Tuesday, January 19, 2010

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Last Saturday, after a full morning and early afternoon of running errands, getting my haircut and all the other Saturday things I usually do, I settled down to read as much of An American Tragedy as I could before it was time for bed.   I decided that enough was enough and I needed to finish it.   I was a little more than half-way through the novel.   By 11:00 that night I had finished.  

One of the problems that I’m finding with reading Really Long Books is that by the time the novel ends I feel ready to move on and not spend more time thinking about it.   In this case, throughout the novel I felt like there was a lot to say but now I’m past being able to say it in any coherent way.

Here, then, are my perhaps incoherent and certainly jumbled thoughts about this novel.

The world is a better place with the invention of a safe, (mostly) reliable, easy, (relatively) inexpensive form of birth control like the pill and, indeed, almost all the problems in this novel could have been avoided if the pill had been available.   Roberta would not have gotten pregnant and Sondra could have had a sexual fling with Clyde, tired of him and dropped him when she figured out that they would make a terrible match.

I’m sure there are moralists who would say that all the problems would have been avoided if no “pre-marital sex” would have occurred.   Sure.  But this is the real world.    Sex happens.   Dreiser knew that and didn’t shrink from it.

I’ve always thought that the religious aversion to pre-marital sex has its roots in the same practical considerations that produced the rule against eating fish on Fridays.   And this novel bears that out.  Take away the availability of the pill and the equal rights movement that brought changes in the workplace, a girl who has sex without the “protection” of marriage is more likely than not going to get pregnant and be unable to support herself and her baby.   This is still true in many parts of the world.   It makes sense that faced with a world where the pill is not invented, the best way to help girls avoid this very bad situation is to try to change behavior.  The availability of the pill changes that reality.  Too bad the moralists didn’t change too.

Of course, moralizing against sex doesn’t really change behavior, which is what Dreiser shows.  And of course consequences never matter if you have enough money to avoid them.   They never do.    Another way to look at the novel is to say that all the problems would have been avoided if abortion had been safely available to all instead of just to the wealthy who had connections.   Compare the story of Roberta and Clyde with the story of Clyde’s lawyer who has much sympathy for Clyde because of his own past.

For once, in his twentieth year, he himself had been trapped between two girls, with one of whom he was merely playing while being seriously in love with the other.   And having seduced the first and being confronted with an engagement or flight, he had chosen flight.  But not before laying the matter before his father, by whom he was advised to take a vacation,  during which time the services of the family doctor were engaged with the result that for a thousand dollars and expenses necessary to house the pregnant girl in Utica, the father had finally extricated his son and made possible his return,  and eventual marriage to the other girl.

A thousand dollars in the 1920’s (or earlier).  I can’t even begin to imagine what that is in today’s terms.   But where there is money there is always a way.   Of course no one would have had need of an abortion if the pill had been available in the first place.  And anyone who thinks that making abortion illegal will make it disappear should read this novel.  It has always been available but not to all.   Even when it was illegal.

Another way to look at it is that Roberta wouldn’t have needed to even consider an abortion if there had been other options available to her.  If, for instance, a society that prohibited abortion had, instead, services available to help pregnant women give birth without stigma and either raise their children or give them up for adoption.  But that didn’t exist for Roberta.  The stigma was great and would devolve on the entire family.   And there were no services available.

Girls who got pregnant and were abandoned by the men who were integral to that process were left on their own or to the mercy of their families.   It says something good about Clyde’s mother that her own daughter, Esta, could turn to her for help in the same situation and Clyde’s mother did help her.  I never completely understood why Roberta felt that she couldn’t turn to her own mother who certainly had no resources but, then, neither did Clyde’s mother.  The only difference I can think of is that Roberta was never forced to totally face her situation because Clyde was always there for her to think she could turn to even though she knew he was unreliable.  Clyde’s sister Esta was left high and dry and, perhaps, was forced to acknowledge to herself that she had nowhere to turn.

Of course, all of this could have been avoided if Clyde had followed the rules of the workplace.  There would have been no sex if there had been no fraternizing.  I thought it was interesting that Dreiser created a factory that had strict rules against fraternizing with the girls (which many did) and in which there is no “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” to show that no one followed these rules.   He gave Clyde no “out” and in many ways the situation is similar to what goes on today with supervisor/supervisee fraternization rules that arose out of sexual harassment law.   But  Clyde flat out broke the rules.    And Clyde knew he had issues in looking to have a woman in his life based on his experience in Kansas City, and he knew that if his uncle found out he’d be fired and lose his best hope of advancement in this society, but he was still unable to stop himself.

Of course the real problem is Clyde.   I thought Dreiser did a good job of creating a character that I never really liked but never completely disliked.   Dreiser even made the death of Roberta ambiguous as far as Clyde’s intent went.  Mostly I felt that Clyde was weak willed and somewhat naive while at the same time begin somewhat grasping – which I think is what I was supposed to think.   He certainly isn’t someone I would want to go out of my way to associate with; on the other hand I recognized him.   I know that I do associate with people like him (male and female). 

I liked that Dreiser didn’t make Clyde a lothario who seduced Roberta by sweeping her away.  I like that he created a realistic situation in which both are attracted to each other and biological urges get the better of Roberta’s common sense.  It seemed very realistic to me and I never thought that Dreiser treated the character of Roberta with anything except respect.  Although Clyde has his bad points Dreiser made sure it was realistic that Roberta would fall for him and think he was better than he was.  He also didn’t make her perfect.  She is the one who chooses her new boarding arrangement in the knowledge that it may lead to something.  She does think of Clyde as her ticket out even while she does genuinely like him and is genuinely attracted to him.  Roberta is a real woman, in many ways much more real to me than Sondra who of course isn’t real to Clyde either.  He never sees her as she is.   The situation between Roberta and Clyde and between Clyde and Sondra is obviously meant to be parallel.  It highlights the differences between being a man and being a woman on the lower social end of the relationship.  It also highlights the difference between being a woman with money and resources and being someone in Roberta’s shoes.  Is there any doubt that Sondra’s family would have taken care of everything if Sondra had found herself pregnant? 

I also liked that Dreiser took his time with the few months of Roberta’s pregnancy.  This is a long book and it covers Clyde’s entire life (short though it is).   But Dreiser intentionally slows down the pace once Roberta discovers she is pregnant and the novel begins its slow, inexorable way toward the terrible conclusion.   

As with most tragedies, I have a hard time relating to the tragic figure.   That seems right to me; tragic figures bring about their own demise through their own weakness, their own tragic flaw.  It is easy to be scornful of them.  I never really liked Hamlet.  Where Dreiser succeeds with Clyde is in showing how one bad decision leads to another bad decision.  The reader can be yelling “STOP!” but Clyde is on the path and will not be able to stop himself.

In some ways, although Roberta is the victim, I had an easier time relating to her as a tragic person which I’m not sure Dreiser intended.  She too was brought down by much of the same flaw that Clyde had:  she saw him as a path to upward mobility and she was not capable of standing firm against her own biological urges.   The real tragedy of Roberta is that she finally saw herself clear of him … and then discovered she was pregnant.  She could have made a better life for herself that was based on the reality of her situation  if this fling had just been a learning experience.  But the fling brought on the pregnancy which led to her death.   I liked that Dreiser had Clyde’s mother, near the end, think about the fact that Roberta was also to blame for the situation she and Clyde found herself in because she had free will and she could have chosen not to become involved with Clyde. She made choices along the way and many of them were bad choices.  Of course, she had no choice over her own demise.

As far as Dreiser’s actual writing style, I found it slow going.  In a way, it reminded me of Tolstoy.   The translators Pevear and Volokhonsky admitted that Tolstoy is known for having a “clunky” style and they didn’t try to smooth it out in their translations.  Dreiser’s style is clunky too.  And, like Tolstoy, he gets inside his characters’ heads and lets the reader in on the sometimes incredibly dull decision-making process whereby a character spends pages deciding on a course of action only to have another character show up and suggest something entirely different and the first character finds himself swept along in a direction he never intended.    But also,  like Tolstoy,  Dreiser finds the essential truth in his characters which makes them essentially timeless.  This novel may have been published in the 1920’s but the characters can be found today on the streets of any major city.

And like Tolstoy’s War and Peace the ending was just a little too drawn out for my taste.

I admit that I read the later portions that described Clyde’s  trial so fast as to be almost skimming.  I dislike most novels that describe trials.   In order to catch my interest they need to be told not from the point of view of any participant but from the view of an observer – as in To Kill a Mockingbird.   Everything in the trial needs to be new and not rehashed.    But that’s my own personal issue.  I imagine that when the novel was released the trial portion was seen as a sensational part of the novel.    The parts where Clyde is in the death house brought me back into the novel and I thought were rendered very well.

On the whole I’m happy I read this novel.  I can see why it, and not Sister Carrie, is held up as the Dreiser novel and why it is considered a classic.   But I liked Sister Carrie better.  In the same way that I liked Anna Karenina better than War and Peace even though I understand the importance of War and Peace