An American Tragedy: Metaphor Analysis

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Aladdin and the Arabian Nights

The controlling metaphor of the novel is taken from the Arabian Nights, a collection of medieval tales. One of the most famous of these tales is about Aladdin. It seems that Clyde is aware of the story because he alludes to it several times early in the novel. Aladdin is the poor boy who marries a princess, so no doubt the story would have appealed to Clyde, especially after he falls in love with the high-status Sondra Finchley. Aladdin, of course, comes into possession of a magic lamp, and the genii of the lamp, when summoned, is bound to do his master’s bidding, and through means of the lamp, Aladdin becomes rich and powerful.

Clyde thinks of Aladdin in his first few days at the Green-Davison Hotel, since his fortunes have taken such a radical turn. After just one day working there, he has six and a half dollars in his pocket, more than he had ever earned in a week up to this point: “He could scarcely believe it. It seemed fantastic, Aladdinish, really” (Bk One, ch. VII. p. 56). He gets a similar thought a little while later, when he goes to the brothel and has his first exposure to attractive, available young women. He surveys the scene and notices a tall girl talking to his friend Ratterer and notes, “And she was smoking a cigarette and tapping her gold slippers to the melody of the piano. It was really quite an amazing and Aladdin-like scene to him” (Book One, Ch. X, p. 72). Much later, as he contemplates what he believes is a real possibility of marriage to Sondra, he thinks of her as “the central or crowning jewel to so much sudden and such Aladdin-like splendor” (Book Two, Ch. XXXIX, p. 532).

It is as if Clyde’s life appears to have a fairy tale magic charm that is going to get all his wishes accomplished, just like Aladdin. This shows Clyde’s romantic, dreamer-like nature, his feeling that he can suddenly move from one world into another far better one. But there is a price to pay. When Clyde gets the idea of killing Roberta, there suddenly appears, “as the genii at the accidental rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp . . . a diabolic wish” (Book Two, Ch. XLV, p. 532). This wish is embodied in the “efrit,” or genii, who will grant him what he wishes. The efrit represents the darkest aspect of his own nature and urges him on to murder.

As these allusions to Aladdin suggest, Clyde is like a man bewitched or enthralled by the things he most desires—wealth, sex, and social status. His lawyer Jephson makes exactly this point at the trial, alluding directly to the Arabian Nights. For a while it seemed as if those things were within Clyde’s reach, but he eventually discovered they were not. He was not like Aladdin after all.

There is one final reference to the Arabian Nights. It comes when Nicholson, the condemned lawyer, gives Clyde a copy of the book. Clyde is in effect being invited to read the book and understand the forces that drove him and why he ended up being sentenced to death. What he needed was not magic charms and romantic, exotic dreams, but self-knowledge and self-reliance. The latter is represented by the second book Nicholson gives him—Robinson Crusoe

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