An American Tragedy By Theodore Dreiser Summary and Analysis Book II: Chapters 1-11

This section depicts Clyde's early months in Lycurgus. He begins doing menial work in his uncle's shirt and collar factory. Accented by Gilbert Griffiths' pejorative opinions of his country cousin, Clyde's day-to-day reality unfolds. At a dull church social, Clyde falls in with three young pagans. Belatedly, the wealthy Griffiths family invites their poor relative to supper; that evening he fleetingly observes Sondra Finchley. Not long afterward Samuel Griffiths, disturbed by his nephew's toiling in the factory basement, orders Gilbert to give Clyde a better job. Clyde then deserts his trio of friends.

Chapters 1 and 2 of this section are set three years after the close of Book I and include descriptions of the grand Lycurgus home of Samuel Griffiths, a sharp contrast to the opening of Book I. We first see Clyde from the viewpoint of his uncle; returning from a business trip, he relates to his family his encounter with his nephew, a bellhop at the Union League Club in Chicago. Chapter 3 focuses on Clyde, flashing back to his flight from Kansas City, noting his odd jobs, the letters he writes to his mother, and his getting a job at the club. Chapter 4 details Clyde's meeting with his uncle and Samuel Griffiths' talk with Gilbert. Rather quickly, then, Clyde is settled in Lycurgus by the end of the chapter.

Underlying his new appearance in his new setting, however, are the laws of heredity and environment. Forced to make his own way after the Kansas City fiasco, Clyde realizes that his fortune depends on himself and his circumstances. Dreiser's naturalism spotlights the machine slave and the industrial basement. In this systematic jungle, we see Gilbert Griffiths (chemically chilling and bristling) awe an underling who, in turn, awes an underling; later, at home, Gilbert is awed by his sister's refusal to accept his estimate of Clyde. Yet their mother, comparing her nephew to her tough son, sees in Gilbert his father's force and her family's aggression. Some "atavistic spur," explains the narrator, accounts for ambition.

Equally deterministic is the interplay of chance and causation. Chance brings Clyde to the Union League Club, where Ratterer happens to be working. When Clyde is most anxious about his future, chance produces his rich uncle — a type of fairy godfather. By chance, Ratterer links this guest's name with Clyde's almost mythical uncle. In Lycurgus, Walter Dillard feels as lucky to meet Clyde as Clyde felt to meet his uncle in Chicago. Yet Clyde's anonymous position and his inability to fathom his uncle's intentions cause him to drift toward Rita Dickerman. When the Griffithses' tardy invitation arrives, Clyde chances to be involved with (but uncommitted to) his new friends. He feels lucky to be invited, but not to discover that he has such a sarcastic cousin. Planning a simple family affair, Clyde's aunt is irritated that Bella should arrive, by chance, with Bertine and Sondra. Finally, it is only during a chance tour of his factory that Samuel Griffiths scrutinizes his nephew in the shrinking room — and thus causes his immediate promotion.

Change is effected by the chemistry of charity as well as of hostility. Ratterer good-naturedly jockeys Clyde into situations where he can confront his rich uncle. Samuel Griffiths himself wonders if his father long ago treated Asa fairly; thus out of obligation if not restitution to Asa, Samuel Griffiths favors his nephew, but nepotism, he knows, is opposed to the law of necessity. Suspicious of Griffiths' nephew, the sweating laborers in the shrinking room grow jealous of Clyde's "class" and "connection."

Although Dreiser maintained the primacy of idea over method, as a writer he did find those techniques which best extended his naturalistic outlook. Latent in Dreiser's old-fashioned block descriptions of Myra and Bella is our sense of Clyde's being the third in a romantic triangle — but not, as it turns out, with his cousins. The tortured dialogue in Book I between Clyde and Esta about the vices of Kansas City contrasts brilliantly with the gossipy debate between Gilbert and Bella about the virtues of Twelfth Lake, and about Bella's many brother-sister friends. Their father, characteristically conservative, formulates his cautious attitude toward his nephew during the dinner ritual. His wife's carefully worded supper invitation (reproduced) creates within Clyde a chain of questions, with answers alternately positive and negative. When Clyde does come to supper, the author contrives that the Griffiths family — Elizabeth, Samuel, Myra, Gilbert, and Bella — greet him in a novelistically manageable way — that is, one at a time.

The author fuses idea and method by his interplay of philosophical materialism and artistic contrast. During Clyde's wandering around Lycurgus, the narrator describes the depot, the factory section, the business center, the slum area, and the residential preserves. Details of the Griffiths Collar Company abound, particularly the main office, the stamping room, and the shrinking room. In his portrayal of an insipid church social, Dreiser catalogs such names as "Micah Bumpus" and "Maximilian Pick." To Clyde, the stately Griffiths home is an earthly paradise, quite unlike the mission and boarding house atmosphere. Samuel Griffiths sees Clyde as a foil to his brother Asa at the age of twenty-one. Sondra and Bertine (foils to Rita and Zella) see Clyde as more malleable than his foil, the willful Gilbert.

The contrast between Clyde and the other characters and between opposing sensibilities in Clyde himself contributes greatly to the novel's acute irony. Guilt-ridden and self-pitying "Harry Tenet" insists in his letters to his mother that he "just went along," that he deserted the scene of the Kansas City car accident because he is legally blameless — the same reason Clyde offers (Book III) for deserting the scene of the boat accident. (Although Clyde technically did not tell Sparser to drive faster, he did remark: " . . . I wish we could hurry a little!") Though Clyde's cousin — not his uncle — regards him as a menial, Clyde discovers that it is as easy for a Griffiths to kiss a Rita in Lycurgus as it was difficult for a Griffiths to kiss a Hortense in Kansas City; this facile relationship negates his promise to his mother to avoid loose companions. The Griffithses' supper invitation saves Clyde from Rita, whom he finds as unchallenging as Sondra finds him. And finding the ragged shrinking room employee to be the same neatly dressed nephew who comes to supper, Samuel Griffiths (out of qualms and self-interest) promotes Clyde. Again, the promotion saves Clyde from Rita Dickerman — but not from Roberta Alden!

As in Book I, Dreiser takes considerable pains with his plot and characterization to prepare the reader for unusual events and behavior. If less dense than in Book I, foreshadowing in Book II is nevertheless notable. In this section, Gilbert's jealousy of Grant Cranston foreshadows his jealousy of Clyde. The jail-like factory reinforces Dreiser's "wall" imagery; but the purblind Clyde sees in the high walls only energy and material success, as he does in his uncle's walled garden, where cast-iron dogs pursue a cast-iron stag.

(The chase in Clyde's mind is mostly of pretty Lycurgus girls hurrying to and fro.) Significantly, several Lycurgus people nearly mistake Clyde for Gilbert, a device which readies us for Sondra's significant faux pas. Unwilling to risk failure in his uncle's employ, Clyde characteristically plays two ends against the middle by partially withdrawing from his pagan companions, who dance to "The Love Boat." Finally, Sondra Finchley (whose father owns the Finchley Electric Sweeper Company) produces an "electrical" effect on Clyde; this modifier and numerous other "electricity" images prepare us for Clyde's tragic end in the electric chair.

Clyde's ultimate nightmare grows out of his characteristic daydreams. Coming of age, he yearns to become "somebody"; he looks for idols. Samuel Griffiths is pleased by his nephew's idea of him — the hero of an American success story. Clyde even views his authoritative and efficient cousin as some sort of ideal. He realizes how much he looks like Gilbert — but is not Gilbert. Unfortunately, his expectations in Lycurgus exceed his role. When he gazes at his uncle's home and at the pretty girls in the streets, he falls into a mood of enchantment. Savoring his kinship with the Griffithses, he dreams of the future and, growing nostalgic, feels that he could manage even Hortense now. Unable to discern his aunt's supper invitation as simply a "duty," he further daydreams of the Griffithses' wonderful private lives. While Gilbert is jealous of his cousin's good looks, Clyde envies his cousin's power. After the evening with the Griffithses, Clyde daydreams of a love affair with a society girl like Sondra Finchley. Again, his promotion triggers daydreams; he sees himself as reserved, able, energetic.

Clyde's daydreams, however, have an element of pain. Even in Lycurgus, Clyde confronts experience (as he confronted his uncle in Chicago) with a divided heart. He aspires to Union League conservatism, yet regrets that, unlike the Green-Davidson, it is an "Eveless Paradise." Though his opportunity thrills him, his past haunts him. Disliking Gilbert, Clyde nevertheless tries to ingratiate himself to his cousin. Lonely and flattered, Clyde befriends three middle-class exhibitionist but wonders if this is not another of his mistakes. He grows to like Lycurgus, but he dislikes his job in the shrinking room and the kinds of people who stay at the boarding house. Dubious, he responds to Rita's "electron" body and debates with himself about continuing the alliance. He strives to overcome his anxiety at the Griffithses' supper. Gazing on Sondra, Clyde desires two contradictory things: to close his eyes completely and to stare at her constantly.

Although he broods outside the Lycurgus beau monde, Clyde senses very early that the other employees pay him homage simply because he is a Griffiths. He gains additional respect by exploiting their confusion as to his status. Since the shrinking room workers are below his station, Clyde is civil without pretending to adjust to their sub-bellhop mentality. Instinctively, he maintains a professional distance from Dillard, an attitude which increases the petty clerk's respect. Although pleased by his effect on the girls at the church social, Clyde holds himself as aloof as possible. He summons up enough courage at the supper to suggest to his uncle that he is destined for something better than the shrinking room. Until his promotion Clyde feels that his uncle has deserted him; yet Clyde himself deserts Dillard and the girls soon afterward.

In spite of his sense of superiority among his co-workers, Clyde's soul (like Analschar's in The Arabian Nights) is destined not to grow. In flatly saying, however, that the "brainless" Dillard lacks Clyde's "discrimination about the governing facts of life," the narrator contradicts his many efforts to convince us of Clyde's mental fuzziness and analytical impotence. Always Clyde blames his poor performance on his poor education. Gilbert's condescension confuses and frightens him. Among the Lycurgus Griffithses, he often feels that he is a "nobody," and amidst monied females, Clyde often feels inadequate.

Our sense of Clyde as an outsider is strong as he explores Lycurgus, bends to Gilbert's will, and gazes on the Griffiths' mansion. Almost like a trespasser he enters his uncle's iron gates and seats himself at a respectful distance from his aristocratic aunt; from afar, he envies Gilbert's airs. Understanding her son's resentment toward Clyde, Elizabeth Griffiths adroitly reinforces Clyde's role as a social outsider when she informs Bertine and Sondra that her husband's generosity alone brings his poor relative here. From Sondra, Clyde feels destined to win not even a glance.

Some form of inadequacy accounts for most of the pretense in this section. Anxious to impress his uncle, Clyde exaggerates, giving the impression that his father is in religious work and the hotel business. Clyde plays to his uncle's pride in himself. From the beginning, Gilbert deceives Clyde: he pretends that he alone decides his cousin's fate at the factory, for his aim is to make Clyde unimportant to his father, his family, and his personnel; since he fears to oppose his father's directives, Gilbert's tools are indifference, omission, and innuendo. Conversely, the sycophantic Dillard identifies with Clyde and garnishes his own petty history. Zella and Rita arrive at the church social "fashionably late" and with demure poise. Bertine Cranston, too, is affected and sly.

However extrinsic, names and clothes reflect a wide spectrum of value. Dillard and his relatives bask in the glory of Clyde's "left-handed connection" with one of Lycurgus' leading families. Proud of his name, status, and status symbols, Samuel Griffiths wishes that Clyde had more commercial acumen and energy, but his nephew's toiling in an undershirt, old trousers, and canvas shoes reflects no glory whatsoever on the name of Griffiths. This prince-and-the-pauper motif is apparent. On the one hand, Gilbert's clothes-his patterned gray office suit, motor coat, leather cap, and gauntlets — impress Clyde; on the other hand, Clyde's poorly cut suit, vulgar tie, and pink-striped shirt disgust Gilbert. But Clyde comes to supper in a tuxedo, patent leather shoes, and a white muffler. Unlike Zella's revelatory scarlet throat ribbon, garnet earrings, and tight black blouse, Sondra's tailored suit, travel coat, and leather accessories enchant Clyde.

To Clyde, Sondra Finchley is the brightest star in Lycurgus' sexual firmament. But his view of her is sacred rather than profane. Until he gazed on Sondra, that lesser sun goddess Rita Dickerman could melt him in her beams. Her furry voice and swaying body could intrigue and intoxicate him. But her rank availability simultaneously attracted and repulsed him. Upon receiving his promotion, Clyde resolves to curb his "abnormal" interests, especially since the factory girls are taboo, remote, and inconsequential.

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