The goal of finishing the Modern Library is within sight. There are less than 20 left. But of course, life has been intervening. I’m in the middle of a crisis, which doesn’t seem to be the End of the World, which it seemed like last week. But it’s still affecting me and it’s so frustrating.
But in the last day or so, I have been completely in to Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. I know he doesn’t have a reputation as the best writer from a technical perspective, but this plot is excellent. Right now, I DO NOT want to put this book down. I’m about half way through – nine days behind schedule – but I wanted to put down a few thoughts here to tide everyone over until I can post a complete review.
I don’t want to dislike Clyde. We are all products of our environment, for better or for worse, and at first I tried to sympathize with him, particularly in the Hortense situation and the idea that he had to some extent help out his family when, as a teenage boy, he really just wanted to help himself out. I kept thinking back to “Of Human Bondage” and poor Philip in relation to Mildred and I was seeing Clyde in that context – through my “Poor Philip” glasses. All of that began to change when his mother asked him to loan her $50 to help out his sister, whom he dearly loved. He had the $50 in his pocket, which he intended to use to buy Hortense a fur coat. And he lied to his mother and told her he didn’t have the money.
Hortense is obviously a bitch, and sort of a gold digger. She only shows attention to Clyde in order to get material goods out of him, but on the other hand he only gives her material goods because he thinks he’ll get laid. But he doesn’t. He guesses that this is what Hortense is doing, but he persists. In this situation, I almost feel like they are meant for each other. But then there is the accident (nothing good ever comes from teenagers riding in cars together, especially when the car belongs to someone else – Saved By the Bell, anyone?) and Clyde runs away to Chicago where he meets his rich uncle who offers him a job back in Lycurgus, NY.
Now, we think, Clyde is going to turn his life around and make something of himself. He is going to realize how stupid he was in the Hortense situation and watch himself. And at first he does. But once he gets put in charge of a department (really, a sub-department), he soon thereafter picks up with one of his workers. Now, in general, I don’t have problems with that. And it appears at first that Clyde has genuine affections for Roberta, and it felt as if it weren’t for how his relatives would view this relationship, both because (a) she works under Clyde, which is expressly forbidden; and (b) she is clearly just a factory girl, and beneath the station to which Clyde aspires, I would guess that Roberta and Clyde would live happily ever after. But I have come to realize that with Dreiser, nobody lives happily ever after.
Everything is going ok with Clyde and Roberta, in general. But Clyde is a jerk, really. He pressures Roberta – who at heart really appears to be a good girl – into taking their relationship further than she wants, at least without a promise of marriage. And then he discovers Sondra Finchley. Sondra is of the Griffith’s upper crust, and meets Clyde at the one dinner his uncle invites him to. A few months later she sees him walking and picks him up in her car and drives him home. Sondra and some of her friends scheme to invite Clyde to some of their social functions, mostly to get at Gilbert, Clyde’s cousin, who is a jerk too. And of course, Clyde completely falls for Sondra and begins to neglect Roberta in a jerky way. He cancels dates at the last minute, or just doesn’t show up, and then lies about where he was, why he was there, and who he was with. Dreiser shows us Clyde’s inner thoughts about Roberta, which are essentially that she should be happy for him that he’s now got all these great friends and prospects, and who is she to have any claims over him.
Clyde – I really was “rooting” for you, here, but you keep screwing it up!
Roberta: Poor Roberta. She is perhaps a good match for Clyde – or would have been if he didn’t have his eye on being considered a “Griffith.” She perhaps would have been a good match if Clyde deserved anyone decent, which I’m not sure about. He pressures her into deeper relations, and while never actually promising to marry her, he hinted in such a way that Roberta obviously assumed that was what he meant. And he knew that is what she assumed, but let it go. I say that she appears to be a good girl, though sometimes I have paused about this, as Dreiser hints that she believes Clyde is more connected to the Griffiths than he actually is. How much of that belief was tied in with her feelings for him?
And now – Roberta is pregnant.
I know what is going to happen, vaguely – because I know the basic story on which Dreiser based this book. I know where this is going. My natural tendency would be to look up the details on wiki or some such site, but I don’t want to. For once, I am enjoying the suspense.