Theodore Dreiser: an American Tragedy (Anglais) Relié – 10 mars 2003
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Clyde Griffiths finds his social-climbing aspirations and love for a rich and beautiful debutante threatened when his lower-class pregnant girlfriend gives him an ultimatum. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Poche .
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In "An American Tragedy," Chester Gillette becomes Clyde Griffiths, the son of itinerant evangelists who roam the country operating missions for the destitute. His parents often take Clyde and his siblings out on the streets of the city in order to sing hymns and hand out religious tracts. While in Kansas City, Clyde reaches the age of sixteen and decides to strike out on his own. Tired of the austere life led by his family, Clyde secures a job as a bellboy at a big hotel downtown. The money he earns and the friends he makes at the hotel quickly lead to Clyde's indoctrination into the fast life of fine clothes, fine food, and fast women. An unfortunate incident with a "borrowed" car leads to his hasty departure from Kansas City to points east.
After a few years of drifting from job to job under an assumed name, Clyde happens to run into a rich uncle at a hotel in Chicago. The uncle, moderately impressed with his nephew's appearance and attitude, offers the young man a job at his collar factory in Lycurgus, New York. Clyde jumps at the opportunity, picturing himself rising quickly at the factory into a world of wealth and privilege. The reality turns out to be quite the opposite. His uncle is indifferent to Clyde's presence, rarely inviting him out to the family estate and starting him at the lowest, dirtiest job in the factory. A cousin named Gilbert also proves troublesome to Clyde's aspirations. Gilbert sees his poor cousin as a real threat to his own position as heir apparent at the factory. Moreover, Gilbert and Clyde are astonishingly similar in appearance. Despite these obstacles, Clyde is optimistic that he will win over his cousin and uncle after a few months time. But he needs to move fast when he meets Sondra Finchley, the daughter of one of the richest families in Lycurgus. If only Clyde could woo this pretty girl and get a good position at the factory! All his dreams would come true!
Clyde's dreams nearly do reach fruition until he finds himself in a spectacularly scandalous position. For when Sondra finally decides to make a move for Clyde, she doesn't know about his involvement with a poor factory girl named Roberta Alden. The inevitable eventually happens: Clyde impregnates Roberta at a time when Sondra professes her love for him. Griffiths is in a real pickle now, for he must drop Roberta so he can position himself with Sondra. Clyde convinces Roberta to seek a way out of the pregnancy but various methods fail to work. All seems disaster until Clyde remembers an article in the paper about a drowning at a local lake, and an unthinkable plan begins to form.
The minute detail of Clyde's rise and eventual fall leaves no stone unturned. The chapters covering the defense and prosecution's questioning of Clyde during his murder trial cover some seventy pages. Sometimes the details are too much, such as a description of a car accident that takes up way too many pages. Dreiser's mania for detail may be the biggest failing of "An American Tragedy" because the reader quickly becomes impatient with the pace of the story as the narrative bogs down under a mass of minutiae. Moreover, the author's convoluted prose style leaves a lot to be desired. His language is often so dense that even H.L. Mencken commented on it in the introduction to the story.
BUT, and this is a big but, Dreiser's story is deeply affecting. It is well worth reading 850 pages to experience the mind blasting intensity of the story. This is truly a tragedy, as Clyde's crime ruins dozens of people's lives. And such a powerful conclusion! Clyde's march to the electric chair brought tears to my eyes, especially when his mother chucks all the religious chatter, grabs her son, and murmurs "my son, my baby." Then note how Dreiser brings the story full circle after the execution. That is what the author does with this story: he makes you feel for nearly every character in the narrative. Ultimately, "An American Tragedy" is a great book with a few niggling problems. You will be glad you read it, though.
People have said that it is overly long or wordy. It may seem like this in the beginning, but even at this part the book is not boring or dry. It is the story of a boy growing and maturing at this point, and it is precisely this personal growth (in detail) that makes the book so powerful. You, as the reader, become one with the protagonist because you have witnessed his entire life.
The preface in the version I read said something to the effect that the story builds slowly like a tsunami, finally striking you with all that built-up force. I am a 29 year old male who does not often cry, and I was in tears for the last hour of this book. After finishing I looked at myself in the mirror and I was shaking and my eyes were completely bloodshot. My only thought was what a terrible book that was, and why anyone would write something like this.
I read a lot of the supposed "best books" like the ones on the Modern Library list, and this is the most immediately powerful novel I have ever read.
Theodore Dreiser has been called one of the worst great writers in the history of literature, and that claim is justified. He can hardly compose a sentence that doesn't drop like lead from the tongue. He's especially fond of the double negative, which can become pretty tedious in a 900+ page novel. And in retrospect, the amount of plot on display in his novel does not seem to warrant its length, but somehow, I was able to overcome these two factors and find myself engrossed in it anyway. It doesn't for one second become boring or slow. And it offers some especially candid and frank ideas about the nature of guilt and the culpability of those who take lives, whether they're working on the side of crime or the law. Most fascinating for me were the novel's final pages, when Clyde tries to turn to religion for solace when he's at his loneliest, but can't get around the notion that there's really nothing to turn to.
Dreiser pulls off quite a feat by making all of his characters sympathetic. I didn't want Clyde to get away scot-free with what he'd done, but my heart couldn't help but go out to him. Likewise, Roberta, the girl he wrongs, could have come across as shrewish in another author's hands (she does in the film version, "A Place in the Sun," if you're interested in a literature to film comparison) but she doesn't here. Even Sondra, who could have been so unlikeably spoiled, comes across as essentially a warm character.
1925 was the literary year for deconstructing the American Dream. Both "An American Tragedy" and "The Great Gatsby" came out that year, and while I have to admit that "Gatsby" is a better written book, "Tragedy" just has a visceral appeal for me, and it's the one I enjoyed more.
The social barriers between the poor and the (new) rich, the tugging materialism, and an underlying puritanism made up the social fabric around which Dreiser recreated Clyde Griffiths as Gillette and Roberta Alden as Brown. Driven by their human impulses and then trapped by social and moral prejudices, the outcome was a monumental tragedy of wasted young lives for both characters.
This novel is long (over 800 pages), and the writing style is torturous. It could probably be more appreciated for its social-historical value than as 'classic literature'. If you haven't read anything by Dreiser previously, you may want to try 'Sister Carrie' before tackling this one.
Liberally bending conventions in both grammar and sentence structure, Dreiser writes as if slowly and methodically peeling back the layers of an onion. Particularly in his development of the story's central character, Clyde Griffiths, the author's detailed and meticulous portraiture leaves little to the reader's imagination. He commits countless words to thoroughly evolving his characters. Further, despite the occasional lengthy and overly elaborate passage, Dreiser adroitly paces his work. His prose only bogs down when he ambitiously plumbs the thoughts of his characters and deconstructs those thoughts as a psychotherapist would those of his patient.
We are treated to the consummate bad actor in Griffiths - an immature, selfish, and morally impoverished cad given to endless rationalizing around what should be his in a life with pathetically humble beginnings. When confronted with the specter of social ruin and life without the beautiful, self-absorbed, and socially ascendant Sondra Finchley, he behaves irrationally and murders his sweet and innocent sprite of a lover, Roberta Alden. His actions are those of a cold-blooded killer. We readers are privy to Griffiths' every thought as he carefully ponders Roberta's murder and how he might avoid suspicion.
By contrast, there is Roberta, the product of a hard-working, God-fearing but luckless farm family. Dreiser portrays this family beautifully, and we realize that it was probably on the backs of families just like the Aldens that much of the Adirondack region of upstate New York was built. A tragic figure to be sure, Roberta dares to dream of a life of marital bliss with Griffiths but her love for him goes unrequited. Pregnant and alone, she is instead manipulated by her one-time lover. Perhaps wishfully believing that he only desires to be temporally free of her but is still disposed to do the honorable through marriage, she underestimates Griffiths' treachery. Sadly, she is guilty only of a poignant naivete, a breathtaking ignorance to the ways of a sometimes harsh and cruel world.
Griffiths' ham-handed bumbling in carrying out premeditated murder is only to be rivaled by his feeble attempt at a cover-up. He is eventually tried, convicted and executed - his life but an asterisk not on the social register to which he aspires, but on the rolls of the criminally culpable. A reptile masquerading as a human being - a caricature, really - Griffiths' character (based on that of Chester Gillette, the real-life perpetrator of this crime) meets a fate that, ironically, he so assiduously endeavors to avoid. Friendless, penniless and irretrievably lost to the forces of Evil, Griffiths tragically implodes, his life ending in ignominy and disgrace.
Its unparalleled depth defines An American Tragedy, listed by Time magazine in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list. A multi-leveled latticework of themes that includes everything from Freudian psychoanalytic theory to the ills of capitalism and its attendant social climbing in early Industrial America, this epic novel reminds me why I love great literature. One really has to consider carefully what Dreiser imparts. The author's style, characterized as much by rich metaphor as it is by lengthy, impossibly creative 'sentences', held my attention from cover to cover. Of Griffiths' inexplicable behavior Dreiser writes,
"There are moments when in connection with the sensitively imaginative or morbidly anachronistic - the mentality assailed and the same not of any great strength and the problem confronting it of sufficient force and complexity - the reason not actually toppling from its throne, still totters or is warped or shaken - the mind befuddled to the extent that for the time being, at least, unreason and disorder and mistaken or erroneous counsel would appear to hold against all else. In such instances the will and 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."
Great stuff... and well worth wading through.
Literature at Its American Best!