Summary and Analysis
Book II: Chapters 23-33
This section focuses on Clyde's love for Sondra and his disenchantment with Roberta. After accidentally meeting Clyde one evening, Sondra is so charmed by his attention and so annoyed by Gilbert's indifference that she arranges for Clyde to be invited into her social circle. Much to Gilbert's disgust, his cousin's growing popularity forces the Griffithses to receive him socially. Roberta spends part of the Christmas holidays on her family's drab farm, while Clyde anxiously awaits participating in the activities of the wealthy. Breaking engagements with Roberta, the enamored Clyde dreams of marrying Sondra and of gaining wealth and position. Roberta then discovers that she is pregnant.
As causation and chance determine Roberta's pregnancy, so these forces shape other lines of action. The narrator's reference early in this section to a happening destined to bring about an unforeseen chain of events is Sondra's mistaking Clyde for his cousin. Social invitations follow, and conscious of public relations, the Griffithses are forced to treat Clyde like they do their friends. Gilbert sees Sondra as the instigator. To Clyde, however, her "actinic rays" are powerful; Sondra herself cannot fully understand why she is so attracted to Clyde. Meanwhile, the frustrated Roberta wishes that she'd had "a chance like some girls."
Dreiser delineates at length those events bringing Clyde into Sondra's circle. Featured are such things as conformity, rumor, and revenge. Again, in the mass of detail we detect symbolism. Symbolism appears in Dreiser's bird and sun imagery. At the Trumbull party, one young socialite looks down on Clyde "as a spring rooster might look down on a sparrow." But Sondra is Clyde's sweet bird of happiness; at the party Miss Finchley is indeed finch-like, "tripping here and there in a filmy chiffon dance frock shaded from palest yellow to deepest orange." And as a sun goddess, her temperament requires the free flow of Clyde's adulation. Meanwhile, Roberta's mood in Biltz is suggested in a bleak scene of gray twigs, rustling leaf, and wrecked outbuildings. The opening of Chapter 30 balances our antipathy for Clyde against our sympathy for him. The scene in which Roberta waits for Clyde flashes to one when Gilbert is angered to see Clyde's name in the society news. Dreiser reproduces four key documents in this section: the invitation to Jill Trumbull's dance (with Sondra's notation to Clyde); Clyde's note of excuse to Roberta; the Lycurgus Star item concerning Vanda Steele's party and the upcoming New Year's Eve party in Schenectady; and Roberta's hysterical note to Clyde after she discovers that she is pregnant.
Dreiser's parallels and contrasts are lucid. Sondra sees Clyde as Gilbert's direct opposite. The narrator sees Sondra as a refined Hortense Briggs. Clyde sees Sondra as superior to Roberta, but Roberta as superior to Bertine Cranston. Clyde's party going reads like passages from an Ivy League novel of manners, while Roberta's homecoming sounds like a chapter from a gloomy Midwestern farm novel. The land-bound Titus Alden, like the city-bound Asa Griffiths, is a portrait of failure. And like Clyde's sister, his bewildered mistress fears that she might burden (or even destroy) her family.
Throughout this massive novel, devastating irony duplicates life's complex patterns. It is not the Griffithses but their friends who first recognize Clyde socially. Sondra's appeal to Clyde to enter her automobile echoes Clyde's appeal to Roberta to enter his Crum Lake canoe. Both Roberta and Clyde fabricate excuses — she to be with him and he to be with Sondra. Certain details implement important later events: while dancing together at the New Year's Eve party, Clyde and Sondra discuss swimming; at the party, two young men indicate that they work for General Electric Company; and Gilbert surmises that some calamity will befall "one or another of the bunch." And it is only when Clyde and Roberta regard the end of their affair that Roberta discovers that the life in her womb has trapped her.
This section also intensifies our awareness of Clyde's daydreams. On one of his night strolls past opulent homes, he stands vigil before the Finchley residence and projects an Arabian Nights type of yearning. After meeting Sondra again, he dreams of his impending rise. As a reality, Roberta pales; as a dream, Sondra pulls. Sondra is princess to his commoner. Guided by Sondra in this Christmas card world, he feels transported to Paradise. He desires to fondle her as one fondles a perfect object, or as a devotee gazes into the eyes of a saint.
Clyde's yearning does not really puzzle others, but his divided nature does. Below the surface of Clyde's social success runs a deep current of self-distrust. He is unable to interpret his relatives' taciturnity as a sign of irritation or pleasure. Eager and mournful, he puzzles Sondra, who is cautious, dubious, and swayed. Although Clyde wants to break with Roberta, he is too weak and unresourceful. He rationalizes. Torn between social passion for Sondra and sexual passion for Roberta, he is lured by one but returns to the other. Sondra herself has mixed feelings about Clyde's apologetic impetuosity. But in the face of Sondra's diplomatic encouragement, he resents Roberta and justifies his dereliction more and more.
Clyde's lofty opinion of himself is colored by his becoming part of the Lycurgus social scene. Feeling above the commonplace world, he looks in mirrors and slyly enjoys his revenge on Gilbert. He marvels that with so many men surrounding Sondra that she prefers him. He is blind to the real reason why the Griffiths family invites him to Christmas dinner. Sondra lifts him upward while Roberta holds him down, but he smugly tells Roberta one evening that he likes Sondra Finchley only "some."
While showing Clyde's temporary run of social luck, the narrator insists on his protagonist's essential deficiency. Disposed to concern itself with immediate cares, Clyde's temperament is "as fluid and unstable as water." Among the elite he often feels ineffective, doubtful, uneducated. If Sondra Finchley seems at times beyond his grasp, Bertine Cranston seems beyond his comprehension. When Roberta discloses her pregnancy, Clyde feels most inept.
Not Clyde's spiritual poverty, but his material poverty, compels urbane society to decree that Clyde is socially but not matrimonially eligible. Because her love for Clyde overreaches her moral training, Roberta practices duplicity. If caught, she plans to explain that Clyde is a relative and then move on to another boarding house. Similarly, Sondra popularizes Clyde through her friends. Likewise, Clyde conceals Sondra's invitation from Roberta, and should anyone at the Trumbull party ask about his educational background, Clyde is ready to answer that he studied mathematics at the University of Kansas. Misinforming Gertrude Trumbull that he has no girlfriend, he also misinforms her sister Jill that his father manages a Denver hotel and that his uncle proposed his career in Lycurgus. To reach Sondra, Clyde bluffs that he has taken up tennis. Later, to attend the Steele party, Clyde uses his uncle as an excuse to Roberta. Sondra and Clyde agree to camouflage from others their vibrant mutual attraction. Contrarily, Clyde tries to hide from Roberta his indifference to her; she senses, however, his hypocrisy in regard to her pen-and-pencil gift. In turn, Roberta cloaks her claims on Clyde, but confides, in part, to her mother. Later, Roberta challenges Clyde's story about the Steele party, and Clyde covers one lie with another. In short, he conceals Sondra from Roberta and Roberta from Sondra. Roberta's pregnancy he first views as a lovelorn stratagem.
No longer can Clyde feel lustrous in Roberta's sight; only Sondra's radiance can reflect glory on him. In turn, Sondra feels regal in the adulation of Gilbert's handsome look-alike; Clyde's naive confession that he searches for her name in the society news captivates her. Ironically, Clyde impresses Sondra's friends less than the fact that she is impressed. But to Samuel Griffiths, the hospitality her circle extends to Clyde reflects well on the Griffiths name.
Clothes continue to reflect roles. As a man-about-town, Clyde makes new purchases. Gertrude Trumbull notes that Clyde sometimes wears a cap and belted coat similar to Gilbert's. To the Trumbull party, Clyde wears a collapsible silk hat and white muffler. There Clyde learns of his cousin's notion that cheap collars have a redeeming social value. The narrator later attributes Sondra's activities to the opportunity it affords for frequent changes of costume. To fascinate Clyde, Sondra comes to the Steele party in a red Spanish shawl.
Initially, Sondra thinks that if her interest in Clyde doesn't succeed, she can drop him without harm to herself. Both she and Clyde break other engagements to attend the Steele party. Gradually Roberta wonders what Clyde's little desertions portend. In Biltz, she herself considers leaving her family before Christmas for fear that Clyde will abandon her for his society friends. When Clyde meets Roberta late Christmas night, she feels already betrayed.