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