An American Tragedy By Theodore Dreiser Summary and Analysis Book I: Chapters 11-16

This section is atypical of Dreiser's usual representation of day-to-day reality. Chapter 13, for example, begins with a recapitulation of the Clyde-Hortense relationship and concludes with the Clyde-and-his-mother conundrum. These episodes have a common denominator: Clyde's money — Hortense wanting it for a coat, Mrs. Griffiths wanting it for Esta. Dreiser shifts Esta's story back to the time of Mrs. Griffiths' secret correspondence. Clyde's inability to inquire directly compels him to do some spying. The narration moves in large units of time. Clyde's several sightings of his mother provide Dreiser with several opportunities to describe shabby neighborhoods and to build suspense. This plot of coincidence and mystery finally brings Clyde to his sister's apartment. Deserted, pregnant, and unwed, Esta Griffiths prefigures Roberta Alden.

In contrast to this bleak world, Ratterer's household has no moral direction, dogma, or religious conviction. His values include dancing, card playing, and love-making. Unlike Clyde, Ratterer need not lie about such things to his mother. The freedom and social zest here parallel later events in Lycurgus: Louise Ratterer is late; at Samuel Griffiths' home, Gilbert Griffiths is late. Clyde meets Hortense Briggs; at his uncle's home, he meets Sondra Finchley. Here, night play compensates for day work; in Lycurgus, Clyde will compensate at night for his lonely, daily work. Here, the girls teach Clyde dance steps; later, he will teach Roberta. The narrator views the cottage party, which Clyde prefers to the theater, as one of the "ebullitions of the youthful mating season." The sensational dancing, flask-drinking, spooning, quarreling, embracing, and whisperings resemble the pre-brothel festivities. Because of peer pressure, Clyde drinks and, later, makes a date with Hortense. But knowledge of the human condition — of his mother's subterfuges and his sister's plight — brings pain.

Like many persons, Clyde harbors a feeling of superiority. Hegglund and Ratterer detect this and include Clyde in their activities. He is pleased when the folksy hotel guest comments on his uncommonness and when the prostitute comments on his refinement. At the restaurant, he compares himself favorably with the other bellhops. The girls interpret Clyde's shyness as superiority, and he considers even Hortense as a bit vulgar and coarse. But he translates his sense of superiority into terms which Hortense can understand: money. Unlike Ratterer and Hegglund, he would go without a girlfriend rather than date one who was not pretty. He doesn't have much money, but he is determined to "buy" the glamour that Hortense radiates; he will not compromise for less than the best now that he has seen the world of the Green-Davidson.

Clyde's mother tries to understand her son's personality change. She is glad of his new sense of assurance, yet she is worried about his companions' influence. Because of Clyde's past deprivations, she knows that it is tempting for him to be selfish with his money. But Mrs. Griffiths needs the money because of her deception. Granted, her deception is for humane reasons, but it is still deception of a sort and figures in the web of lies and deception which make up this novel. Note that Clyde extracts a pledge of secrecy from Esta, lying to her and, later, to his mother about the accidental nature of his discovery and about his inability to borrow money from his friends.

Once again, chance enters the scene: Clyde, hoping for sexual favors, spends money on Hortense; at the same time, his mother "just happens" to need extra money. And, "accidentally" observing his mother writing a letter (a rare thing), he also "happens" to see her in a boarding house neighborhood. By chance, his own errands make it impossible for him to follow her, until about a month later when he again sees her. This time she evades him by turning into an apartment building, but Clyde senses that this behavior has something to do with her writing the letter and her need for money. For the present, he arrives at no conclusion. A week later, however, he chances to see Esta, but he loses her in a crowd. Still later, he chances to see his mother again; thus he concludes that she is secretly seeing Esta.

Clyde's deep anxieties are due partly to his moral defiance and partly because of inherent characteristics. Degrading as Clyde's brothel adventure seems, its grossness afterward glows in his mind. Troubled by semi-public sexual gratification, he yearns for his own "pagan" girl. Feeling refined and superior, he also feels shy and uncertain; he is girl-shy and also girl-hungry. Desiring a girl as pretty as the appealing, but crude, Hortense, he feels "adrift upon a chartless sea in an open boat." As a look bewitched Esta, so a look bewitches Clyde. Forgetting Ratterer's warning, Clyde pleads his affection, flatters Hortense with uncalculated honesty, and is pathetically soothed and hypnotized by her lies.

The morality of Clyde's girlfriend is connoted by the name Hortense. A poor girl, she uses males for whatever pleasures or clothes she desires. For the love of Hortense, admirers have committed petty theft-just as for the love of Sondra, the frustrated Clyde will consider murder. Unlike Sondra, however, Hortense is crude and greedy; but like her, she is pretty and shallow. She primps and adores her reflection in mirrors and shop windows, and she employs her sensuous mouth and bright eyes coquettishly and melodramatically. Fickle, affecting indifference, she vamps Clyde to squeeze out rivals. She wavers between disliking and liking Clyde, seeing him as exceedingly gauche, yet attractively refined. Still proud, she submits only to men whom she desires or whom she can enslave. She is quick to let Clyde know, subtly, that she will submit sexually only after he buys her the beaver coat.

Hortense's sensuality overwhelms Clyde. He desires to possess her alone. He dreams of voluptuous contact with her smooth, rounded body. Her swimming eyes make him love-sick. Her languorous embraces whet his appetite. Clyde's sweet dream of sensuality seems more real, though, than its impending actuality. Hortense flickers before him as if on a movie screen. His dream girl presses against him, but always he awakens. His masochism is a foil for her sadism. As in a dream, she appears on their first date in the glow of arch-lights. Her eyes are like soft black velvet. Clyde's soul is indeed a battlefield. He is torn by lust and by his sympathy for Esta. When Clyde sees his sister and realizes that she is pregnant, deserted, and unmarried, he finally realizes the extent of his mother's shame. He understands her willingness to lie in order to protect Esta and the other children. He recalls the girl who was deserted in the hotel. And so, although drawn to Hortense, Clyde sees how readily she could desert him and his dreams. In fact, she chatters endlessly about "breaking" dates. Mrs. Griffiths, in her hour of need, asks Clyde if he will desert her. Like the girl in the Green-Davidson, Esta is left penniless and in a strange place. Unaware of the extent of his own infidelity, Clyde ironically thinks of his sister's deserter as a "dog."

Unifying foreshadowings and parallel situations abound in these chapters. The clandestine talk between Clyde and Hortense in the department store foreshadows such talk between Clyde and Roberta in the collar factory. As Ratterer dislikes Hortense, so Gilbert Griffiths dislikes Sondra. As Hortense lies to Clyde, so Clyde lies to Roberta. The correspondence between Mrs. Griffiths and Esta foreshadows the letters between Clyde and Roberta and, later, between Clyde and his mother.

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