An American Tragedy: Book 2, Chapters 31-36

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Chapter XXXI

Clyde attends the Christmas dinner at the Griffiths’. It goes later than he had thought, and at six he is invited to the Anthonys for more festivities. He knows he told Roberta he would come at eight, and thinks he still has time, but he cannot tear himself away and it is eleven-thirty before he shows up at Roberta’s door. He makes a lot of excuses, and Roberta realizes how important to him is his connection with the Griffiths. She reproaches him mildly and also asks him about the discrepancy between the newspaper account of the social event he attended and his own report of it. This irritates Clyde. Then she asks him if he likes Sondra Finchley very much, and his guarded reply makes her burst into tears, because she knows there is something he is not telling her. He becomes tender with her and tells her he loves her and always will. She feels reassured.

 

Chapter XXXII
Clyde takes part in all the winter social events of the Griffiths’ circle. The families caution their daughters not to get too familiar with Clyde, since they know he is not wealthy. Sondra often picks him up in her car and enjoys the fact that he is dependent on her. After one event in mid-January, Sondra invites Clyde back to her house for hot chocolate. In the kitchen, Clyde tells her he loves her and is crazy about her, and then kisses her. She realizes that this has gone a little too far and suggests, with kindness, that he should leave, which he does.

 

Chapter XXXIII
By mid-February, Clyde has decided that he should end his relationship with Roberta, and she too realizes that she should forget him and move to another town. But all this changes when Roberta discovers that she is pregnant. She has no one to turn to and decides that Clyde must help her. When she tells him, at first he tries to tell her she may be mistaken, but when she insists she is not, he is at a loss; he has no idea of what to do. He wonders if there is a druggist nearby who could provide something that would abort the pregnancy. He fears that the only thing that can be done is to consult a doctor, but he knows that will cost money and also create a risk of exposure.

 

Chapter XXXIV
Clyde travels to nearby Schenectady. His plan is to go to a drug store and get something for Roberta that will abort the pregnancy. He tells the pharmacist that he is married and his wife is pregnant but they cannot afford to have a child. The first pharmacist refuses to help him, but in the next store he goes in, the man sells him some pills for six dollars, telling him it will effect the remedy he desires.  He immediately takes it to Roberta, and she is grateful.

 

Chapter XXXV
The cure does not work. Anxious, Roberta takes double the dose of pills and makes herself sick. After visiting her, Clyde goes to a party at the Cranstons, where he sees Sondra, but he cannot take his mind off Roberta’s predicament. The next day he returns to the drug store in Schenectady to inquire if there is something else that would be more effective, but he is told no, although he is advised that the woman should take hot baths in addition to the medicine. The druggist also says that it might be another month before the certainty of the woman’s pregnancy could be established. Clyde asks if the man could recommend a doctor, but the pharmacist gets suspicious and refuses to cooperate. Clyde goes back to Roberta and tells her he intends to find a doctor for her, but she must visit him on her own; his own difficult position precludes the possibility of his going with her.

 

Chapter XXXVI
Clyde confides in Orrin Short, a young man who runs a mens’ clothing store in Lycurgus. He discreetly tells Short that he is inquiring on behalf of a young employee at the factory whose wife is pregnant, but they cannot afford to have a child. Short suspects that Clyde may be describing his own situation rather than that of an employee, but he nonetheless gives him the name of a doctor who might be able to help. 

 

Analysis
Once again chance intervenes in the form of Roberta’s pregnancy, coming at exactly the time both she and Clyde are realizing that it would be better for both of them if they were to part. The entire episode reveals Clyde’s ignorance of such matters as pregnancy. He naively believes that the problem can be solved by purchasing some concoction from a drug store, and Roberta knows no better either. Dreiser  himself, as the narrator, comments on this in chapter XXXV: “The truth was that in this crisis he was as interesting an illustration of the enormous handicaps imposed by ignorance, youth, poverty and fear as one could have found. Technically he did not even know the meaning of the word ‘midwife,’ or the nature of the services performed by her.” Once again, the origins of Clyde’s difficulties are traced back to his early poverty and lack of education, as well as the fear engendered by the social censure of any woman who had a child born out of wedlock. Clyde realizes at this point just how dangerous the situation is becoming for him, but he still feels that he may be able to find a way out of it. One thing is certain: he will not give up his chance of winning Sondra Finchley, whatever happens, although at this point Sondra is still sitting on the fence with regard to him. She knows that she likes him, but she sees the problems inherent in getting too close. She still thinks she has a measure of control over the situation. It is Clyde who is the helpless one, and Roberta too.

 

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