An American Tragedy: Book 1, Chapters 16-19

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Chapter XVI

Clyde prepares to put up the money to buy the coat, but then his mother tells him about Esta’s plight. He already knows about this. His mother explains that Esta is approaching the time she will need a doctor. She says she needs fifty dollars, and Clyde has fifty dollars in his pocket, but he tells her he has none. He cannot bear to give the money to his mother when he has set his heart on buying the coat for Hortense. He offers her five dollars and says he will try to get more next week.

 

Chapter XVII

A young man named Willard Sparser borrows an expensive car, which belongs to a wealthy man who employs Sparser’s father. The owner of the car is traveling somewhere in Asia. One afternoon, Clyde and his friends, including Hortense, ride in the car to an inn outside of Kansas City. At the inn, Hortense dances with Sparser, arousing Clyde’s jealousy. He accuses her of flirting, and she protests that she did nothing wrong. He relents, and she realizes her power over him.

 

Chapter XVIII

After they have danced and eaten, they all go down to play on the frozen river. Clyde is still jealous of how Hortense is spending time with Sparser. He again challenges Hortense about it, to her annoyance, since she finds Sparser more attractive than Clyde. She gets the upper hand in their quarrel, because Clyde cares more for her than she does for him, so it is easy for her to manipulate him. He is sad that he cannot win her heart, but then she says something encouraging to him and his hopes rise again.

 

Chapter XIX

On the return trip to Kansas City, Sparser drives fast. Clyde, Hegglund, and Higby are all concerned that they will be late for work. Sparser drives even faster, and recklessly. He hits a small girl who is trying to cross the road. He does not stop but speeds away, pursued by the police. He crashes into some paving stones, and the car ends up lying on its side. With the exception of a girl named Laura Sipe, no one is badly injured, but as they clamber out of the car, Clyde thinks that he must get away as quickly as possible. He knows his job is lost and he fears arrest. Hortense wanders off toward her home. Her face has been cut and she is worried that her beauty has been destroyed. As Clyde hears the police cars closing in, he starts to run. His only thought is to escape. The others run away, too.

 

Analysis

Clyde’s days in Kansas City end in failure and flight, a pattern which will be repeated in Book Two. It is not as if Clyde has no abilities or social skills. Actually, he has both. He quickly grasps the bell-hop job and makes the best of it. He is beginning to show that he has some charm, and his confidence in social situations is growing, as is his confidence with girls. But his nature is also weak and vacillating. He is so infatuated with Hortense that he allows her to get and maintain the upper hand over him. Clyde’s problem is that he has no stable sense of who he is; in his heart, although he feels a certain sense of superiority, he also is acutely aware of his humble origins, that he does not possess much in this world. He thinks he can become someone by acquiring material possessions. He also shows an unwillingness to make the correct moral choices, as when he cannot overcome his selfishness when his mother and sister need money; he must instead spend it on a frivolous girl who cares little for him. Book Two will reveal another situation in which his inability to make good choices undermines him, this time much more seriously. As in the earlier chapters, there is much foreshadowing here: starting from nowhere, Clyde gets himself into an acceptable situation, earns money, acquires friends, does quite well considering his limitations, only for it all to collapse in ruins, and for him to run away. All this will be repeated in Book Two, at greater levels of intensity and with far greater and more sinister consequences. In Book One, the debacle in the borrowed car is not really his fault; he only goes along with what others suggest, but the killing of the little girl, run over by the car in which Clyde is riding, and the loss of the girl he has set his heart on, clearly prefigure what lies ahead for him on the next stage of his journey through life. 

 

 

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