Summary and Analysis
Book II: Chapters 12-22
This section details Clyde's love affair with Roberta Alden. Resolving to make good as a supervisor, Clyde nevertheless is attracted to a newly hired girl. After accidentally meeting at a lake one Sunday, the two conspire to meet again. In time, his desire and persuasion win over her desire and scruples; they meet secretly in her room.
Like Clyde, the other workers are (according to Dreiser) in the grip of a mechanistic universe. In spite of Clyde's elevated status, sexual chemistry and physical beauty inflame him. Sensual employees and summer afternoons arouse his dream life and disturb his managerial equanimity. Roberta Alden is more charming (yet no less vigorous) than the foreign-born temptresses, and like Clyde, she is sexually stirred. Though tolerant of foreign mores, Roberta herself is controlled by her situation, shyness, religion, and morality; in time, however, her sexual chemistry compels her — by chance — to abandon herself to Clyde.
Chance and causality interplay in other ways. Economic need first forces Roberta to work in a factory. Its closing forces her to find work in Lycurgus. The Griffithses' busy summertime social life excludes Clyde and so he turns to Roberta. Her improbable appearance on the shore of Crum Lake at the moment Clyde is daydreaming about her — and she about him — is salvaged from obvious contrivance by their expressed joy in this magical coincidence; but less artful is the expedient manifestation of the boarding house electrician who offers Roberta and Grace a ride back to town. Dreiser strongly causes his lovers to meet secretly in Roberta's room through the realism of fall weather, the Griffithses' remoteness, and mutual lust.
In spite of Dreiser's documentary method of literary realism, he sometimes impregnates several details with symbolic imagery and develops his story through patterns of association. Besides detailing manufacturing processes, efficiency practices, industrial sensuality, rural poverty, a floral parade, and an excruciating battle between the sexes, Dreiser in one scene simply shows Clyde waiting for Roberta against a backdrop of phallic corn; Dreiser suggests rather than shows sexual abandon, thus reducing possible reader shock and alienation. But Dreiser's more complex treatment of Starlight Park is symbolic of mechanistic determinism: people on a grinding merry-go-round, people captive in swinging aeroplanes, people suspended in Ferris wheel cages; below are people in boats, and on shore is a caged bear. The opening of Chapter 16 varies chronological sequence by flashing back (from Roberta's point of view) to events following her canoe ride with Clyde; similarly, Chapter 18 flashes back to the evening after the ride and renders Roberta's reactions to Grace Marr's inquisitiveness.
"Plantings" in this section foreshadow Roberta's drowning: Sondra in a floral parade canoe, Clyde and Roberta in the Crum Lake canoe, Roberta's inability to boat or swim, and the boating incident at Starlight Park.
Dramatic irony surfaces in several places. As Gilbert interviewed Clyde, here Clyde interviews Roberta. Polish Mary's dilemma — to love or lose — parallels Hortense's earlier problem and Roberta's approaching one. At Crum Lake, Clyde reassures Roberta that the canoe is safe, almost as ironic as his remark that on seeing her he "almost fell out of the boat." As sundry girls taught Clyde to dance, in this section he teaches Roberta. After kissing her, Clyde feels that life has given him everything, but when he dances with her later, Sondra is on his mind. That Roberta envisions Clyde's parents as less strict than hers is ironic, as is her conviction that once she yields to Clyde they will never again quarrel.
Aesthetic tension as well as irony rises out of several noteworthy contrasts. We first see Clyde alone on Crum Lake, very much apart from merry couples in other boats. Roberta's boarding house compares unfavorably with the homes of the wealthy, but both at first are beyond Clyde's reach. Compared to the calculating Hortense and the indiscriminate Rita, Roberta is pleasing, but Clyde wonders if she will become like Hortense, wily and evasive. Unlike the Newtons', the Gilpins' boarding house standards are relaxed. By the end of this section, the day-night contrast is pronounced — routine and craving in the factory as opposed to amour and fulfillment in Roberta's room. Clyde realizes his dream of sexual conquest.
Let us examine the pattern of dreams in this section. As head of a department, Clyde visualizes a sense of the whole factory. Alone on Crum Lake, he daydreams of resorts, dancing, racing, and boating with Sondra Finchley, but then he falls to daydreaming about Miss Alden, someone he would never marry but someone physically closer to him now than Miss Finchley. Still an outsider, he senses the height of his ambition and the depth of his sensuality. As if still dreaming, he sees Roberta at Crum Lake. As Sondra floated past Clyde in her floral canoe, so here Clyde floats toward Roberta. Like Clyde, she dreams of a better life — training, freedom, fun. To Roberta, Clyde moves from his superior world into her humdrum world and makes her unlighted room into a paradise; after his sexual exhaustion, however, the fickle Clyde imagines Sondra and her society.
Both Clyde and Roberta have divided minds and mixed emotions. At the floral parade, Clyde is deliciously pained. At Crum Lake, his pageant of the bleeding heart is overwhelmed by loneliness. Roberta fears and desires to join Clyde in the canoe. Later she feels her clandestine meetings with Clyde are disgraceful, but precious. Recalling his sad experiences with Hortense, Clyde decisively shuns Roberta until she surrenders. Suffering from a paralysis of opposing forces, she finally consents to their intrigue and is daily pained for her nightly pleasure. At this point, Clyde is above pain and still riding on the crest of his pleasurable sense of superiority. Seeing himself as a figure of some consequence, Clyde early displays indifference to the factory temptresses, especially the heavy and the unintelligent; but he wonders perhaps if Roberta has more potential than merely doing factory work. Forced to work in a factory when she was young, Roberta has always been thought of as a "factory type" — and has thus become conditioned to her station — far below the nephew of Samuel Griffiths. Bending Roberta to his will, Clyde persuades her to meet, to kiss, to dance, and to let him into her room. After his conquest, Clyde regards himself in the mirror as a Don Juan or Lothario, a lover well above the station of his mistress.
Like Clyde, Roberta became convinced early in life that family poverty discourages attractive lovers. She respects the taboo that factory girls should show no romantic interest in supervisors. Since even the churchly are standoffish to Roberta and Grace, the girls find no diversion or entertainment in Lycurgus. So high does Roberta hold Clyde that she fears her interest in him is not legitimate. Clyde's eagerness for secret liaisons reduces Roberta to a backstairs mistress whom he could desert at any time.
The theme of desertion is important here. Having marooned Clyde in a small official position, the Griffithses proceed to dismiss him. In turn, Clyde moves to a better boarding house and drops Dillard and the girls. He learns that the factory system hires workers and then fires them (or those less efficient) just as freely. Because of Clyde, Roberta bolts from her friendship with Grace Marr. Although Clyde never suggests marriage, Roberta feels secure that he never will forsake her.
But the reader knows more of Clyde's desertions and deceptions than does Roberta, who is herself (like most of Dreiser's characters) capable of "wrongdoing." For example, Clyde attends church for social rather than religious reasons. In and out of the factory, he schemes with Roberta. To meet Clyde secretly, Roberta lies to the Newtons and to Grace. Her route to trysting places is circuitous. Caught in one lie, Roberta moves from the Newtons to the Gilpins. Clyde is well aware that his intentions toward Roberta are not honorable. To make Roberta jealous, he flirts with other girls in the stamping room. Finally, on his "left-handed honeymoon" Clyde is conscious of his seduction of the innocent and of his spiritual betrayal.
Here again, clothes symbolize victory and defeat. Sondra's Indian parade outfit captures Clyde's romantic fancy. In spite of Roberta's old brown hat, commonplace suit, and sensible shoes, Clyde discerns Roberta's sweetness but fancies how much sweeter she would look in smart clothes. At the factory, one of the foreign girls, Ruza, admires Clyde's polished shoes and bright buckle, and at Crum Lake, Roberta admires his pale blue shirt open at the neck; the sartorial details which Ruza notices reflect Clyde's past Kansas City glitter, while those which Roberta notices are symbolic of Clyde's future — his electrocution in a shirt "open at the neck."