Tag Archives: Mary Gordon

stock characters in Dreiser’s novels

 

 

 

Sondra Finchley … An American Tragedy

Letty Pace … Jennie Gerhardt

Berenice Fleming … The Titan

are stock, papier-mâché high class woman characters.

Straight out of soap opera.

Not believable

 

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Robert Alden is very real. Her ingenuousness. Her emotions. Her love for Clyde. Her sense of betrayal. Her letters. And so on. She is, in the words of Mary Gordon, a “genuinely loving young woman who is sexually awakened by her feelings for Clyde.”

Sondra Finchley, irresistibly beautiful and marvelously rich, bestows an occasional kiss on Clyde. She is the prototypical flapper with zero sex appeal. She is too vain to really show love for Clyde. “Her clothes, her car, her sports equipment,” notes Mary Gordon, “are the locus of her sexual allure.”* Her main reaction and main worry after Clyde is arrested are to keep her name out of the papers.

Characters like Sondra Finchley and Dreiser’s other high class women seem like crude embodiments of a social class or an ideal, not real.

Bob Ames in Sister Carrie — a stand in and mouthpiece for the author, Dreiser — has no purpose or reason for being in the novel. He does not seem real and is not brought to life.

 

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

 

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For purposes of comparison, let’s take an author such as Charles Dickens.

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol could be considered to be a stock character: miser, skinflint, coldhearted businessman — crotchety curmudgeon.

He receives visitations from ghosts (spirits). This is realistic?

Yet …

Scrooge is realer than real. He LIVES in our imaginations.

So does Bob Cratchit, who might have been portrayed one dimensionally as the poor, overworked worker ground down by ruthless capitalism.

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit are so real that it sometimes seems that they actually existed and lived in Victorian London.

Or Tolstoy.

Levin in Anna Karenina is a stand in for Tolstoy the aristocratic landholder, and his views. But he is not a stock figure in the novel. His character is fully developed.

In a novel which Dreiser greatly admired, Balzac’s Père Goriot, there are characters who could be seen as types:

Goriot, old man rejected by his heedless daughters; miser out of necessity

Rastignac, prototypical social climber. Goriot’s self-centered daughters: the same

All are portrayed by Balzac in a manner that makes them fully human, idiosyncratic, and believable.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    March 2021

“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

   August 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