An American Tragedy: Book 2, Chapters 37-41

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Chapter XXXVII

They go to the doctor, Dr. Glenn, in Gloversville, and Clyde waits outside as Roberta goes into the house. She is nervous and finds it difficult to explain to the doctor the nature of her problem. She says her name is Mrs. Ruth Howard, thus hoping to avoid his disapproval of her as an unmarried woman. She says she has been married three months. However, the doctor says that performing an abortion would not only be dangerous but would be against his moral beliefs. He tries to encourage her to have the child, but Roberta burst into tears and confesses that she is not married and must not have the child. Glenn is not unsympathetic to her but he repeats that he cannot help her and advises her to go home to her parents and tell them that she is pregnant.

 

Chapter XXXVIII
Clyde and Roberta are almost in despair. Clyde still wants to help, and again tries to find a doctor who will perform an abortion. Roberta goes to see Dr. Glenn a second time, but again he refuses to do what she asks. Roberta tells Clyde that the only way out is for him to marry her. Clyde is horrified and decides that there is no way in which he will agree to this idea. She suggests that they get married now and keep it a secret, and then go away somewhere later, where she could have the baby. Clyde thinks this will leave all his hopes in ruins, particularly his hope of marrying Sondra. He says he doesn’t want to marry that soon, but she realizes that he no longer cares for her. Eventually he suggests that she go away and have the baby on her own, and he will send her money. Roberta continues to insist that he marry her, even if he should leave her immediately the baby is born. Clyde feels desperate.

 

Chapter XXXIX
Clyde continues to attend social events with his wealthy friends and becomes more closely involved with Sondra. They envision a future together. Meanwhile, two months goes by and Roberta takes no action. Clyde hints that he might be willing to marry her in case there is no other way out, but in truth he is insincere and just playing for time. He has no intention of leaving Lycurgus unless he absolutely has to, since that would separate him from Sondra. He is looking forward to a summer of social engagements and even thinks that he and Sondra may elope and marry. He is determined not to let Roberta stand in his way.

 

Chapter XL
Clyde goes on a spring weekend trip by car with his friends to Arrow Lake. They have to stop to ask the way, and by coincidence Clyde finds himself knocking at the door of Roberta’s family’s house and asking her father for directions. He is appalled at how dilapidated the house is, and he once more wracks his brains for a way out of the situation he is in. He even for a moment contemplates just leaving the area, as he once left Kansas City, but he realizes that he cannot bear to lose Sondra. He has to find a solution.

 

Chapter XLI
June arrives, and Sondra goes away for a trip to Twelfth Lake. She and Clyde plan to reconnect in a couple of weeks at the lake. Meanwhile, the situation with Roberta has become urgent; he must go away with her, which would mean he would not see Sondra. That thought is unbearable for him. He persuades Roberta to go home for a couple of weeks, since he needs a little more time to accumulate some money. Then he will join her. This gives him some time to think. In the meantime, he receives notes from Twelfth Lake, anticipating his arrival.

 

Analysis
Events are now moving swiftly and Clyde must make a decision. He is caught between his moral obligation to Roberta, his fear that he will be publicly disgraced, and his fervent desire for Sondra. The knot that pulls at him is being tightened. Just as Roberta’s pregnancy reaches the point where it will start to become visible, Clyde is also on the brink of unprecedented success with Sondra. He believes that marriage to her is a definite possibility. In this situation, something has to give. It turns out to be Clyde’s moral bearings in life, as the next chapters will demonstrate.  

In addition to what Dreiser has already suggested about the effects of heredity, poverty, and environment, and the workings of chance, in these chapters he also suggests the role of another factor: fate. When in chapter XL, Clyde has to stop at what turns out to be Roberta’s family home, Dreiser as the narrator comments, “some might think, [that] only an ironic and even malicious fate could have intended or permitted to come to pass.” The tragedy that makes up the novel is composed of all these elements working together.

 

 

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