than the vain, self centered flapper Sondra. Clyde, we are shown, does have feelings, including feelings for Roberta. He is not a complete psychopath devoid of them. But his feelings run only so deep. His pity for Roberta will not last.

 

Book Two, Chapter XXXII

“… at the sight of her [Sondra] now in her white satin and crystal evening gown, her slippered feet swinging so intimately near, a faint perfume radiating to his nostrils, he was stirred. … And he, noting the wavering something in her own eyes, pulled her closer and kissed her.”

Summary and Analysis: Sondra submits to a kiss from Clyde, but this is not passion. Yes, she finds Clyde handsome, but she is not erotically attracted – he merely excites her vanity. The nature of Clyde’s attraction is curious too: “… his imagination in regard to her was really inflamed. Youth, beauty, wealth such as this–what would it not mean?” These are not words ordinarily used to describe the feelings of someone in the throes of passion.

 

Book Two, Chapter XXXIII

“But most foolishly anticipating, as he now did, a future more substantial than the general local circumstances warranted, he was more concerned than ever lest his present relationship to Roberta should in any way prove inimical to all this. “

Roberta finds herself pregnant.

Summary and Analysis: Clyde, it has been revealed in an earlier chapter, has given Roberta assurances that, if she becomes pregnant as a result of their liaison, he will marry her. But now Clyde has come to the conclusion that he has to extricate himself from Roberta; he is beginning to feel that there is a real possibility of his being able to marry Sondra. Clyde feels strongly the need for absolute secrecy, especially as regards the possibility of Sondra finding out about his relationship with Roberta. And, Clyde does experience feelings of guilt, as shown in this passage, realizing that he has “taken undue advantage of a girl who, left to herself, would never have troubled with him.”

 

Book Two, Chapter XXXVIII

“The first effect of the doctor’s decision was to shock and terrify them both. …”

Summary and Analysis: The stark realities of Clyde and Roberta’s predicament are limned. Of course, there is a way out: for Clyde to marry Roberta.

 

Book Two, Chapter XXXIX

“… in the very teeth of this grave dilemma he continued to pursue the enticing dream in connection with Sondra–the dark situation in connection with Roberta seeming no more at moments than a dark cloud which shadowed this other.”

Summary and Analysis: Sondra and Clyde both are calculating in their “love,” have devised motives grounded upon self-interest. Sondra is acting oppositional towards her parents; exactly what she has in mind regarding her future with Clyde is not clear. Clyde has pinned his hopes on marrying her. His love for Roberta has waned; his connection with her seems “no more at moments than a dark cloud which shadowed this other.”

 

Book Two, Chapter XLII

“Two letters, which arrived at this time and simultaneously, but accentuated the difficulty of all this.”

Summary and Analysis: The letters have the opposite effect on Clyde (as it seems Dreiser intended) than what one would hope they would have on the reader. Despite the shallow banter in Sondra’s letter and the sincerity and pathos of Roberta’s, all Clyde can see is details about Roberta’s situation and her humble farm family that remind him of what he considers to be her undesirability as a romantic object and, in Sondra’s vapid letter, hints of what to Clyde appear to be her superiority to Roberta based upon indicators of class and privilege.

 

Book Two, Chapter XLIII

“And so he said: ‘Why couldn’t you run away with me now, Sondra, darling? It’s so long until fall and I want you so much.’ “

Summary and Analysis: Clyde’s suggestion made to Sondra that they elope immediately — a desperate and urgent one on his part, made because of the threat of his being arrested – is considered by Sondra, as is usual for her, from the point of view of herself and her self-interest. She of course does not know of Clyde’s predicament. Clyde’s appeal flatters her vanity. She is amused by the thought of discomfiting her parents in this regard. But then she thinks better of Clyde’s suggestion, out of calculations based upon her own situation. As usual, her love for Clyde is only skin deep; she is not prepared to throw away everything for him.

 

Book Two, Chapter XLIV

letter from Roberta: ” ‘Can’t you come for me before July third? …’ ”

another letter: ” ‘I am writing to tell you that I am coming back to Lycurgus.’ ”

Summary and Analysis: Roberta’s pregnancy has reached the stage where she will not be able to continue hiding it from her parents. Hence, her urgent appeal to Clyde to come get her at once, and, if he won’t, she plans to return to Lycurgus. She does not say what she will do if that happens, but it’s clear that Clyde must act, because he absolutely does not want Roberta to return.

 

Book Two, Chapter XLV

“ ‘Dear Clyde: This is to tell you that unless I hear from you either by telephone or letter before noon, Friday, I shall be in Lycurgus that same night, and the world will know how you have treated me.’ ”

“And with this in his hands, he was finally all but numbed by the fact that now decidedly he must act. “

Summary and Analysis: This letter from Roberta is written two weeks after the preceding one.  Clyde has managed to stall her for an additional fortnight. Hence, Roberta’s urgent appeal, in which, uncharacteristically, she uses strong language threatening him: “I shall be in Lycurgus that same night, and the world will know how you have treated me.” Upon receiving which letter, Clyde, as Dreiser tells us, has reached the point of no return: he knowns for certain that he must “act.”

 

Book Three, Chapter VII

“And he, in spite of his troubled thoughts achieving a gay smile,–for once in her presence even the terror of Roberta’s death, his own present danger appeared to dwindle.”

Summary and Analysis: Bedazzled by the prospect of marrying Sondra, Clyde thinks he can pull off and get away with the “perfect crime.”

 

Book Three, Chapter VIII

“… The joy of this trip if only that other thing were not hanging over him now.  This exquisite pleasure of being near Sondra. …”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde is horrified by the realization that he has murdered Roberta. He thinks that he can avoid detection, but he is terrified at the thought that he could instead be caught. Underlying his mortification is one major concern: that he be exposed and humiliated before Sondra and lose all hopes of continued ecstasy with her and of marriage to her. Sondra, needless to say, is clueless, which is not, at this juncture, her fault. In this chapter, in which Clyde gets arrested, we see Clyde and Sondra, ironically, acting in the most loving fashion of their scenes together in the entire novel.  We learn that Mrs. Finchley has given Sondra an ultimatum: her relationship with Clyde must go no further. Sondra does not take this seriously. She mentions how handsome and popular Clyde is; this view that others have of him appeals to Sondra’s vanity.

 

Book Three, Chapter IX

Distinct Attorney Mason reaches Shelter Beach, where Clyde and Sondra and their party have been staying, and encounters Sondra for the first time.

Deputy Kraut arrives at the camp with Clyde, who is questioned aggressively by Mason.

Summary and Analysis: Mason’s impression confirms for the reader and corroborates what has already been made manifest by Dreiser: Sondra’s allure, her beauty. Clyde’s major concern is exposure and humiliation. It outweighs his fear of the consequences of prosecution.

 

Book Three, Chapter X

Mason reappears at the camp with the news that Clyde is under arrest, having confessed to having been with Roberta at Big Bittern.

Summary and Analysis: How does Sondra react on learning of Clyde’s arrest? With disbelief, which is to be expected. Clyde had never divulged anything to her about other relationships. Besides that, Sondra is concerned mostly about herself, about what her parents will think and about the possibility that because letters of hers to Clyde were found in Clyde’s room they might be made public. She expresses concern for Clyde, but only fleetingly.

 

Book Three, Chapter XII

“… in the home of the Finchleys on Fourth Lake, Sondra herself, after forty-eight hours of most macerating thoughts spent brooding on the astounding climax which had put a period to all her girlish fancies in regard to Clyde, deciding at last to confess all to her father. …”

Summary and Analysis: Sondra has a vapid personality. Despite her hauteur, she is immature and unsophisticated when it comes to matters worldly. She is terribly afraid of scandal.

 

Book Three, Chapter XXVI

Clyde is convicted.

“And what would the Griffiths–his uncle and Gilbert–think now? And Sondra! Sondra! Not a word from her. And through all this he had been openly testifying, as Belknap and Jephson had agreed that he must do–to the compelling and directing power of his passion for her. …”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde on the stand had testified to his love for Sondra. He has been hoping that she will become aware of this and that this will somehow be a means of keeping the flame of their romance alive (despite the futility of this). Now, upon his conviction, he is beginning to realize the utter futility of such hopes. A key factor is that Sondra has not communicated with him at all during the trial.

 

Book Three, Chapter XXXI

Clyde, in his cell on death row, receives a letter of sorts from Sondra.

“But no signature–no trace of her own handwriting. She was afraid to sign her name and she was too remote from him in her mood now to let him know where she was. … His last hope–the last trace of his dream vanished.”

Summary and Analysis: It is a crushing blow to Clyde that when a letter of sorts from Sondra (yes, a letter, but such a formal one that it is almost more akin to a memorandum) finally comes to him, on death row, it is so impersonal, typewritten with no signature, and phrased formally and carefully with no expression of love – the best she can do is to say that she has not forgotten Clyde and wishes him “freedom and happiness.” This is a climactic moment in the novel. Clyde’s delusions have been smashed. He realizes that his dreams have been futile and that all hope (in the Dante-esque sense) is lost. In a sense, he is now ready to die.

 

Book Three, Chapter XXXII

“… the complications and the fever in connection with his desire for Sondra having subsided somewhat, it was possible on occasion now for him to reason without the desperate sting and tang of the mental state that had characterized him at the time when he was so immediately in touch with her.”

Summary and Analysis: The fire of Clyde’s passion for Sondra, the fulcrum of the novel, is “only smoldering” now. Clyde has achieved a breakthrough, an apotheosis, on death row. He has come face to face with his own delusions and can only now begin to see them for what they were.

 

Book Three, Chapter XXXIII

“[Clyde] had a feeling in his heart that he was not as guilty as they all seemed to think. … How could they judge him, these people, … even his own mother, when they did not know what his own mental, physical and spiritual suffering had been?”

Summary and Analysis: In his final moments, Clyde is ambivalent about his guilt. Among the extenuating factors, as he sees it, are that Roberta had “tortured him” and ruined his life with her insistence that he marry her; and the “unquenchable passion for the Sondra of his beautiful dream.” In Clyde’s view, he has been misunderstood and persecuted for desires and actions (what Dreiser would undoubtedly call “chemisms”) and entanglements which he could not avoid. In his view, only someone who has experienced them themselves would be qualified to say whether or not he should have been found guilty.

Marianne Debouzy, “L’irruption du matérialisme: Theodore Dreiser”

 

 

Marianne Debouzy, ‘L’irruption du materialisme – Theodore Dreiser’

 

The downloadable PDF file posted here is comprised of a chapter from Marianne Debouzy, La Genèse de l’Espirit de Révolte dans le Roman Américain 1875-1915 (Bibliothèque de Littérature et d’Histoire (Paris: Lettres Modernes Minard, 1968):

“L’irruption du matérialisme: Theodore Dreiser”

My thanks to Marianne Debouzy not only for giving me a copy of her book, but also for granting permission to me to post the chapter on Dreiser.

 

 


 

— Roger W. Smith

 

      August 2016

Roger W. Smith, “Impressions on Rereading An American Tragedy”

 

 

Last night, I was rereading portions of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

The reason I am rereading the novel, Dreiser’s magnum opus – portions, that is – is that I am working with a screenwriter who has written a film script of what would be a third film based on An American Tragedy.

Anyway, my impression, after all these years, is that the book holds up very well, retains its power.

It is incredible to me – at least surprising – that this is true. (I haven’t read the book for a while.) Dreiser couldn’t write, could he? An American Tragedy exhibits all his faults as a writer. And, yet …

The book is incredibly powerful; is sui generis; was done just right for its subject matter; holds the reader in thrall.

How can this be? How does Dreiser do it?

 An American Tragedy is the book that introduced me to Dreiser. I read it in the mid 1980’s. It bowled me over. The amazing thing to me is that it retains its power, despite the fact that, over the years, I have become acutely aware of Dreiser’s limitations as a writer.

 

— Roger W. Smith

August 2, 2016

 

 

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Addendum: The following are some specific comments of mine about the novel based upon a rereading of key parts.

 

In Book Two, Chapter XLVII of An American Tragedy, Roberta Alden, who is drowning, calls out to Clyde Griffiths, but Clyde says nothing; he merely swims to shore. He ignores her cries.

He does not respond to her or (out loud) to himself. Instead, what occurs is an interior monologue described by Dreiser in which Clyde comes to a realization that here is his opportunity to be rid of Roberta without him actually being culpable for her death, because it was an accident and (though he has been intending to kill her), when the moment arrived, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Right then, Roberta lunges forward and gets struck by the camera in what is described as an “unintended blow by Clyde.”

Clyde gets ensnared by his own thoughts, which make him feel that perhaps he should not try to save her (and he also thinks, during this interior monologue, that perhaps she might cause him to drown too, by pulling him under, if her tried to save her). Clyde is upset — and confused. He tells himself that “he had not really killed her.” Then he hides the camera tripod and sets off, heading to a rendezvous elsewhere in the Adirondacks with Sondra’s party.

Clyde in the drowning scene (Book Two, Chapter XLVII) has a passing thought that he should save Roberta before he swims to shore. But his predominating thought is that, well – I didn’t actually commit murder, but she’s drowning, accidentally (or at least it can be construed that way) — so here’s my chance to be rid of her without culpability. (Yet, Clyde is not a complete psychopath. When he gets to shore, he debates with himself — in the penultimate paragraph of Chapter XLVII — whether he is guilty or not.)

Clyde tells defense attorney Jephson when he is on the stand that it was hopeless for him to try to save Roberta. He thought he should get her to take hold of the boat, but saw it was hopeless. “By then the boat had floated all of thirty or forty feet away and I knew that I couldn’t get her into that. And then I decided that if I wanted to save myself I had better swim ashore,” Clyde says to Jephson.

District Attorney Mason asks Clyde similar questions in Book Three, Chapter XXV: how far away was Clyde from Roberta when she went into the water? why if Clyde was such a good swimmer, couldn’t he have swum to her? Clyde’s answer to Mason is that he was “rattled” when it happened, “didn’t think quite quick enough, and was afraid if I went near her …” (Mason cuts Clyde off). The rest of the uncompleted sentence would have been Clyde stating that he was afraid Roberta might have caused him to drown too.

Clyde he is rattled by Mason. He answers in a confused, halting, clipped manner.

When Roberta and Clyde stop for lunch on the shore (in Book Two, Chapter XLVII), Roberta is described by Dreiser as “feeling quite at peace with all the world. ….” She talks to Clyde about what they will do (where they might find work, for example) when they are together at whatever undisclosed locale Clyde is supposedly taking her to (to marry her? we don’t really know). She cheerfully sings “my old Kentucky home.” But Roberta notices after a brief interval that Clyde is acting strangely — that there is something the matter with him, his “lurid” eyes, for example. In the brief interval, Clyde is doing things such as taking pictures of himself and Roberta, who has not yet caught on to Clyde’s true mental state. He is going practically crazy with the murderous, demonic thoughts and impulses raging within him.

At this juncture in the novel, and nowhere else, does Roberta ever come right out and say to Clyde, “you must marry me.” The closest thing she does do (before the trip to the Adirondacks) is to give Clyde an ultimatum – in her letters (i.e., letters to Clyde to come for her when she is at her parents’ home during her pregnancy). This was the case in the real life affair between Grace Brown and Chester Gillette (as seen in her letters to him).

Dreiser makes it clear – it is important to his conception of the crime – that Clyde does not strike Roberta when they are in the boat – meaning that he did not haul off and give her a blow to the head. What happens is that she draws near him “seeking to take his hand in hers and the camera from him in order to put it into the boat, he flinging out at her, but not even with any intention to do other than free himself from her” … the camera “pushing her at her with so much vehemence as not only to strike her lips and nose and chin with it, but to throw her back sidewise toward the left wale which caused the boat to careen. ….” And, then, when Clyde rises “half to assist or recapture her and half to apologize for the unintended blow” [italics added], he capsizes the boat, which (the side of the boat, that is) strikes Roberta.

In real life, there is no indication from an account of Chester Gillette’s execution in Craig Brandon’s book about the case, Murder in the Adirondacks, that Chester spoke any last words. Nor does Clyde from what we learn in in the novel. The execution scene is narrated indirectly, through the impressions of the prison chaplain, Reverend McMillan, whose impressions and feelings are narrated retrospectively (what Reverend McMillan recalls most vividly post execution).

Clyde has a yearning for wealth, status, and happiness; he also has the emotional makeup to be led astray. He is both a sympathetic character and a nefarious one who is capable of plotting murder. Dreiser by masterful strokes makes Clyde both vile and, at the same time, sympathetic. In Book Two, one is asking oneself: how could Clyde be so benighted and emotionally shallow as to pine for the vapid Sondra and ditch the sweet, sincere, wholesome Roberta? How could he be so callous to plot the murder of Roberta, the woman who genuinely loves him? Dreiser makes Clyde’s guilt – at the crucial moment (the drowning) — ambiguous, yet Clyde is, in many respects, clearly guilty. He takes Roberta away, traveling in a separate train car, registers in hotels under an assumed name, takes a suitcase and tennis racket on the boat with him when he drowns her, pretends not to know of her death when arrested, etc., etc. These facts are true to the real case.

Yet, at the end of the book – how does Dreiser achieve this? – one feels compassion for the murderous cad Clyde; one is torn apart, emotionally, by his execution, as are his mother and his spiritual counselor, the prison chaplain Reverend Duncan McMillan.

Clyde is actually a sufferer at the book’s end. The reader has come to care about him rather than despise him. The reader also identifies, in Book Two, with Roberta. Roberta experiences great emotional pain prior to her murder.

In the 1951 film based on the novel, A Place in the Sun, two main characters engage viewers’ attention and sympathies: George Eastman (Clyde), played by Montgomery Clift, and Angela Vickers (Sondra), played by Elizabeth Taylor. Alice Tripp (the Roberta character), who is played by Shelley Winters, is not portrayed sympathetically. In the novel, it is really Clyde and Roberta whose emotional predicaments are the main focus, with Clyde being the most important character in the book. He is always center stage.

Sondra Finchley is an idol to Clyde, but she is really a marginal character, fundamentally, a foil, not one who engages our true sympathies. She shouldn’t. George Stevens, the director of A Place in the Sun, was guilty of gross distortion in this respect.

Clyde is a victim of circumstances: social conditions and constraints (as well as his own limitations). He wants to rise in society and this underlies, actuates a lot of his behavior. Nonetheless, he fumbles and stumbles throughout the novel. He has a very hard time determining right from wrong; overcoming urges (sexual, pecuniary, and social); untangling his thoughts. Dreiser wants us to see that what often seems plain (or plainly right) to us was not so to Clyde.

Clyde can be cunning and calculating – in planning to murder Roberta, for example. But, most of the time, he is winging it, improvising, trying to figure out what to do while being very unsure of himself.

A challenge which Dreiser managed somehow to surmount was to not sugar coat or gloss over Clyde’s criminality, his moral vapidity, while at the same time not making him a monster. In the novel, Clyde often questions his own motives, feels remorse, regrets what he has done.

Throughout, he has human moments. For example, he can be kind to other people, including Roberta at different stages of their relationship. He can feel pity and remorse. When the child is struck and killed by the automobile in Kansas City, Clyde knows it is wrong to run away.

When he meets Roberta, Clyde has just gotten to know the Griffiths. He has not at that point advanced far with them. Only gradually does he begin to get in with Sondra’s set. This happens after he has already become deeply involved with Roberta. It leads to great emotional pain on her part. As an example of the complexity of Clyde’s character, he acts in a devious manner with Roberta, makes excuses for avoiding her, feels that Sondra is clearly the desired love object, but at the same time he continues to have pangs of pity and occasional feelings for Roberta (and they continue their intimacy and sexual relationship). The Clyde-Roberta relationship is a complex one and is central to the novel.

In the 1931 film. directed by Josef von Sternberg (entitled An American Tragedy) based on the novel, Clyde is presented as cold, wooden, incapable of feeling love. He is almost entirely excluded from authorial and audience sympathy.

Regarding von Sternberg’s Clyde, though he is cunning and calculating, he is capable of showing genuine affection, not only because of motives of self-interest (advancing socially by marrying Sondra), but also in the case of Roberta. There is passion and LOVE between her and Clyde, which compel them to violate social taboos. von Sternberg, while he portrays Clyde this way, does make Roberta (played by Sylvia Sidney) sympathetic. von Sternberg’s Sondra is a shallow and vain flapper who is very aware of her social positon and desirability, and who is capable of acting condescending towards Clyde.

In the novel, Clyde is swept off his feet when he meets Sondra. Yet, as many commentators have pointed out, Sondra, while her beauty is emphasized, is not perceived as a sex object by Clyde. She is the almost unobtainable ideal. Clyde can’t quite conceive of having sex with her; it (i.e., the desire for and possibility of sex) is not mentioned or suggested and the relationship between Clyde and her remains chaste.

Dreiser leaves us feeling ambivalent about whether we want to see Clyde acquitted and whether he should be. He makes Clyde’s guilt clear, yet things are presented from Clyde’s point of view, how Clyde must feel (not so much how those victimized or horrified by the crime feel): the harsh questioning he has to endure from District Attorney Mason, for example. And, in Book Three, Chapter XXVI, we are told that one jury member who has been holding out for acquittal is threatened with retribution and harm to his business, so that he decides to vote guilty. All the time, Dreiser is making us see things from many sides: Clyde’s, Roberta’s (both the living Roberta and Roberta the murder victim), the outrage of the community. It is not a simple crime story in which we are just waiting for the bad guy to be caught, convicted, and punished.

Dreiser devotes a great deal of space – Book Three, Chapter XXVII, to Book III, Chapter XXXIV (the last chapter), 13 chapters plus the ending coda (“Souvenir”), that is — to the post trial phase: the horrors of the death house, Clyde’s unsuccessful appeal, and the emotional growth Clyde undergoes. This concluding section is a very important part of the novel, essential for experiencing the pathos, getting the point, grasping the novel’s complexity (and the complexity of the central character, Clyde), and understanding what Dreiser is attempting to do.

Clyde really changes. He feels remorse. He undergoes tortuous examinations of his conscience. His values change. He is counseled by Reverend McMillan and begins to appreciate the importance and value of religious faith, something which he had hitherto looked askance on. The end of the novel is anything but anticlimactic. By some miracle, Dreiser makes us feel sympathy and compassion for Clyde, the clueless, benighted cad of Book Two. At the end, we experience pathos anew — this time not for Roberta’s death, but for Clyde’s death when he seems to be at the point of redemption.

The murderer, Clyde, is himself not certain whether or not he actually did kill Roberta. Dreiser has carefully constructed the drowning scene to create confusion in our minds as to Clyde’s culpability, as was noted above.

Mason and a detective find fifteen letters from Robert to Clyde in a trunk in Clyde’s room in the boarding house where he has been living in Lycurgus. The letters are crucial evidence used against Clyde. They establish a motive and are used with damaging effect at the trial to sway the jury (and public opinion) against Clyde. The use of Roberta Alden’s (Grace Brown’s) letters as evidence at the trial was a sticky point — a point of contention between the prosecution and defense — with the judge allowing them to be admitted as evidence, supposedly under certain conditions. The defense felt they were prejudicial against Clyde and this was part of the grounds on which an appeal (unsuccessful) of his conviction was made.

Clyde’s attorneys, Belknap and Jephson, concoct an alibi and line of defense for him, which they then convey to Clyde, in Book Three, Chapter XVI. Clyde is not a cagey defendant eager to go along with any alibi that will get him off. He does go along with it, however, because, by nature, being unsure of himself and often confused, he is easily influenced by others. But he is presented (in Book Three Chapter XVIII) as being nervous about having to confront “the fierce assault of Mason … for the most part with the lies framed for him by Jephson and Belknap.”

We are told that Clyde is constantly trying to “salve his conscience” with the thought that at the last moment he had not had the courage to go through with the murder (and that Roberta was struck accidentally), but that the story concocted by Jephson and Belknap is “terribly difficult for him [Clyde] to present and defend.” This is a nervous and insecure young man, not a hardened criminal (the latter type which he is basically portrayed by von Sternberg as, but not by George Stevens), guilty as he may be.

Roberta was portrayed as frumpy in the film A Place in the Sun. She is portrayed differently in the novel. In Book Two, Chapter XII, Roberta, who has just arrived from Biltz for her new job at the factory, is described by Dreiser as “more intelligent and pleasing — more spiritual … more gracefully proportioned” than the other girls in the factory. She is said to possess “a charm. … … a certain wistfulness and wonder combined with a kind of self-reliant courage and determination.”

Roberta is further described (on the same page) as follows: “small brown hat … pulled over a face that was regular and pretty and that was haloed by bright, light brown hair. Her eyes were of translucent gray blue.”

Roberta’s hair was used as evidence in the actual case –was found on the oars and so forth. This happens in the novel, and Burton Burleigh, DA Mason’s legal assistant, places hairs of Roberta on the camera’s sides to make a stronger case against Clyde (Book Three, Chapter XI).

In Book Two, Chapter XXXIII, Roberta realizes that she is pregnant. She tells Clyde, “It’s two whole days, and it’s never been that way before.” She does not say “I missed my period.” On the same page, we are informed that Clyde is, by his own assessment, “sparingly informed in regard to the mysteries of sex.” There is restraint in the novel when sexual scenes are depicted or sexual matters are discussed (by the author, Dreiser. and the characters) – a restraint appropriate to a book of its time.

Dreiser writes of “the horror of death row … the sighs and groans of the men.” Clyde is painfully aware of fellow prisoners being led, seriatim, to their executions, keeping their dates with the chair, with the curtains of each cell being drawn as the condemned man passes. The death walk. This terrifies and depresses Clyde, who becomes increasingly aware of his own impending fate. Clyde dwells on what lies ahead for him “beyond that door.” The door leading to the death chamber is a motif in the novel.

Miller Nicholson is a fellow death row inmate who befriends Clyde and encourages him not to lose his nerve. Nicholson is an intellectual who lends Clyde books. It blows Clyde’s mind that he is in earnest conversation with Nicholson on one day and a day or two later Nicholson is gone, having been executed. Clyde gets to know Nicholson in Book Three, Chapter XXXI, and Nicholson goes to the chair in the same chapter.

There is a wrenching scene in Book Three, Chapter XXXII, in which Clyde, in his cell, lying on his cot, “responding rhythmically to the chant of the [young, mentally tortured] Jew,” joins with him, saying, silently, to himself, “I have been evil. I have been unkind. I have lied. … I have been unfaithful. My heart has been wicked. … I have been false. I have been cruel. I have sought to murder.”

Clyde’s mother, Elvira Griffiths, takes up lecturing in Book Three to try to reverse public opinion against Clyde and to pay for her travel expenses. The lectures are not successful on the whole and she ultimately gives them up.

The prison chaplain, Reverend McMillan, plays a very important role vis-à-vis Clyde in Book Three. Reverend McMillan is introduced to the reader in Book Three, Chapter XXXI and his spiritual effect on Clyde in the next chapter (Book Three, Chapter XXXII).

A key incident in which Reverend McMillan figures is in Book Three, Chapter XXXIV. It is almost equivalent in importance to the drowning scene and Clyde’s execution. In this climactic chapter, Clyde’s mother makes a final appeal to Governor Waltham for clemency. The governor has not made up his mind. He turns to Reverend McMillan and asks for McMillan’s opinion as to Clyde’s guilt – does McMillan “know of any material fact not introduced at the trial which would in any way tend to invalidate or weaken any phase of the testimony offered at the trial?” McMillan’s answer does not convince the governor of Clyde’s innocence and the appeal is denied. What McMillan says in reply to the governor’s question, basically, is that he is qualified to speak only as to the spiritual aspect(s) of Clyde’s life, not the legal ones – in fact, the chaplain does not consider Clyde innocent and feels that he cannot in good conscience say otherwise.

Clyde is doomed; McMillan’s reluctance ensures it. The governor immediately terminates the interview with the chaplain and Mrs. Griffiths. “Never in my life have I faced a sadder duty,” the governor says.

In the final chapter, Book Three, Chapter XXXIV, upon Clyde’s execution, Elvira Griffiths says to Clyde, “You have told the world you are innocent. if you are not you must say so.”

In the same chapter, four pages ahead, Elvira Griffiths writes a desperate note to Governor Waltham: “Can you say before your God that you have no doubt of Clyde’s guilt? If you cannot, then his blood will be upon your head. His mother.”

On the next page in the same chapter (XXXIV), we have Clyde’s final farewell to his mother. He says, “I die resigned and content. it won’t be hard. God has heard my prayers. He has given me strength and peace.” (An interpolated comment representing Clyde’s thinking shows that he is not sure about this.)

The novel (Book Three, Chapter XXXIV) does not actually “show” Clyde’s execution. What happened is told indirectly through the impressions of a witness, Reverend McMillan.

 

– Roger W. Smith

      August 2016

 

 

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“Clyde is tugged by forces — internal and external — that he can scarcely grasp.”

 

— Ben McArthur, email to Roger W. Smith, August 5, 2016

 

 

did Dreiser plagiarize in writing his first novel?

 

Professor Jack Salzman has answered this question definitively with a yes. Dreiser did plagiarize – contrary to the assessment of Dreiser biographer W. A. Swanberg — from George Ade (1866–1944), an Indiana born newspaper columnist, humorist, novelist, short story writer, and playwright, in a passage in the opening chapter of Sister Carrie.

See Jack Salzman, “Dreiser and Ade: A Note on the Text of Sister Carrie,” American Literature, vol. 40, no. 4 (January 1969), pp. 544-548 — posted here.

Thanks to Professor Salzman for permission to post this article.

 

Salzman, ‘Dreiser and Ade’

 

See also:

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/george-ade-absolves-dreiser/

Robert Penn Warren, “Homage to Theodore Dreiser”

 

 

Robert Penn Warren

HOMAGE TO THEODORE DREISER

On the Centennial of His Birth

(August 27, 1871)

 

 

Robert Penn Warren, ‘Homage to Theodore Dreiser’

 

 

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[Robert Penn Warren’s] Or Else is actually composed of two intertwining sequences: There are twenty-four Roman-numeraled poems and eight Arabic-numeraled “Interjections” which occur after the first, fourth, fifth, eighth, twelfth, fifteenth, eighteenth, and twenty-first poems of the first group. I will begin with the tenth and eleventh poems in this sequence, “Rattlesnake Country” and “Homage to Theodore Dreiser.”

The first recounts the narrator’s visit to a friend’s ranch in the high country of the American West, a trip from which he recalls wranglers driving horses down a mountain and an Indian named Laughing Boy who was good at killing rattlesnakes by dousing them with gasoline and flicking a lighted match just before they disappeared into their holes. But it turns out that in “Homage to Theodore Dreiser” the novelist’s Indiana birthplace shares common ground, almost literally–and perhaps ironically, given the name of the town in question–with the first poem’s high-altitude setting: “Past Terre Haute, the diesels pound,/ … Deep/ In the infatuate and foetal dark, beneath/ The unspecifiable weight of the great/ Mid-America loam-sheet, the impacted/ Particular particles of loam, blind,/ Minutely grind … vibrate/ At the incessant passage/ Of the transcontinental truck freight.” In Indiana, loam is pounded by truck freight, while in “Rattlesnake Country” loam was truck freight: “Arid that country and high … but/ One little patch of cool lawn: // Trucks/ Had brought in rich loam. Stonework/ Held it in place like a shelf.” It is on such imported earth that the snakes are set aflame as they disappear into the loam, there to perish, trapped in their holes.

A parallel event takes place within Dreiser’s soul: “the screaming, and stench, of a horse-barn aflame,/ … their manes flare up like torches.” The rattlers and horses are both trapped where they live by flames; and the association of makes and horses had already begun in “Rattlesnake Country,” where the flame at the hole-mouth that “flickers blue” was anticipated by the faces of the wranglers driving horses from the ountain pastures, faces “flickering white through the shadow” as “the riderless horses,/ Like quicksilver spilled in dark glimmer and roil, go/ Pouring downward.” Warren intensifies the connection between this recollected scene and that of Laughing Boy and the snakes by saying that both are “nearer” but that the second is nearer than the first: “The wranglers cry out.// And nearer.// But,/ Before I go for my quick coffee-scald and to the corral,/ I hear, much nearer, not far from my window, a croupy/ Gargle of laughter.// It is Laughing Boy.” The Indian’s method for exterminating rattlers is then recounted. The liquid horses prefigure both the poured gasoline and the snakes slithering down their holes–indeed, prefigure the snakes and burning petrol together “Pouring downward,” like “quicksilver spilled in dark.” The burning horses in the Dreiser poem thus recall not just the burning snakes of “Rattlesnake Country” but the linkage already there established between horses and snakes.

Warren focuses on Dreiser’s mouth–“Watch his mouth, how it moves without a sound”–as he had, in the poem before, on Laughing Boy’s: “Sometimes, before words come, he utters a sound like croupy laughter.” Both Dreiser and Laughing Boy have trouble getting out the utterance that boils within. Dreiser’s mouth, where “Saliva gathers in the hot darkness of mouth-tissue,” recalls the snake-hole as well, appropriately termed “the hole-mouth,” where flames consume snakes in darkness, as flames consume horses in his soul.

 

Randolph Paul Runyon

 “A problem in spatial composition: on the order of Or Else”

The Southern Review

 September 2002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chester Gillette’s uncle

 

Craig Brandon is the author of Murder in the Adirondacks, the definitive book about the Chester Gillette murder case. This case, which resulted in Gillette’s execution in Auburn State Prison in New York in 1908, provided the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

Chester Ellsworth Gillette (1883-1908) was arrested on July 14, 1906 at the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet, New York, an Adirondack outpost, for the murder of Grace Mae Brown (1886-1906).

Brandon gives lectures about the case, about which he is recognized as the foremost authority. In one such lecture, I recall that Brandon spoke of an uncle from Chicago who, learning of Gillette’s arrest from the newspapers, tried to contact either his nephew or the authorities. (I can’t recall which was the case.) Brandon expressed befuddlement over this and assumed that the so called uncle was not in fact Chester Gillette’s uncle.

There indeed was such an uncle and his name was Josiah Rice. He was an uncle of Chester Gillette on Chester’s mother’s side.

 

Attached is the death certificate of one Josiah Rice. The details are as follows:

Josiah Rice

residence: 5400 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago

died in Edgewater Hospital on April 8, 1939

widower; husband of Matilda Rice

his date of birth: February 5, 1855

his age: 84 years 1 month 23 days

his place of birth: Oxford, Massachusetts

father’s name: Leonard Rice (born Oxford, Massachusetts)

mother’s maiden name: Matilda Coyne (born Rock Island, Illinois)

Now, some facts about Chester Gillette’s mother:

Her maiden name was Louisa Maria Rice

She was born in Millbury, Worcester County, Massachusetts on May 12, 1859

Her parents were Leonard Rice and Dulcena (or Dulcimer) S. (Gale) Rice

Leonard Rice and Dulcena Gale were married in Millbury on April 25, 1855

 

So, it is apparent that Josiah Rice was the son of Leonard Rice by a first wife of Leonard, namely, Matilda (Coyne) Rice, and it would seem to be a certainty that Matilda died giving birth to Josiah.

Therefore, it is conclusive that Chester Gillette’s mother, Louisa (Rice) Gillette was the half-sister of Josiah Rice of Chicago. So, it would be quite proper for Josiah Rice to call himself Chester Gillette’s uncle and to inquire after Chester upon learning of his arrest from newspapers.
— Roger W. Smith

     July 2016

 

 

Josiah Rice death cert.jpg