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
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
“Clyde is tugged by forces — internal and external — that he can scarcely grasp.”
— Ben McArthur, email to Roger W. Smith, August 5, 2016