McDonald, ‘Two Letters from An American Tragedy’ – Dreiser Newsletter 7-2 (fall 1976), pp 2-6
(A downloadable Word document — slightly modified, and fully documented — of this post is available above.)
In Book Two, Chapter XLII of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, letters from Sondra Finchley and Roberta Alden to Clyde Griffiths, which Clyde receives on the same day, are paired and quoted in full.
The simultaneous reception of the two letters and the contrast between them, as Clyde perceives it, have a decisive impact on his motives.
This is one of the key points in a novel which appears to some readers to be shapeless. The pairing of these letters by Dreiser was a brilliant stroke. They are a focal point of the novel, illustrating the choice between Roberta and Sondra upon which Clyde is impaled. (It is ironic that Boni and Liveright editor T. R. Smith felt the real life letters of murder victim Grace Brown, which Roberta Alden’s letters are either closely or loosely based upon, depending upon the letter, should be excised from the novel.)
Sondra Finchley’s letter:
Pine Point Landing, June 10th
How is my pheet phing. All whytie? It’s just glorious up here. Lots of people already here and more coming every day. The Casino and golf course over at Pine Point are open and lots of people about. I can hear Stuart and Grant with their launches going up toward Gray’s Inlet now. You must hurry and come up, dear. It’s too nice for words. Green roads to gallop through, and swimming and dancing at the Casino every afternoon until four. Just back from a wonderful gallop on Dickey and going again after luncheon to mail these letters. Bertine says she’ll write you a letter to-day or to-morrow good for any week-end or any old time, so when Sonda says come, you come, you hear, else Sonda whip hard. You baddie, good boy.
Is he working hard in the baddie old factory? Sonda wishes he was here wiss her instead. We’d ride and drive and swim and dance. Don’t forget your tennis racquet and golf clubs. There’s a dandy course on the Casino grounds.
This morning when I was riding a bird flew right up under Dickey’s heels. It scared him so that he bolted and Sonda got all switched and scwatched. Isn’t Clydie sorry for his Sonda?
She is writing lots of notes to-day. After lunch and the ride to catch the down mail, Sonda and Bertine and Nina going to the Casino. Don’t you wish you were going to be there? We could dance to “Tandy.” Sonda just loves that song. But she has to dress now. More to-morrow, baddie boy. And when Bertine writes, answer right away. See all ‘ose dots? Kisses. Big and little ones. All for baddie boy. And wite Sonda every day and she’ll write ‘oo.
Roberta Alden’s letter:
(I have italicized the interpolated authorial comments representing Clyde’s thoughts; Dreiser MUST have intended them to be taken ironically.)
Biltz, June 10th.
I am nearly ready for bed, but I will write you a few lines. I had such a tiresome journey coming up that I was nearly sick. In the first place I don’t want to come much (alone) as you know. I feel too upset and uncertain about everything, although I try not to feel so now that we have our plan and you are going to come for me as you said.
(At this point, while nearly sickened by the thought of the wretched country world in which she lived, still, because of Roberta’s unfortunate and unavoidable relation to it, he now experienced one of his old time twinges of remorse and pity in regard to her. For after all, this was not her fault. She had so little to look forward to — nothing but her work or a commonplace marriage. For the first time in many days, really, and in the absence of both, he was able to think clearly — and to sympathize deeply, if gloomily. For the remainder of the letter read:)
But it’s very nice here now. The trees are so beautifully green and the flowers in bloom. I can hear the bees in the orchard whenever I go to the south windows. On the way up instead of coming straight home, I decided to stop at Homer to see my sister and brother-in-law, since I am not so sure when I shall see them again, if ever, for I am resolved that they shall see me respectable, or never at all any more. You mustn’t think I mean anything hard or mean by this. I am just sad. They have such a cute little home there, Clyde — pretty furniture, a victrola and all, and Agnes is so very happy with Fred. I hope she always will be. I couldn’t help thinking of what a dear place we might have had, if only my dreams had come true. And nearly all the time I was there Fred kept teasing me as to why I don’t get married, until I said, “Oh, well, Fred, you mustn’t be too sure that I won’t one of these days. All good things come to him who waits, you know.” “Yes, unless you just turn out to be a waiter,” was the way he hit me back.
But I was truly glad to see mother again, Clyde. She’s so loving and patient and helpful. The sweetest, dearest mother that ever, ever was. And I just hate to hurt her in any way. And Tom and Emily, too. They have had friends here every evening since I’ve been here — and they want me to join in, but I hardly feel well enough now to do all the things they want me to do — play cards and games — dance.
(At this point Clyde could not help emphasizing in his own mind the shabby home world of which she was a part and which so recently he had seen — and that rickety house! those toppling chimneys! Her uncouth father. And that in contrast to such letter as this other from Sondra.)
Father and mother and Tom and Emily just seem to hang around and try to do things for me. And I feel remorseful when I think how they would feel if they knew, for, of course, I have to pretend that it is work that makes me feel so tired and depressed as I am sometimes. Mothers keeps saying that I must stay a long time or quit entirely and rest and get well again, but she just don’t know, of course — poor dear. If she did! I can’t tell you how that makes me feel sometimes, Clyde. Oh, dear!
But there, I mustn’t put my sad feelings over on you either. I don’t want to, as I told you, if you will only come and get me as we’ve agreed. And I won’t be like that either, Clyde. I’m not that way all the time now. I’ve started to get ready and do all the things it’ll take to do in the three weeks and that’s enough to keep my mind off everything but work. But you will come for me, won’t you, dear? You won’t disappoint me any more and make me suffer this time like you have so far, for, oh, how long it has been now — ever since I was here before at Christmas time, really. But you were truly nice to me. I promise not to be a burden on you, for I know you don’t really care for me any more and so I don’t care much what happens now, so long as I get out of this. But I truly promise not to be a burden on you.
Oh, dear, don’t mind this blot. I just don’t seem to be able to control myself these days like I once could.
But as for what I came for. The family think they are clothes for a party down in Lycurgus and that I must be having a wonderful time. Well, it’s better that way than the other. I may have to come as far as Fonda to get some things, if I don’t send Mrs. Anse, the dressmaker, and if so, and if you wanted to see me again before you come, although I don’t suppose you do, you could. I’d like to see you and talk to you again if you care to, before we start. It all seems so funny to me, Clyde, having these clothes made and wishing to see you so much and yet knowing that you would rather not do this. And yet I hope you are satisfied now that you have succeeded in making me leave Lycurgus and come up here and are having what you call a good time. Are they so much better than the ones we used to have last summer when we went about to the lakes and everywhere? But whatever they are, Clyde, surely you can afford to do this for me without feeling too bad. I know it seems hard to you now, but you don’t want to forget either that if I was the like some that I know, I might and would ask more. But as I told you I’m not like that and never could be. If you don’t really want me after you have helped me out like I said, you can go.
Please write me, Clyde, a long, cheery letter, even though you don’t want to, and tell me all about how you have not thought of me once since I’ve been away or missed me at all — you used to, you know, and how you don’t want me to come back and you can’t possibly come up before two weeks from Saturday if then.
Oh, dear, I don’t mean the horrid things I write, but I’m so blue and tired and lonely that I can’t help it at times. I need some one to talk to — not just any one here, because they don’t understand and I can’t tell anybody.
But there, I said I wouldn’t be blue or gloomy or cross and yet I haven’t done so very well this time, have I? But I promise to do better next time — to-morrow or next day, because it relieves me to write to you, Clyde. And won’t you please write me just a few words to cheer me up while I’m waiting, whether you mean it or not, I need it so. And you will come, of course. I’ll be so happy and grateful and try not to bother you too much in any way.
For this writer — reading An American Tragedy for the first time (it was my introduction to Dreiser) — it was a gut-wrenching experience to read Roberta’s letter, to realize how oblivious Clyde is to her claims to superiority over Sondra in practically every respect (excluding wealth and social status).
These two letters — superimposed one upon the other, as it were — have, of course, the opposite effect on Clyde:
[I]t was the contrast presented by these two scenes which finally determined for him the fact that he would never marry Roberta … or let her come back to him here, if he could avoid that.
Almost immediately afterward, Clyde sees the newspaper headline “Double Tragedy At Pass Lake” and the plot to murder Roberta begins to take shape in his mind.
Dreiser is able in this novel, his masterpiece, both to identify with Clyde’s twisted point of view and to see its limitations, which is to say that he wants to make plausible the kind of feelings that could cause Clyde to want to forsake Roberta for Sondra (similar to yearnings for wealth and status that Dreiser himself had) and, at the same time, intends for the reader to see the sadness, the pathos in all of this: the ironic contrast between the outlook of the totally vapid, self-centered flapper Sondra and the farm girl now factory worker Roberta, who, while less sophisticated, socially speaking, is clearly Sondra’s moral superior (and, actually, though Clyde doesn’t realize it, the better woman for him).
Roberta is wholesome, honest, and sincere; she really loves Clyde. She is considerate of Clyde’s feelings and those of others. She has a wholesome family life. This is precisely what Clyde needs, not the imagined glories of Sondra’s world.
Sondra comes across as narcissistic and shallow, and as so self-centered it is almost beyond belief. Yet somehow Dreiser makes Clyde’s incomprehension plausible — his adoration of Sondra and detestation of Roberta. And this makes Clyde’s crime believable and understandable in terms of his and its perverse logic.
The Analysis of James L. McDonald
I was surprised to read James L. McDonald’s article “Dreiser’s Artistry: Two Letters from An American Tragedy” in a past issue of the Dreiser Newsletter (7 :2–6), in which he expresses an entirely opposite point of view. [PDF file attachment above.]
Professor McDonald states:
[T]he letters … show Dreiser’s finely wrought presentation and dramatization of the characters of Roberta and Sondra. Further, they reveal his subtle use of irony to reverse the readers’ [sic] previous judgments of the two women and to indicate the dimensions of the worlds they inhabit, thus deepening our awareness of Clyde’s callowness and naiveté and complicating the whole problem of his guilt.
What does McDonald mean by “subtle use of irony” and “reverse the readers’ previous judgments of the two women”? He goes on to explain:
A hasty reading of the letters seems to confirm what readers have been led to believe about Sondra and Roberta. On the surface, Dreiser has been manipulating two stock characters: the beautiful but hollow and demanding rich girl … and the rather plain but loving and fertile girl-next-door. … Thus one can note an apparent contrast between the superficiality and frivolity of Sondra and the love and devotion of Roberta. Sondra, the wealthy golden girl of Clyde’s dreams, writes–in a language characterized by babytalk and imperious commands–of her carefree, trivial activities…. in the world of wealth Clyde yearns to enter. Roberta, the poor battered girl who has become a handicap to Clyde’s ambitions. writes simply and naturally about her loneliness, the discomforts of her pregnancy, and the virtues of the lower-class domestic world which he is trying to escape.
The sympathies of Dreiser’s readers–formed in a respectable middle-class environment which views the pleasure-loving rich as decadent and immoral and sees the ordinary, average citizen as the salt of the earth–incline toward Roberta. So these readers are prone to interpret Clyde’s preference for Sondra as a sign of his vanity, conceit, and ultimate folly. This view of Clyde is not incorrect. Yet Dreiser is also working to reverse these sympathies; and this irony makes possible a deeper understanding of the characters and the moral problems in the novel.
Can this be true? Can this really be what Dreiser had in mind?
Dreiser may have had such intentions, but if he did, I for one would never have suspected, on a first reading, that this was the case.
McDonald’s analysis continues:
Dreiser juxtaposes two worlds. Sondra’s letters come from and dramatize the world of wealth. … It is an active, competitive society where golfing, boating, horseback-riding, swimming, and dancing are the privileges of charming, polished, carefree young people–a social climate which she thoroughly enjoys and wants to share with Clyde. Roberta’s letters come from and present the world of the lower-class, “Blitz” [sic] and “Homer,” ‘where her sister and brother-in-law have “such a cute little home” with “pretty furniture, a victrola and all . . .”: a passive, drearily domestic existence whose pleasures are dim and routine (playing cards and games) — a life which she does not enjoy, which makes her bored and lonely, but which she wishes to drag Clyde into.
Dreiser makes these worlds explicit in the styles of the writers: through contrasting diction, rhythm, emphasis, and tone, he specifies the essential qualities which mark the gap between Sondra and Roberta, and the worlds they represent. One is struck by the stylishness and dynamism of Sondra” from the speed and intensity of the opening lines. As her diction and rhythms indicate, Sondra is more than just a social butterfly. … The sharp, arresting address, the playful banter which follows, and the abrupt, frank, natural summation of the situation reveal Sondra as a singularly dashing and vibrant young lady.
“There is nothing striking about the beginning of Roberta’s letter,” McDonald goes on to say. “It is utterly drab and lifeless. … Roberta may be fertile, but her diction and rhythm are remarkably dingy, plodding, and labored.”
McDonald proceeds to make the following points about Sondra’s correspondence vis-à-vis Roberta’s:
Roberta’s letter drags on, detailing her miseries, with a characteristic stress on “I,” a word she uses 71 times in all.
Throughout Sondra’s letter, one is aware of her serene self-assurance, typified by her personification of herself as “Sonda” and her use of babytalk. … The babytalk reflects a surface immaturity. But it also shows her social position; the babytalk about the [horseback riding] accident directs Clyde’s attention away from a possibly battered and disheveled Sondra to a desirable, commanding “Sonda” who, provocatively, “has to dress now,” and can promise “Kisses. Big and little ones. All for baddie boy.”
Roberta …. has no such self-awareness, much less self-assurance. … Trapped within her own wounded ego and unable to cope with her physical predicament, she cannot see the image she presents to Clyde. Though “nearly ready for bed,” she is anything but enticing.
She cannot present herself as anything more than a self- centered, self-pitying, whining problem-child.
In the abstract, and given the readers’ predispositions, it would be easy and natural to sympathize with Roberta, her condition and the world she represents. But, juxtaposed to Sondra, Roberta comes off very badly. Her dullness, egotism, self-pity, her inability to cope with her situation (“Oh, dear, don’t mind this blot. I just don’t seem able to control myself these days like I once could.”) are the results of serious weaknesses of character and the moral, as well as material, poverty of the class she comes from. Her condition is not advanced enough to be noticed; but Roberta has degenerated into a pregnant lump. In Sondra’s letter, a calculated artificiality is evident, in keeping with her self-styled role as fashionable darling among the wealthy elite. But before she can begin to behave and write so successfully, before she can offer such an image, Sondra has to know herself and her capabilities very well and has to appreciate the motives and predispositions of others. The fact is that she does not lack substance. And the world that she comes from–with its allure, power, and almost unlimited opportunities–has helped provide that substance and has a richness and depth that Dreiser recognizes and communicates to the reader.
The point about Roberta’s essence — she is referred to by McDonald as “a pregnant lump” — is a crucial one. If Dreiser intended us to see her this way (Clyde, admittedly, does), it is regrettable. (Yet, in the film A Place in the Sun, Alice Tripp, the Roberta character, is portrayed this way by Shelley Winters.)
I think that Professor McDonald gets it entirely wrong, backwards. I can’t believe that Dreiser intends us to view Sondra as Roberta’s superior — morally speaking, that is, as a person.
But there is indeed ambiguity in the novel — there was undoubtedly ambiguity in Dreiser’s (and Clyde’s) mind. The reader experiences this.
Another Point of View
A thesis by Thomas Kranidas, “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy” (Columbia University, 1953), provides the best analysis that I am aware of. It clears up some of the confusion that the novel seems to create. The “confusion,” so to speak, seems to be inherent. Dreiser himself experienced it, he makes us experience it, he makes his principal characters experience it.
The following is the analysis of Kranidas:
One of the keys to Dreiser’s social thinking and to the feelings directing his writing, is his conception of the High-class Woman. The phrase is, I think, appropriate; it implies a vulgar conception of a woman with certain qualities that set her above other women, a woman who is desirable to men as a class distinction, a woman of good family, good education, money (generally) and of a certain kind of rarefied prettiness. Rarefied is perhaps the best word for her; she is fragile and needs special care by nature, yet she is independent and selfish. …
Dreiser’s ideal woman is … a figure to be set among and complimented with the conventional symbols of luxury — jewels, fountains, silks, satins. …
… in An American Tragedy, the low-class women are called Hortense Briggs, Doris Trine, and Lura Sipe. The names of Dreiser’s upper-class women point to the shallowness and naiveté of his conception. … The names are if not downright fanciful, hyphenated, exotic, at least cool and distinctive. The climax of “distinctive” names comes in An American Tragedy. Sondra is like a childish drawling of the exotic name Sandra; and children drawl when they talk like rich people. Sondra’s friends are called Bertine Cranstan, Arabella Stark, Bella Griffiths and Constance Wynant. And these names are not used as part of a Dickensian caricature but as part of what Dreiser considered “class.”
The upper-class women of Dreiser’s novels are not sexy, they have even a slight touch of frigidity like the photos of Vogue models. Aloof rather than interested, they put a social rather than sexual gauge on their young men. These women are not portrayed deeply enough to give us any feeling of real superiority. There is no real delicacy or insight that reflects careful training. There is rather a shallow stereotype of a pretty, vain, well-dressed young woman. Dreiser never once did justice to a young woman of the upper classes. … the rude love of Roberta Alden is convincing while the baby talk of Sondra Finchley is not.
Dreiser wanted to write about the rich; he had a pitiful need to appear familiar with the “great world.” … And all this time Dreiser knew and felt and wrote that class was unimportant, that wealth was an evil thing, that the rich were not so very much after all. Through his work rages his own private battle between hate and resentment of the upper class and abject admiration and envy, and an attempt to identify with them. Wherever Dreiser’s class consciousness touches his writing, the effect is false. Wherever he attempts to identify through knowingness or annihilate with scorn, he is unrealistic.
Whenever he sees his character as apart from his social yearnings, as united to him, not in education and money, but in love, hate, hunger, fear, he is realistic. So Roberta is true and Sondra is not. (Thomas Kranidas, “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy,” pp. 35-40)
This brilliant thesis was for years unavailable and has been overlooked. The thesis is posted by me here at
Thomas Kranidas, “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy”
In the final analysis, one can say with confidence that:
Dreiser did not intend Roberta Alden to be less admirable or desirable than Sondra Finchley. Clyde is wrong to feel that way.
Roberta writes beautifully, showing her inner beauty. Sondra’s prose is insipid, as befits her personality.
— Roger W. Smith