An American Tragedy By Theodore Dreiser Summary and Analysis Book III: Chapters 1-9

This section deals with Clyde's flight and capture. The coroner of Cataraqui County receives the "facts" of a double drowning. After Roberta's bruised body is retrieved, the coroner and the district attorney discuss the political advantages of the latter's solving a "murder." As lawmen prepare to track down Clyde after Roberta's letters are discovered in his room, a flashback records Clyde's making his way to the Cranston's lodge and doubting that Roberta's drowning will appear accidental. As Clyde lingers on the beach, the suspenseful chase plot concludes. Fearing exposure before his friends, Clyde confesses to the accident but informs his story with falsehoods.

Suspicions early coalesce into the certainty of foul play. The casual chain begins with Roberta's bruised face and her unmailed letter to her mother. People wonder about the "wife's" body — so light, so bruised-and no "husband's" body or bag left at the inn. Furthermore, "Carl Graham" and "Clifford Golden" appear to be one and the same person. Because of his "psychic sex scar," District Attorney Mason, brooding on the false registrations and on Roberta's beauty, suspects pregnancy and thus orders an autopsy. Mason vows to find the murderer. When Mason suggests to Titus Alden that his daughter might be the victim of wrongdoing and violence, the father's animal instincts, his curiosity, resentment, and love of the chase are aroused. Quoting biblical scripture, Titus pauses in the doorway, "a man expressing in himself all the pathos of helpless humanity in the face of the relentless and inexplicable and indifferent forces of life!" Because of his own early buffetings by chance and by established wealth, Mason clings to his version of the murder: the contempt of a rich and sophisticated youth for a poor farm girl. And thinking of Clyde Griffiths' telephone pseudonym ("Mr. Baker"), Mason realizes the similarity of "Clifford Golden," "Carl Graham," and "Clyde Griffiths." Circumstances point to Clyde Griffiths as being the murderer of Roberta Alden.

The details in Dreiser's protracted causal chain create suspense. Seen by the reader for the first time in Chapter 6 of this section, Clyde seems (during and following his hike and arrival at the Cranston's lodge) mentally deranged. Through surrealistic narration, past events in Clyde's early nightmares and fearful visions mingle with current ones and foreshadow others, including his arrest. Not he — but "something"-killed Roberta for him. The focus shifts back and forth between Clyde and his pursuers, until unable to run and unable to stay, he lingers and succumbs to the lawmen.

Out of the panorama of tragedy grow many splendid, even comic-relief ironies. For example, Coroner Heit instructs Earl Newcomb to telephone his wife — he might be late; in turn, New-comb asks Zillah Saunders to telephone his mother — for the same reason. Like Clyde, Mason is looking for a solution to the problem of his future. As the young people sought Titus for directions, so Titus thinks that Mason comes for the same reason. It is highly ironic, of course, that Mason should consider Clyde to be one of the idle rich. Under the peaceful awnings of the comfortable Cranston lodge, Clyde finds little peace or comfort. In the launch to the Casino Golf Club, Sondra dares to stand while the driver deliberately ricochets the boat. Dreiser's omniscient point of view provides us with information inaccessible to Clyde or Mason. Unlike agents of the law, the reader is privy to Clyde's world; unlike Clyde, the reader is privy to the actions of the law. Thus the reader has a great intellectual advantage as he watches Clyde flounder into Mason's trap. This distance enhances Dreiser's trenchant ironic effects — just as irony magnifies the pathos inherent in Mason's thinking that Roberta was seduced, then viciously murdered by Clyde.

In fact, there is no end to emotional projections. At the rambling Cranston lodge, amid the bright lakes, Clyde spends his time alternately dreaming of delight and hope and frightened by shadows and unknown terror. Sondra envisions their romantic opportunities during the impending camping trip — "and once more like a bright-colored bird she was gone." The bright flotilla of canoes on Bear Lake is a manifestation of the floral parade (Sondra represented a Mohawk Indian legend); the trip also is a manifestation of the Wigwam (where Clyde's Kansas City friends once sought a bright dream). Even Third Deputy Swink has a daydream — to arrest Clyde.

The projection of self-interest springs from man's dual nature. Titus is torn between his grief for his daughter and his desire for revenge. Mason is torn between commiseration for the Aldens and political profit for himself. Clyde's near derangement is an outgrowth of his confusion as to his guilt or innocence. He believes that he did experience a last-minute change of heart, but he does not place that moment in the water; conveniently, he places it in the boat — before the accident. He uses public incredulity and fear of losing Sondra as rationalizations for his crime-fleeing instinct. Whatever peace of mind he attains through this mental block, he contrarily thinks that had he been calm and civil to the hunters, they could not suspect him for "the murderer that he was." He is torn between remaining at the Harriets' with Sondra and returning to the Cranston's lodge; between waiting for news of the drowning and going on the camping trip; and between staying in the lake region and running away. At Shelter Beach, his instinct is to bolt — yet because of his love for Sondra, he lingers and is captured.

In seeking a confession upon arrest, Mason tells Clyde that only a "sort of fool" would be blind to the overwhelming evidence against him. So bumbling is Clyde that even Mason wonders if such a cold-hearted murderer would forget his gift card in the victim's bag. After his capture, Clyde realizes that leaving the woods so early was a mistake. Too late, he worries about his footprints and other clues. Wincing and chilled, he leans away from Mason. Too late, he knows that he should have destroyed Roberta's and Sondra's letters. Thus weighs the evidence on this "inadequate Atlas."

Inadequate Clyde is a deceiver in a world of deceivers. Although disturbed by Roberta's misidentification at two inns, the coroner conceals the letter to her mother and the contents of her bag until he sees Mason. Titus is flabbergasted to learn of Roberta's "secret" marriage. Titus considers Clyde to be a city seducer and betrayer, a raper who promised marriage and plotted this terrible crime. Mason reads the letters in Clyde's trunk and discerns the triangle: with a secretly betrayed girl in the background, Clyde Griffiths was ingratiating himself with a girl of a higher social position. On his devious way south from Big Bittern, Clyde follows people from the launch to the train, but slips into a lunchroom with other train passengers. Though troubled by his mistakes, Clyde puts on a genial face at the Cranston's lodge, at the casino, and at the Harriets'. He deceives Sondra into returning to the lodge early so that he can sink his suit into Twelfth Lake. On Bear Lake, Clyde wears false smiles, and at Ramshorn (where Sondra explains how she has hoodwinked her mother), Clyde evades the truth of Deputy Kraut's questions by outright denials; under Mason's threat of exposure, he nervously distorts the truth.

If clothes do not always reflect a lie, their value is at least relative. Inspecting a mail-order catalog, Coroner Heit wonders how, on his salary, he can buy winter garments for his five children and a fur coat for his wife. Rather than a reflection of glory, clothes to the rumpled Heit are a necessity; his economic condition compels him to weigh the whole political situation: a strong political victory for his friend Mason will reflect on the party and on him. In terms of erotic symbolism, the contrast between innocence and experience is reflected in Sondra's green knitted sports outfit and Roberta's new red silk garters, found in her bag. And to the night hunters, Clyde's city clothes reflect poorly on his integrity; unable to face his friends, Clyde tells the arresting officers that, ironically, his clothes back in camp no longer matter.

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At the end of the novel, Elvira (Clyde's mother) give her grandson a dime for ice cream because she




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