Category Archives: film adaptations

Leda Bauer, ‘The Revival of Dreiser”

 

Leda Bauer, ‘The Revival of Dreiser’ – Theatre Arts

 

Posted here:

The Revival of Dreiser

by Leda Bauer

Theatre Arts

August 1951

A well written and acute review of two films based on An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie.

A few observations, comments of my own; and additions to the content of the review.

At the end of the film Carrie, Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier), down and out and desperate, waits for Carrie (Jennifer Jones) at the stage door and approaches her as she is leaving. Carrie, startled, is shocked by his bedraggled condition. She ushers the starving Hurstwood into her dressing room, has food ordered for him, and gives him a generous amount of money from her purse at his request. Shocked by Hurstwood’s condition, Carrie vows to take him home with her and says she wants to resume the relationship. Hurstwood is noncommittal

Carrie leaves the room for a minute to see if she can borrow more money for Hurstwood’s immediate needs. Hurstwood puts the money already given him by Carrie back into her purse, fiddles with a gas jet, turning it on for a minute and then off, and leaves. The film ends.

In the novel, Sister Carrie, the last encounter between Hurstwood and Carrie is in Chapter XLVI.

That night … she passed Hurstwood, waiting at the Casino, without observing him.

The next night, walking to the theatre, she encountered him face to face. He was waiting, more gaunt than ever, determined to see her, if he had to send in word. At first she did not recognise the shabby, baggy figure. He frightened her, edging so close, a seemingly hungry stranger.

“Carrie,” he half whispered, “can I have a few words with you?”

She turned and recognised him on the instant. If there ever had lurked any feeling in her heart against him, it deserted her now. Still, she remembered what Drouet said about his having stolen the money.

“Why, George,” she said; “what’s the matter with you?”

“I’ve been sick,” he answered. “I’ve just got out of the hospital. For God’s sake, let me have a little money, will you?”

“Of course,” said Carrie, her lip trembling in a strong effort to maintain her composure. “But what’s the matter with you, anyhow?”

She was opening her purse, and now pulled out all the bills in it–a five and two twos.

“I’ve been sick, I told you,” he said, peevishly, almost resenting her excessive pity. It came hard to him to receive it from such a source.

“Here,” she said. “It’s all I have with me.”

“All right,” he answered, softly. “I’ll give it back to you some day.”

Carrie looked at him, while pedestrians stared at her. She felt the strain of publicity. So did Hurstwood.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s the matter with you?” she asked, hardly knowing what to do. “Where are you living?”

“Oh, I’ve got a room down in the Bowery,” he answered. “There’s no use trying to tell you here. I’m all right now.”

He seemed in a way to resent her kindly inquiries–so much better had fate dealt with her.

“Better go on in,” he said. “I’m much obliged, but I won’t bother you any more.”

She tried to answer, but he turned away and shuffled off toward the east.

For days this apparition was a drag on her soul before it began to wear partially away.

Of the two films, A place in the Sun and Carrie, I think the latter is much more faithful to Dreiser’s novel. Also, the black and white film and period details, costumes, etc. make Carrie very effective in this respect; they evoke a quality of the novel that made it so telling.

Leda Bauer (born Leda Vesta Bauer-Berg; 1898-1975) was a New York-based film critic, motion picture story editor; and a girlfriend of H. L. Mencken.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2021

“If he were alive today, I think Dreiser would resent the second treatment of his work almost as much as the first.”

 

David Platt, ‘What Hollywood Did to Dreiser’s American Tragedy’ – Daily Worker 9-23-1951 pg 7

 

Posted here (downloadable Word document above) is a review of the 1951 film A Place in the Sun:

What Hollywood Did to Dreiser’s “American Tragedy”

By David Platt

Daily Worker

September 23, 1951

The review is self-explanatory. It elucidates my own views.

A chief reason that people rave about the film is that hardly anyone who has watched it has read An American Tragedy. Therefore, they are ignorant (although they probably wouldn’t care anyway) of the shameful liberties the film takes with Dreiser’s novel.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 2021

An American Tragedy (film) scenario (Eistenstein, Alexandrov, Montagu)

 

An American Tragedy – scenario (Eisenstein, Alexandrov, Montagu)

 

The complete scenario, written by Sergei Eisenstein, Grigori Alexandrov, and Ivor Montagu, for a film of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy  (downloadable PDF file above) is posted here. The scenario was written in 1930. The film was never produced.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

more misconceptions about “An American Tragedy” and the true story

 

re: Sandra Scott Travels: “An American Tragedy”

Oswego County Today

September 20, 2020

Sandra Scott Travels: “An American Tragedy”

There are several inaccuracies in this piece.

Scott states that An American Tragedy, “along with books like ‘Grapes of Wrath’,  is seen as the beginning of the modern American literature.” This statement seems problematic. Could not ‘modern American literature” be said to have begun with Huckleberry Finn? Or to have been already begun around the time that Dreiser was writing Sister Carrie and Stephen Crane works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

Scott states that An American Tragedy “shows the extent someone will go to realize the American Dream ignoring any sense of morality.” This is succinctly and well put.

In discussing the factual underpinnings of An American Tragedy — i.e., the Gillette murder case — Scott makes a serious, common error:

Chester Gillette was born into a successful family but his father, after a religious conversion, renounced his wealth [italics added] and became a roving missionary for the Salvation Army. Gillette, however, still hankered for the good life and when his uncle offered him a job at his factory in Cortland he accepted. He had the opportunity to work hard and advanced. Knowing that he should not consort with the help, Gillette ignored the advice and began seeing Grace Brown, a hard working girl from a farm family. They usually met at her place and not in public. Meanwhile, Gillette moved up the social rung and began dating the daughter of a prominent family. [italics added] Grace Brown became pregnant and wanted to get married but that would have interfered in Gillette’s hope for marrying someone from the upper class.

The notion that Chester Gillette was dating a local girl (Harriet Benedict, not named by Scott) is a common misconception. It has been thoroughly disproved and you would think someone writing an article about An American Tragedy and the Gillette case would know this (or, at least, bother to check). There are numerous publications about the actual case, and Craig Brandon has written a book which provides the definitive account.

The notion that there was “another woman” whom Gillette was involved with and that such a relationship gave him a motive for murdering Grace Brown is not only suggested by the character Sondra Finchley in An American Tragedy — which is FICTION, don’t forget — it was also rumored that this was the case at the time of Chester Gillette’s arrest and trial in 1906.

Perhaps Dreiser himself, who used the New York World as his source for the Gillette case, was influenced by such accounts. Early on, in July 1906, at the time of the murder of Grace Brown and Gillette’s arrest, the World published a story suggesting that Gillette may have been engaged to another girl. The girl was Harriet Benedict, a member of the of the “best’ families in town. Miss Benedict, who testified at Gillette’s trial, said that she knew Gillette and had been on a social outing in which Gillette was a member of the party, but she stated, unequivocally, that there had never been any romantic relationship, much less an engagement. Scott’s assertion that “Gillette moved up the social rung and began dating the daughter of a prominent family,” presumably establishing a motive for his murdering Grace Brown, is flat out wrong.

Moreover, Scott states that Chester Gillette’s father, Frank Gillette, upon experiencing a religious conversion, renounced his wealth. This is also pure fantasy. Frank Gillette was not born into a wealthy family (quite the opposite) and he never became rich. Chester Gillette grew up poor. Chester did have a rich uncle, Noah H. Gillette, owner of the skirt factory where Chester was employed.

 

— Roger W, Smith

   September 2020

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Addendum:

While I am at it, I would like to point out that many misconceptions about both An American Tragedy and the Gillette case itself have come from the film A Place in the Sun and comments by film critics. There was an earlier film based on the novel: An American Tragedy (1931), directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The 1931 film has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. Host Ben Mankiewicz stated that Chester Gillette’s mother sued Paramount, the film company. It was Grace Brown’s mother, Minerva Brown, who sued, not Chester Gillette’s mother.

I emailed Mankiewicz about this and got no response.

“foul tactics”

 

 

‘Dreiser Defends Norris on Power’ – NY Times 1-2-1931

 

‘Dreiser Attacks Power Trust,’Chicago Daily Tribune 7-2-1931

 

‘Foul Tactics’ – NY Times 7-3-1931

 

 

Posted here (above) as downloadable PDF files are two news stories and an editorial focusing on controversy that Theodore Dreiser was involved in in 1931. As is well known, Dreiser did less writing after the publication of his only bestseller, An American Tragedy, and became an outspoken critic of the capitalist system. The articles posted above focus on a controversy which occurred in July 1931 when Dreiser attacked monopolistic practices of utility companies.

 

 

DREISER DEFENDS NORRIS ON POWER

The New York Times

July 2, 1931

 

 

DREISER ATTACKS “POWER TRUST” AND TELLS WHY

Chicago Daily Tribune

July 2, 1931

 

 

FOUL TACTICS (editorial)

The New York Times

July 3, 1931

 

 

The New York Times editorial in whimsical fashion segues from a discussion of Dreiser’s attack on utilities to a billboard advertising the forthcoming film An American Tragedy and Dreiser’s dissatisfaction with the film, which he tried to prevent from being shown.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

TCM screens 1931 film version of “An American Tragedy”

 

It was great to see a rare screening of the original 1931 film version of An American Tragedy on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) this evening. I am convinced that this version is superior to the acclaimed film A Place in the Sun, which I, personally, do not feel deserves the praise it has been accorded. See my post to this effect at

“A Place in the Sun” is overrated, to put it kindly (two critics’ views)

Particularly appealing — indeed, gratifying — to me was the quality of the print. I have seen the 1931 film several times, and the image was always grainy.

The host for the program, Ben Mankiewicz, got most of the details about the circumstances associated with the making of the film — and Theodore Dreiser’s objections to it — right. But, at the end of the program, he made a serious factual error. He stated that Chester Gillette’s mother sued Paramount. This is not true.

It was Grace Brown’s mother who sued the producers, as is indicated in the following news item:

“Ithaca Picked for Trial of Movie Suit; ‘American Tragedy’ Producers Denied Pre-Trial Questioning Petition,” Syracuse Herald, September 7, 1934, pg. 16

$150,000 libel action of Mrs. Grace Brown, 78, of Smyrna [NY], against Paramount-Publix moving picture corporation for alleged destructive character delineation in the film version of “An American Tragedy.” … Clifford Searl of Syracuse, counsel for Mrs. [Minerva] Brown. “Mrs. Brown claims in her suit she was depicted as ‘illiterate’ in the film version.”

Also see below a PDF file of a New York Times article dated November 9, 1934 about the settlement of the suit.

— Roger W. Smith

   May 17, 2017

 

‘Paramount Settles Suit’ – NY Times 11-9-1934

Bennett Cerf, “A Luncheon at the Ritz”

 

bennett-cerf-a-luncheon-at-the-ritz

 

Posted here is a downloadable PDF file of an article by publisher Bennett Cerf (1898–1971):

Bennett Cerf, “A Luncheon at the Ritz,” Playboy, vol. XIII, January 1969, pp. 179, 239.

Cerf describes a luncheon that Theodore Dreiser had at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Manhattan during which an oft recounted incident occurred. During the luncheon, Dreiser argued with publisher Horace Liveright over his share of the proceeds from the sale of film rights to his best selling novel An American Tragedy, and, outraged because he felt Liveright was cheating him out the share to which he was entitled, threw a cup of coffee at Liveright. (It was a huge sum, by any measure, for the 1920’s.)

The luncheon took place on March 19, 1926. It has been stated in other sources that it was attended by Dreiser, film producer Jesse L. Lasky, and Liveright.

Cerf claims in the article posted here that he was at the luncheon; he does not mention Lasky’s having been present. This has been questioned, as has been the accuracy of Cerf’s recollections of the luncheon.

Cerf states that the luncheon “involved exactly three people: …. Dreiser himself, … Horace Liveright, … and me. Despite other accounts to the contrary, that was the entire cast of characters. … .”

Cerf describes how he met Dreiser after joining the Liveright publishing firm in 1923. He describes Dreiser as an annoying visitor who would show up at the firm’s Manhattan offices periodically, would find fault with royalty statements, and would attempt to “make time” with a woman employee of the firm.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2016

Note: This account was incorporated into Bennett Cerf, At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (New York: Random House, 1977), pp. 58-59.

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

 

Clyde vis-a-vis Roberta and Sondra

Downloadable Word document 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 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 (above) 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 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.

did Sondra visit Clyde on death row?

 

On page 335 of Craig Brandon’s Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited (Fully Revised and Expanded Edition, 2016) — considered to be the definitive book about the “American Tragedy” murder case — Brandon states:

In the novel [Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy], Sondra is with Clyde when he is arrested, and she comes to visit him when he is in prison, something that is very unlikely to have happened in real life.

Actually, this is not the case with respect to the novel. Brandon is conflating the novel with the 1951 movie version, A Place in the Sun. It is questionable whether he has actually read An American Tragedy.

In Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Clyde Griffiths receives a letter from Sondra Finchley when he is on death row (Book Three, Chapter XXXII; see below). The letter is typewritten with no signature.

Sondra does not visit Clyde in prison at any point in the novel.

Clyde is despondent after receiving the letter because of its terseness, formality, and impersonal character.

The overrated film A Place in the Sun has been the source of much confusion in this regard. In the film, which takes shameless liberties with Dreiser’s novel, Angela Vickers (Sondra Finchley), played by Elizabeth Taylor, visits George Eastman (Clyde Griffiths), played by Montgomery Clift, on death row.

The film ends with Angela visiting George in prison, saying that she will always love him, and with him slowly marching towards his execution.

This is – to put it kindly – ridiculous. It undercuts and violates the plot of the novel and premises about the central characters upon which it was based.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2016

 

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[T]he film is a travesty of Dreiser’s novel. … An example of the compromise involved—typical in Hollywood films, which is why so few can be taken seriously as social comment—occurs in the final scene when George [the Clyde Griffiths character] is in jail awaiting execution. Sondra visits George in his cell and expresses her love for him. The book makes it explicitly clear that once her lover was in trouble and had become a social undesirable, this rich girl wanted nothing more to do with him. The scene in the film is the antithesis of realism.

— Charles Higham on A Place in the Sun, in The Art of the American Film 1900-1971 (1973)

 

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Addendum:

Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy, Book Three, Chapter XXXII:

 But the days going by until finally one day six weeks after–and when because of his silence in regard to himself, the Rev. Duncan was beginning to despair of ever affecting him in any way toward his proper contrition and salvation–a letter or note from Sondra. It came through the warden’s office and by the hand of the Rev. Preston Guilford, the Protestant chaplain of the prison, but was not signed.  It was, however, on good paper, and because the rule of the prison so requiring had been opened and read.  Nevertheless, on account of the nature of the contents which seemed to both the warden and the Rev. Guilford to be more charitable and punitive than otherwise, and because plainly, if not verifiably, it was from that Miss X of repute or notoriety in connection with his trial, it was decided, after due deliberation, that Clyde should be permitted to read it–even that it was best that he should.  Perhaps it would prove of value as a lesson.  The way of the transgressor.  And so it was handed to him at the close of a late fall day–after a long and dreary summer had passed (soon a year since he had entered here).  And he taking it.  And although it was typewritten with no date nor place on the envelope, which was postmarked New York–yet sensing somehow that it might be from her.  And growing decidedly nervous–so much so that his hand trembled slightly.  And then reading–over and over and over–during many days thereafter: “Clyde ? This is so that you will not think that some one once dear to you has utterly forgotten you.  She has suffered much, too.  And though she can never understand how you could have done as you did, still, even now, although she is never to see you again, she is not without sorrow and sympathy and wishes you freedom and happiness.”

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.  New York!  But it might have been sent there from anywhere to mail.  And she would not let him know–would never let him know–even though he died here later, as well he might.  His last hope–the last trace of his dream vanished. Forever!  It was at that moment, as when night at last falls upon the faintest remaining gleam of dusk in the west.  A dim, weakening tinge of pink–and then the dark.

He seated himself on his cot.  The wretched stripes of his uniform and his gray felt shoes took his eye.  A felon.  These stripes. These shoes.

“A Place in the Sun” is overrated, to put it kindly (two critics’ views)

 

The following is commentary by two critics, Mary Gordon and Charles Higham, on A Place in the Sun, the 1951 film directed by George Stevens that was based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

The film was a critical and commercial success and is regarded as a classic. It is my opinion – not the prevailing one – that the film is overrated; that the principal characters are miscast; that the acting is poor; and, what is worst, that the film takes shameful liberties with the plot and spirit of Dreiser’s masterpiece.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2016

 

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Dreiser makes both Roberta [Alden]’s attractiveness and her virtue real.  She is a genuinely loving young woman who is sexually awakened by her feelings for Clyde [Griffiths].  Hollywood’s casting of Shelley Winters, the perennial slut, to play her in the second movie version of the novel, A Place in the Sun, was a serious violation of the spirit of Dreiser’s book.  … Dreiser’s Roberta is a genuine innocent, forced by poverty to leave the “reduced grimness:” of her decaying farm … in order to take up factory work, which is really beneath her.  Dreiser makes the point, that like Clyde, she has innate finesse.  … Sondra [Finchley], on the other hand, is a dreadful girl who happens to be irresistibly beautiful and marvelously rich. Her clothes, her car, her sports equipment, at least as much as her body, are the locus of her sexual allure.  … Clearly, Dreiser wants us at once to realize Sondra’s ridiculousness and the allure of all she has.  … Astonishingly, we are on Clyde’s side in his conviction that marrying Roberta, with whom he was quite happy until Sondra appeared, is impossible.  … We are at one with Clyde in his plans to murder this encumbered woman, this encumbrance, heavy with child and the limitations of her poverty.

—  Mary Gordon, “Good Boys and Dead Girls,” in Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays (1991), pp. 8-10

 

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[George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun] was a handsomely made film though like the [Josef] von Sternberg version [of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy] if quite failed to equal the intensity and power of Dreiser’s book. It again substituted an indulgent romanticism for the author’s crude but moving realism. The story of a young man (Montgomery Clift) enslaved by the rich and beautiful Sondra (Elizabeth Taylor) but ruined by the factory girl (Shelley Winters) whom he makes pregnant and accidentally kills often looks glossy and false, inferior to [William] Wyler’s version of Sister Carrie. Stevens was at his best only in a few episodes, such as the soft and subdued love scenes between social climber and pathetic drudge, the killing on Loon Lake, long shots from an immense distance alternating with startling close-ups, the call of a police siren which interrupts a lover’s idyll.

Unfortunately, despite these directorial touches, the film is a travesty of Dreiser’s novel [italics added]. Once again, all of the novel’s rich social comment was carefully eliminated. [Screenwriters] Harry Brown and Michael Wilson updated the novel without adding anything new or perceptive about their own time. An example of the compromise involved—typical in Hollywood films, which is why so few can be taken seriously as social comment—occurs in the final scene when George [the Clyde Griffiths character] is in jail awaiting execution. Sondra visits George in his cell and expresses her love for him. The book makes it explicitly clear that once her lover was in trouble and had become a social undesirable, this rich girl wanted nothing more to do with him. The scene in the film is the antithesis of realism. Dreiser’s book was awkwardly written but passionately convincing and filled with deeply felt critiques of the heartlessness of a materialist society. Stevens’ film is beautifully made, its style more polished than Dreiser’s prose, but it is empty and cold.

— Charles Higham, The Art of the American Film 1900-1971 (Garden City, NY; Doubleday & Company, Inc.. 1973), pp. 279-281