An American Tragedy: Book 1, Chapters 11-15

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Chapter XI

Clyde becomes closer friends with Ratterer and visits him at his home. Emboldened by his visit to the brothel, Clyde decides that he would like to acquire a girlfriend. At Ratter’s house, he meets Hortense Briggs, a friend of Louise, Ratterer’s sister. Hortense is a pretty girl who works in a shop, and Clyde takes an immediate interest in her. For the first time, he feels at home talking to a girl. He does not yet realize that Hortense is a self-centered girl who is only interested in using boys for her own enjoyment. Ratterer, Louise, Hortense and her friend Greta Miller go to a party, and Clyde is pleased to be included in the group. Clyde dances with the flirtatious Hortense and boasts that he would be able to spend more money on her than any of the other boys could manage. This arouses Hortense’s interest, and at his request she agrees to meet him the following Tuesday near the Green-Davidson Hotel.

 

Chapter XII

Hortense arrives late and tells him she broke a date with a boy named Charlie so she could come. They pass a flower store and he buys her some violets. Hortense talks about her hectic social life as they walk to Frissell’s. Clyde is proud of himself for being able to take a girl to a nice restaurant, although Hortense does not seem impressed. She chatters on about herself and treats him in a rather impersonal way. They go to the theater and he takes her home. Clyde is captivated by her, but all she is interested in is how much money she can get him to spend on her. 

 

Chapter XIII

Clyde pursues Hortense for four months, buying her what she wants. But she remains elusive, accepting his gifts but not bestowing on him any genuine affection. Meanwhile, Clyde finds himself dealing with a mystery regarding his own family. His mother asks him whether he would know how she could raise a hundred dollars immediately. She does not say what it is for, adding that she can raise some of it herself but would like him to give her five more dollars per week than he is currently giving. Clyde takes some items she gives him to the pawnshop, but realizes that he is going to have to give his mother five extra dollars a week for nine weeks. He is unhappy about this since he would prefer to spend the money on himself or Hortense. Later, Clyde sees his mother inquiring about a room for rent, but when he asks about it, she is evasive. Clyde solves the mystery by chance when he happens to meet his sister Esta on the street. She has returned to Kansas City. She is pregnant and has been deserted by the man she planned to marry. Her mother has been helping her to find somewhere to live. Esta is lonely and upset and feels she has been foolish. Clyde feels sorry for her but is also ashamed of being a member of a poor family to which such things can happen.

 

Chapter XIV

Clyde is now completely infatuated with Hortense, but she keeps him guessing as to whether she likes him or not. One day, Hortense is walking with her friend Doris Trine and sees a coat in a store window. She inquires inside, and Mr. Rubenstein, the son of the proprietor, tells her the coat costs $150. This is too expensive for her, and he reduces it to $125 and then $115 if she can buy it within the next few days. Hortense entertains the thought that maybe Clyde will buy it for her.

 

Chapter XV

With her plan in mind, Hortense starts to be nicer to Clyde. She pretends to break a date with someone else just so she can go out with him the next day. As they walk to the restaurant they pass Rubenstein’s and Hortense admires the coat in the window as if seeing it for the first time. She says she would love to own it and might be able to get it if she could make a big enough down payment. Clyde agrees to help her buy it and within a few minutes has offered to pay for all of it, in installments. 

 

Analysis

There are two main developments in these chapters: Clyde’s courting of and infatuation with Hortense, and the return of his sister, Esta.

 

Clyde shows again and again how he is seduced by the longing for material wealth. He thinks his life will be so much easier then. One way of seeing An American Tragedy is as an exposure of the falseness of the American Dream, the idea that anyone can through hard work and determination attain wealth and prosperity. The novel will show how empty this promise is, and yet so dominant is it in the culture that Clyde, who does not really have a will of his own, is entirely shaped by it. He is from the outset something of a dreamer. When he first becomes infatuated with Hortense, “he lived in a keen, sweet and sensual dream in regard to her” (chapter XIV). He loses himself in daydreams about her, and because of his inexperience in life and his generally gullible nature, he has no insight at all into the type of girl she is. Hortense is vain and self-absorbed, interested in him only in terms of what she can extract from him. 

 

Dreiser’s technique in this long, sprawling novel often involves the use of foreshadowing, in which one event is similar to and suggestive of something that happens later. These chapters, in which Clyde loses himself in pursuit of a vain young woman foreshadow his later feelings for Sondra Finchley. Similarly, the episode in which Esta returns pregnant and alone foreshadows what will happen in the relationship between Clyde and Roberta Alden.

 

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