An American Tragedy: Top Ten Quotes

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  1. “His life should not be like this. Other boys did not have to do as he did.”

    Book One, Chapter I, p. 9

    These are Clyde’s thoughts at the very beginning of the novel, when he is forced to accompany his parents on their evangelical forays onto the streets of Kansas City. The quotations sums up the attitude that Clyde has for most of his short life. He does not like the way his life is, thinks he deserves better and longs to change it.

  2. “The imaginative flights of Clyde in connection with all this—his dreams of what it might mean for him to be connected with so glorious an institution—can only be suggested. For his ideas of luxury were in the main so extreme and mistaken and gauche—mere wanderings of a repressed and unsatisfied fancy, which as yet had had nothing but imaginings to feed it.”

    Book One, Chapter V, p. 36

    This passage describes Clyde’s first impressions of the Green-Davison Hotel in Kansas City. It well conveys the idea that Clyde, because of his restricted and impoverished upbringing, is easily impressed by the show of wealth and has little grasp of reality. He is a dreamer.

  3. “For to say the truth, Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement.”

    Book Two, Chapter III, p. 193

    This refers to Clyde at the age of twenty. He is working at the Union League Club in Chicago, trying to figure out a way of advancing himself. The quotation reveals Clyde’s lack of true practicality in planning his direction in life. He does not really know what he ought to be doing, and idly hopes that someone with influence will come along and help him.

  4. “Titus Alden was one of that vast company of individuals who are born, pass through and die out of the world without ever quite getting any one thing straight. They appear, blunder, and end in a fog.”

    Book Two, Chapter XIII, p.  279

    This uncharitable characterization is of Roberta’s father. Roberta, like Clyde, was brought up in poverty. Her father had neither the intelligence nor drive to improve his financial situation. He lacked the capacity for changing his situation. He was a farmer only because his father was one; he was a Republican only because his father was one.

  5. “There are moments when in connection with the sensitively imaginative or morbidly anachronistic . . . the mind [is] befuddled to the extent that for the time being, at least, unreason or disorder and mistaken or erroneous counsel would appear to hold against all else. In such instances the will and the courage confronted by some great difficulty which it can neither master nor endure, appears in some to recede in precipitate flight, leaving only panic and temporary unreason in its wake.”

    Book Two, Chapter XLV, p. 532

    This refers to the moment that the idea of murdering Roberta first takes hold in Clyde’s mind. He is no longer thinking rationally.

  6. “And then Clyde . . . swimming heavily, gloomily and darkly to shore. And the thought that, after all, he had not really killed her. No. no. Thank God for that. He had not. And yet . . . had he? Or,  had he not?”

    Book Two, Chapter XLVII, p. 565.

    These are Clyde’s thoughts immediately after Roberta’s death by drowning. He genuinely does  not know whether he is responsible for her death or not. He plotted to kill her, and yet was unable to act on his plot. Her death was in a sense accidental, but would never have come upon her had he not plotted it. This uncertainty about his guilt or innocence will haunt Clyde for the rest of his days. He never resolves it.

  7. “Clyde, if I could only die. That would solve all this. And I have prayed  and prayed that I would lately, yes I have. For life does not mean as much to me now as when I first met you and you loved me. Oh, those happy days! If only things were different.”

    Book Three, Chapter XXII, p. 761

    This is an excerpt from one of Roberta’s letters to Clyde that Mason reads with telling effect at the trial. Roberta was unaware of it, but in a cruel irony, her first two sentences literally express exactly what Clyde is plotting.

  8. “Gentlemen of the jury, the individual who is on trial here for his life is a mental as well as a moral coward—no more and no less—not a downright, hardhearted criminal by any means.”

    Book Three, Chapter XXII

    Clyde’s lawyer Belknap makes his opening statement. The case for the defense involves admitting that Clyde is a less than admirable man and tries to explain his conduct in this light. 

  9. “And then to sit in that chair he had seen in his mind’s eye for so long—these many days and nights when he could not force his mind to drive it away. Here it was again before him—that dreadful, ghastly chair—only closer and larger than ever before—there in the space between himself and Justice Oberwaltzer. He could see it plainly now—squarish; heavy-armed, heavy-backed, some straps at the top and sides.”

    Book Three, Chapter XXVI, p. 847

    Not for the first time, Clyde has a nightmare vision of his fate. This occurs immediately after the jury has delivered its verdict of guilty.

  10. “What followed then was what invariably follows in the wake of every tortured consciousness. From what it dreads or hates, yet knows or feels to be unescapable, it takes refuge in that which may be hoped for—or at least imagined.”

    Book Three, Chapter XXXII, p. 899.

    Clyde has been convicted and is facing execution, so now he is prepared to  reconsider what religion might have to offer him in this desperate situation, even though in the past he has not had the slightest interest in it, despite the fact that his parents are fanatically religious.

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