Summary and Analysis
Book I: Chapters 6-10
These chapters concern sixteen-year-old Clyde's job as a bellboy at the Green-Davidson. For the first time in his life, he has money in his pockets; he can dress well and enjoy himself. Esta's elopement is a great blow to her parents, but, for the first time, life has become exciting for Clyde. More and more, his job provides luxuries. Then in a flashback section, Dreiser describes Clyde's nervous first days at the hotel, when he was making friends with the other bellboys and joining them in parties that included liquor and women. This section enables Dreiser to detail the interiors of the big hotel, the elaborate restaurant, and the ornate brothel.
As Clyde's parents are ignorant of hotel life, so is Clyde. Even a hotel guest tells Clyde that she'd permit no son of hers to work there. To stress further the "dangerous" influence on Clyde's temperament, the narrator inserts a short essay on the temptations inherent in Clyde's job. Clyde's enthusiasm for material things, as an example, is somewhat like the spiritual ecstasy of a religious convert. The gaudy hotel is Clyde's secular temple. His worshipping at the shrine of luxury contrasts sharply with his former life. He views the young people who are partying as though he were looking "through the gates of paradise." This earthly paradise fills Clyde's imagination. Rewards in this new world of music, lights, and luxury are here and now, not in some Christian hereafter. As an outsider, however, Clyde can only view the magic of this new world; he cannot penetrate its inner sanctum.
Note how often military terms are used to describe Clyde's work. He appears before his "immediate supervisor" and has his "new uniform" and "general appearance" approved before he is "inspected" and "marched" into the lobby to perform "service" while the "relieved squad" is "disbanded." Note too that the battlefield metaphors are interspersed with the sense of the hotel's being a boxing arena, each boy leaping into action at the sound of a bell. This is no accident; Dreiser is indeed concerned with battle — the battle within Clyde Griffiths. Clyde sees this striking panorama as an integrated world. Its organization, brisk activity, and rich atmosphere impress him; the wealth which Clyde sees seems as though it were from The Arabian Nights. Tritely put, however, "all that glitters is not gold"; this is Dreiser's point. He shows us that all that Clyde worships is nothing more than an illusion. Working in this changing, transient, anonymous environment, Clyde absorbs false values, and to universalize Clyde's yearning for wealth and women, Dreiser makes the other bellboys yearn for the same things. Their chatter is mostly about ball games, dances, automobiles, restaurants, and entertainment. They try to comprehend their economic condition: why should others enjoy luxury? They all want money, lots of it, yet they don't want to appear grasping and greedy. Hegglund tells Clyde that appearance is everything. Despite how a bellboy feels, he must "seem" polite and mechanical. Civilized disinterest must always mask commercial hypocrisy. Clyde flounders in this maze of deception. Too nervous to ask questions, he finds himself in a wrong corridor; later, "chilled" and yet, at the same time, entranced by a prostitute's bosom, he gulps his wine too fast.
Clyde encounters all of these new experiences with a divided heart. Though eager for pleasure, he fears consequences. He dreams of depraved delights, but his religious training makes him doubt and worry. There is always the promise of a great thrill, but there is always a decision as to the wisdom of it all, the permissibility of it. Clyde lies to his simple and trusting mother, foreshadowing his web of lies at the murder trial. With increasing sophistication, he hides his real wages, his hours of work, and his reasons for being able to buy expensive clothes. Dreiser's technique here shows Clyde's state of mind as a chain of pragmatic questions and answers; these build to a symmetry of alternating pros and cons. Finally, Clyde rationalizes in favor of freedom over restraint, adventure over precept, and pleasure over pain. Although he is nervous and shaky in the brothel, Clyde perseveres, fascinated by the gross flesh. Led upstairs by a young prostitute, he rationalizes that she is more refined than the others. (Her directness later contrasts with Hortense's moods and Roberta's inhibitions.)
Clyde's nervousness, in part, is due to his poor education. Because he has so little to draw on, he must solve each problem in isolation and often under pressure. Thus he relies on hunches and vague feelings, and while learning to solve the many new problems he faces, Clyde remembers Hegglund's advice and practices duplicity. Whether ignorant or knowledgeable, he learns to maintain a masklike solemnity.
Clyde's new clothes add to the luster of his new "reflected" glory. He previously felt a thrill of glory from the theater and the drugstore; now he absorbs the sense of money and glamour and glory from the Green-Davidson. The glory of things magically transforms him, making him feel glorious. And Hegglund likes Clyde because the young, naive boy makes Hegglund feel important and sophisticated. Note in the restaurant scene how the milieu of the Green-Davidson has affected the boys. They feel "older, wiser, more important — real men of the world." Ordering drinks amidst the shiny silverware and china, which reflect the lights of the restaurant, Hegglund feels himself a "person," a "master of ceremonies," and Arthur Kinsella is aware of his "present glory." Clyde and his comrades, however, are more like mirrors than lamps; they are mere reflections of a world of illusion, not the young playboys they imagine they are.
Clothes, in particular, impress Clyde and the bellboys. Clyde discerns what youthful clothes can do for an older hotel guest. Self-conscious in his bellboy hat and uniform, he worries that his hat (a foreshadowing) might fall off. He is fascinated by the smart young men and girls in fashionable coats and furs.
Clyde's new world is a combination of greed and charity, cruelty and kindness. Clyde learns about kickbacks, mutualism, and social cannibalism. Once in awhile he must tip the ice-water man and the headwaiter. In turn, the haberdasher tips Clyde for his patronage. The guest declares that the haberdasher is a robber, but that Clyde may keep the change. The agreeable Ratterer helps the innocent Clyde, as does Kinsella; Hegglund explains the process of mutualism. At the day's end, Clyde gives Squires a dollar. With respect to his unfamiliarity with drink and sex, Clyde is both joshed and protected. At the brothel, the clever prostitute exploits Clyde's sympathy for their respective desires.
Unable to perceive in hotel life the destruction foretold by his religious upbringing, Clyde accustoms himself to the "caloric atmosphere." Sex parades by in the form of flappers, rounders, faded beauties, and homosexuals. Clyde envisions himself with the rich, married blonde who has a string of lovers. Dreiser vividly pictures the brothel and its environs. Amidst gilt-framed nudes and semi-nudes and assorted mirrors and velvet-gowned girls, Clyde views the smoking, drinking, dancing, and petting. Although too nervous to dance, he is fascinated by the prostitutes' sensuality, and yet he is rather surprised that one in particular is unaggressive and "quite human." His lusty comrades, the prostitute's seeming refinement, and Clyde's innocence and sexual starvation — these are the forces which drive him to illicit intercourse.
Chance again plays a role in these chapters: Clyde feels "lucky" to get the job as a bellboy; his sense of good fortune is especially strong after his first day of anxiety. He hopes that, by chance, the rich blonde will "fall" for him. He feels lucky to have such good friends as his fellow bellboys. But the section ends ironically when the prostitute informs Clyde that she is in the brothel because of "bad luck."