Monday, April 13, 2009

Sauntering vaguely downward

Current book: An American Tragedy
Pages read: 386-488

So, actual plot! I was surprised and actually vaguely interested, which made for a nice change, especially since I was suffering an attack of literary ennui today. I just had one of those, "I want a really good story to read," kind of days. You know, when you're not even looking for the greatest book ever written, but rather something that keeps you reading with the light on long past your bedtime, that makes you want to jump into the pages and take off with the characters on great adventures, and that, when you finish it, leaves you with a throb of grief because it's over. I want to read a story that I'm sorry I can't read again for the first time. Anyway, that's not where Dreiser went or anything, but any level of entertainment was more than I was expecting.

Our hero (Well, ok, not actually a hero. Anti-hero, I suppose, although that makes him seem a lot cooler than he really is.) Clyde has, as predicted, gotten his innocent factory-girl lover pregnant, but is so busy making love (in the non-Biblical sense) to Sondra the society girl that he can't be bothered to deal with it. (Ok, that's unfair. He's actually paying attention to the problem, but in a far less than noble fashion.) They try a couple of over-the-counter abortion medications, which, predictably, don't do anything at all, and then entreat a doctor to perform an abortion, but he refuses. After a while, Roberta decides that there's nothing for it but to get married, even though it will threaten Clyde's career, since he's not supposed to consort with his employees. Clyde, however, has no desire to marry Roberta, since he's successfully courting Sondra, and continues to ignore the situation as long as possible. She goes home for a while, but is expecting Clyde to show up at some point and marry her and has told her parents that they're already married, I believe. Anyway, he resolves that he won't marry her, no matter what, and very nearly proposes marriage to Sondra; they're certainly close to an engagement.

Considering the problem, he finds himself reading a newspaper story about a boating accident in the Adirondacks in which a man and his young fiancee were unfortunately drowned. (Now pay attention, because this is where it gets good.) Upon reading the story, Clyde decides that it would just be so darn convenient if something like that were to happen to him and Roberta, especially since he's a very good swimmer and she's an awful one. He's a little troubled by his complete descent into evil, at least enough to have nightmares, but that doesn't stop him from continuing to plan on murdering his illegitimately pregnant girlfriend.

Did I mention that he's an anti-hero? He's an anti-hero. Honestly, his transformation to murderer is a little sudden, but not actually unbelievable, since he's been pretty much a complete tool for the whole book. I'm interested to see if he goes through with it, and the horrible disaster that his life will no doubt become when he does.

I was surprised that Dreiser took such a nuanced view of abortion. The doctor disapproves of it, yes, and we're obviously not supposed to consider Roberta or Clyde to be responsible young people, but Drieser portrays the difficulty of unwanted pregnancy pretty sensitively. Roberta seems to be a real victim whose problem would be solved simply and cleanly with an abortion, and Drieser offers little argument about the possible immorality of the decision. Who would have expected it, with all the previous moralizing?

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