Summary and Analysis
Book II: Chapters 34-47
This section details Clyde's desperation and Roberta's death. The narrative line moves relentlessly forward. Clyde journeys to an out-of-town drugstore, but the abortion for Roberta proves ineffective. He sends her to an out-of-town physician who turns down her pleas for an abortion. Happening upon the Alden farm one day, Clyde views marriage to Roberta as a dismal ending to all his bright dreams. Clyde declines Roberta's solution of a temporary marriage and hopes to elope at Twelfth Lake with Sondra. After reading a newspaper account of a double drowning, Clyde daydreams of Roberta's death. When she threatens to expose him, he consents to marry her at a lake resort, but plots to cause an "accidental" drowning. Ironically, the boat does capsize accidentally, but Clyde does not answer Roberta's call for help.
Though not seeing himself as a "determined" animal, Clyde yearns for moral freedom and the unencumbered life. Forced to overpay for ineffective pills, he in turn forces Roberta to visit the doctor without him. Necessity causes the emergence of latent shrewdness in Roberta and cunning in Clyde. Meanwhile, the chemistry of love is active between Clyde and Sondra. The narrator ambiguously comments that some people might view Clyde's appearance at the Alden farm as "determined" by an ironic or malicious fate. Rural poverty forces Clyde to discern his life as a pattern of unfulfilled promises, as a horrible series of social abortions. The aborted life theme culminates in the drowning of Roberta and her unborn child at the end of this section and in the execution of Clyde at the end of the next. Clyde's instinct here is to break his aborted career pattern.
In the world of causation and chance, Clyde's problem is to arrange an accident. From a Christian point of view, the devil and original sin possess Clyde; in spite of his scruples, murder forces its way into his mind. At times he seems almost deranged. Pathologically hovering between reason and unreason, he senses the usefulness of lonely Big Bittern. The newspaper item is like a malignant mental jewel, blinding him to alternatives in his drive to join the monied society of Lycurgus. His survival depends on Roberta's death. At Big Bittern, he senses that moment which he — or something — has planned to determine his fate. But his own will to live lashes out against death, murder, mutability. The sequence of events differs from the district attorney's later version. In chemic revulsion, he lashes out, striking Roberta's face with his camera — symbolic of his motion picture dream world. She screams, the boat lurches, and as Clyde apologetically strives to assist her, the left wale of the capsizing boat strikes Roberta's head. She comes up once, stares at Clyde, and screams his name for help.
The death-crying weir-weir and the other birds which Clyde sees and hears in this section ironically underscore Clyde's futile struggle to capture his sweet tennis-playing Sondra, "poised bird-like in flight." Two natural settings symbolize an invitation to death — drought at the Alden farm and drowning at Big Bittern. Impending death by water reverberates not only in Clyde's lakeside photographs of Roberta, but in his damp hands and liquid eyes. But perhaps most metaphorical of all is Dreiser's description of Clyde's thoughts, linking them first to an Arabian Nights genie and then, in tortured rhetoric, to a sealed and silent hall wherein Clyde contemplates the ambiguity of good and evil. Dreiser's clipped, italicized, parenthetical external data impinging on Clyde's mind as he gazes out of the train window represents Clyde's believed thoughts and varies Clyde's extensive plottings. Information withheld in this tense section comes to the reader in condensed flashbacks: Clyde's hasty telephone declarations to Roberta make sense only after we see him pondering his earlier drive with friends to Big Bittern and the guide's conversation; and on the train to Utica, Clyde recalls how (after his telephone talk with Roberta) he secured tourist folders at the Lycurgus House. While Clyde plots Roberta's death, the ironic narrator reveals Roberta's simultaneous rejuvenescence.
Photographic realism appears in Dreiser's character sketches, epistles and reportage. The thumbnail sketches include a city druggist, a country doctor, an upstate farmer, and a forest guide. Through their letters to Clyde, Dreiser reveals the essential Sondra and Roberta. Sondra's letters are affected and hallow while Roberta's are plain and probing. The misery and defeat of Roberta's letters turn Clyde to the ease and gayety of Sondra's. Thereafter, Roberta's letters become even more urgent, terminating in her shrill threat of exposure. Central to Clyde's machinations is the extended Albany Times-Union account of the double drowning in Massachusetts.
Like the journalist that he was, Dreiser notes the unexpected, the shocking contrary. When Clyde procures an abortion for Roberta, her relief is great, for she "almost" prefers death to disgrace. With Roberta's problem seemingly solved, Clyde sees before him a "glorious denouement." Again frustrated, he tells Orrin Short that the factory worker seeking an abortionist is poor, timid, and stupid. Unknowingly, the hypocritical doctor, as it were, decrees Roberta's doom by declaring that he cannot destroy embryonic life. Like the iron stag in his uncle's garden, Clyde now feels like "a harried animal, pursued by hunter and hound." While their mothers show anxiety, both Sondra and Roberta scheme to marry Clyde. Sondra's baby talk has an "almost electric if sweetly tormenting effect" on Clyde. As if subconsciously making his declaration of independence from Roberta, Clyde plots murder for the Fourth of July weekend but then decides not to think of murder anymore. Sondra informs Clyde that she never will give him up, and her brother Stuart remarks on the car trip to Big Bittern that "the country up here kills me." Contemplating murder, Clyde asks himself: "Who would see? Who would hear?" — ironic statements when we consider the mission house motto: ". . . MY SINS ARE NOT HID FROM THEE."
As always, Dreiser's foreshadowing forges irony and narrative momentum. Roberta fears that the aborticide is innocuous. Separate journeys to the abortionist foreshadow separate journeys to the lakes. Whether intentional or not, there is verbal irony and foreshadowing in the doctor's reply to Roberta's lie that her husband is a poor electrician: "At least all electricians charge enough." Roberta's plea for abortion and the doctor's plea for preservation point to the question of capital punishment in Book III. The pines that "sentinel" Twelfth Lake foreshadow Big Bittern. An index to the theme of pursuit, two wolfhounds lie on the Cranston grass. The automobile ride to Big Bittern prefigures Clyde's taking Roberta there. And in daydreaming of murder, Clyde also has a nightmarish vision of electrocution.
In fact, more and more Clyde's dreams turn to nightmares. Realizing the frailty of dreams, he tantalizes himself with the idea of ruin. Though Roberta's plan of secret marriage is sound, Clyde fears exposure. Clyde dismisses as melodramatic his movie dream of a mock marriage to Roberta, but not his vision of a glowing marriage to Sondra and of his position in the Finchley Electric Sweeper Company. Roberta hopes that after their baby is born, Clyde will love her again; Clyde hopes that at Twelfth Lake he and Sondra can elope. Avoiding the "black cloud" of Roberta, he pursues his "golden dream" of Sondra. Clyde fears losing Sondra in a boat accident; but the likelihood, he thinks, of losing Roberta that way is greater. But to dream of this is like "committing a crime in his heart." Dantesque nightmares plague him: a biting black dog, a gloomy place of snakes, and a great horned beast. Clyde finds Twelfth Lake to be a paradise, but he awakens to the reality of Roberta. Of the similarity between his nightmares and the frogs, snakes, and slime of Big Bittern, Clyde is unconscious. Almost "nebulously," Roberta steps into an "insubstantial" rowboat on an "ideational" lake. Real world and dream world fuse. In a "crystal ball" of lake, Clyde sees Roberta drowning. His soul seems to fly away and a bird cry wakes him to reality.
In the opening of this section, Roberta's condition temporarily shocks Clyde into reality, but failure soon drowns his renewed sense of superiority. In obtaining the aborticide, both Clyde and Roberta are impressed with his luck and efficiency. But in developing his vein of hardness, he threatens Roberta with desertion should she expose him. He rationalizes his superiority: her demands are harsh and she also deserves blame for their intimacy. The narrator explains that Clyde is an "illusion of the enormous handicaps imposed by ignorance, youth, poverty, and fear." For his liaison with Roberta, Clyde blames his folly, weakness, and loneliness. He considers deserting but hates the misery of drifting. Wretched and insufficient, he is assailed by problems too complex and too forceful. In a state of mental turbulence, he rents a boat. His will and courage fly, leaving befuddlement and panic. In the end, he sees his "silly plotting" as "pointless planning."
But until this time, social diversions offer Clyde respite from his grasping at straws. His infatuation with Sondra diffuses his concern for Roberta. Into the jaws of his nightmare, he pursues his dream of Sondra. He rationalizes that Esta survived, that he could help Roberta financially after he marries Sondra, that Roberta's death would save her from her own terror, and that Sondra would be saved from heartache. Although the idea horrifies him, Clyde yearns for an accident. His mind torn and his emotions riotous, his remorse for Roberta is always temporary. He tries to balance the possibility of capital punishment against the loss of Sondra. Subtly overriding all objections, Clyde's dark genie whispers of the way that Clyde must go. Yet on the train and on the bus, Clyde is still divided. On the "death pool," he feels sympathetic hands on his shoulders, but after his vision of Roberta in the pool, his courage again deserts him. His face reflects fear and desire, the compulsion to do and not to do — to reach out and save her and not to reach out and to let her drown. The contradiction resolves itself as Clyde listens to the authoritative voice declaring that she cannot save herself, that she might drown him, that he should rest a moment. As he swims to shore, Clyde thanks God that he did not kill Roberta — but on shore he begins to doubt.
In life's storms, Dreiser's frazzled characters throw overboard their moral charts and compasses. Lying to the Starks that he must write a report, Clyde misrepresents himself to the bilking Schenectady druggist as married. For Orrin Short, Clyde fabricates a "troubled" factory worker. Clyde gulls Roberta into believing that the doctor is not young — true, as it turns out — and then insists that she delude the doctor into believing that she is alone, betrayed, penniless. But too proud to tell the doctor that she is deserted, Roberta lies that she is married and poor. When the doctor sees through the deception of "Ruth and Gifford Howard," Roberta then lies that she is single and deserted. Clyde must deceive Sondra in order to accompany Roberta to the doctor a second time, but Roberta discerns that Clyde's habitual excuses are bogus. To marry Roberta now and move to Denver would expose many of his past lies about himself. To gain time, Clyde tells Roberta that he cannot marry her now, that he first must find another job; in turn, Roberta admits to having saved over a hundred dollars. At Twelfth Lake, Sondra pretends that she is unaware of Clyde's arrival, though her mother is suspicious. He further fibs to Sondra about his delay in returning to Twelfth Lake. On their cloak-and-dagger journey to the lakes, Clyde's prevarications are varied and many, but he doubts if he really can accomplish a drowning.
Roberta's lying to the doctor about her sham desertion, Clyde believes, will gain sympathy, protect his name, and cost him less; Roberta believes that Clyde might abandon her. Upon seeing the dismal Alden farm, Clyde considers leaving immediately. Receiving no replies to her letters, Roberta fears that Clyde indeed has left her. Clyde feels more and more that circumstances will force him to forsake everybody and everything. Again he thinks of flight as he plots the murder, but the accident occurs after his courage has failed him. On shore, the delinquent Clyde knows that he refused to rescue Roberta, that he destroyed her by the simple act of desertion. Ironically, Clyde's new straw hat (with the lining ripped out) and Roberta's hat (with the lining intact) reappear at Clyde's trial (Book III) to haunt him.