Saturday, April 14, 2012

An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy (Signet Classics)

The ambitious but immature Clyde Griffiths, raised by poor and devoutly religious parents who force him to participate in their street missionary work, is anxious to achieve better things. His troubles begin when he takes a job as a bellboy at a local hotel. The boys he meets are much more sophisticated than he, and they introduce Clyde to the world of alcohol and prostitution. Clyde enjoys his new lifestyle and does everything in his power to win the affections of the flirtatious Hortense Briggs. But Clyde's life is forever changed when a stolen car in which he's traveling kills a young child. Clyde flees Kansas City, and after a brief stay in Chicago, he reestablishes himself as a foreman at the shirt-collar factory of his wealthy long-lost uncle in Lycurgus, New York, who meets Clyde through a stroke of fortune. While remaining aloof from him as a kinsman and doing nothing to embrace him personally or advance him socially, the uncle does give Clyde a job and ultimately advances him to a position of relative importance within the factory.

Although Clyde vows not to consort with women in the way that caused his Kansas City downfall, he is swiftly attracted to Roberta Alden, a poor and innocent farm girl working under his supervision at the factory. Roberta falls in love with him. Clyde initially enjoys the secretive relationship (forbidden by factory rules) and ultimately persuades Roberta to have sex with him rather than lose him, but Clyde's ambition precludes marriage to the penniless Roberta. He dreams instead of the elegant Sondra Finchley, the daughter of a wealthy Lycurgus man and a family friend of his uncle's.

Having unsuccessfully attempted to procure an abortion for Roberta, who expects him to marry her, Clyde procrastinates while his relationship with Sondra continues to mature. When he realizes that he has a genuine chance to marry Sondra, and after Roberta threatens to reveal their relationship unless he marries her, Clyde hatches a plan to murder Roberta in a fashion that will seem accidental.

Clyde takes Roberta on a row boat on Big Bittern Lake in upstate New York and rows to a remote area. As he speaks to her regarding the end of their relationship, Roberta moves towards him, and he strikes her in the face with his camera, stunning her and capsizing the boat. Unable to swim, Roberta drowns while Clyde, who is unwilling to save her, swims to shore. The narrative is deliberately unclear as to whether he acted with malice and intent to murder, or if he struck her merely instinctively. However, the trail of circumstantial evidence points to murder, and the local authorities are only too eager to convict Clyde, to the point of manufacturing additional evidence against him. Following a sensational trial before an unsympathetic audience, and despite a vigorous defense mounted by two lawyers hired by his uncle, Clyde is convicted, sentenced to death, and executed. The jailhouse scenes and the correspondence between Clyde and his mother stand out as exemplars of pathos in modern literature.

Dreiser based the book on a notorious criminal case. On July 11, 1906, resort owners found an overturned boat and the body of 20-year-old Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Chester Gillette was put on trial and convicted of killing Brown, though he claimed that her death was an accident. Gillette was executed by electric chair on March 30, 1908. The murder trial drew international attention when Brown's love letters to Gillette were read in court. Dreiser saved newspaper clippings about the case for several years before writing his novel, during which he studied the case closely. He based Clyde Griffiths on Chester Gillette, deliberately giving him the same initials.

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