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Her Better Judgment: Ayn Rand, Theodore Dreiser, and the Shape of the American Novel, Part 4

Her Better Judgment: Ayn Rand, Theodore Dreiser, and the Shape of the American Novel, Part 4

10 Mins
May 14, 2018

Part 4—Clyde and Roberta, Sonia and Pavel

As Dreiser depicts them, Clyde Griffiths and Roberta Alden are not lovers so much as they are victims. Biology and society conspire against them, and since neither of them has a mind or judgment, conflicting urges and impulses carry them to disaster.

Clyde and Roberta meet when she shows up for work at the Griffiths Collar and Shirt Company, where Clyde is a manager. He sees her and reacts to her good looks. “He liked her on the instant,” Dreiser tells us, “She was so pretty and cute” (American Tragedy 249). This impulse almost immediately is superseded by an opposing one. Clyde recalls the opinion of his cousin Gilbert and reacts against Roberta for being merely a “working girl,” and thus an inferior: “Yet she was a working girl, as he remembered now, too—a factory girl, as Gilbert would say, and he was her superior” (American Tragedy 249).

Roberta likes Clyde right away too. She finds him “young, attractive, and smiling” (American Tragedy 256), but because she is also sensitive to public opinion and responsive to social pressure, she dare not approach him:

She was becoming conscious of various local taboos and restrictions which made it seem likely that never at any time here would it be possible to express an interest in Clyde or anyone above her officially. For there was a local taboo in regard to factory girls aspiring toward or allowing themselves to become interested in their official superiors. Religious, moral and reserved girls didn’t do it. (American Tragedy 257)

In the universe of Naturalism, individuals don’t recognize each other. Because they don’t hold any real values, they can’t recognize shared values. Because they don’t know themselves, they can’t appreciate someone else for who he or she is. Thus, when Clyde and Roberta meet, they don’t experience joy or even lust. They experience instead a low-grade dissatisfaction: “And so it was that Roberta, after encountering Clyde and sensing the superior world in which she imagined he moved, and being so taken with the charm of his personality, was seized with the very virus of ambition and unrest that afflicted him” (American Tragedy 257). As Dreiser would have it, the combination of their chemistry, urges, and social condition produces an achy envy and resentment with life. She wants something that she thinks he has. He wants something he thinks she lacks.

Neither one of them can decide to make a move, however. She, because she feels unworthy of him, and he because he worries about what the Griffiths will think. They spend the workday instead exchanging compulsive, guilty glances: “He could no longer keep his eyes off her—or she hers from him. There were evasive and yet strained and feverish eye-flashes between them” (American Tragedy 262). When they finally meet socially, it is by accident. They both find themselves at Crum Lake on a Sunday afternoon in July.

From the start, they use each other. Clyde has no real intentions toward her beyond amusement—“he could see how he could be very happy with her if only he did not need to marry her” —because he had aspirations to marry up into “the world to which the Griffiths belonged” (American Tragedy 265). He hopes, in other words, to get away with using her as a placeholder. Roberta, on the other hand, is anxious to keep Clyde interested in her for as long as possible: “there was the fear that he might even come to dislike her or give up being interested in her, and that would be dreadful” (American Tragedy 267).

Eventually they begin a clandestine affair, sneaking around at the factory during work hours and meeting after work in neighboring towns in order to spend time together unobserved by anyone associated with the factory. The relationship becomes more serious, not through any deepening of affection, but on account of the weather. The warm weather amusements in the mostly tourist towns they frequent have all closed for the season, and the cold October weather has begun to annoy Clyde: “I don’t see what we are to do from now on, do you? There’s no place to go any more much, and it won’t be very pleasant walking the streets this way every night” (American Tragedy 298). Clyde starts to pressure her to let him visit her in her room at the boarding house. Roberta, fearing social censure, refuses. Then Clyde breaks up with her. Now desperate, Roberta breaks down and lets Clyde come up to her room.

Thus, an ugly, mutually exploitative sexual relationship begins: “The wonder and delight of a new and more intimate form of contact, of protest gainsaid, of scruples overcome! Days, when both, having struggled in vain against the greater intimacy which each knew that the other was desirous of yielding to, and eventually so yielding, looked forward to the approaching night with an eagerness which was as a fever embodying a fear.” Neither one of them wholeheartedly enjoys it: “For with what qualms—what protests on the part of Roberta; what determination, yet not without a sense of evil—seduction—betrayal, on the part of Clyde. Yet the thing once done, a wild convulsive pleasure motivating both.” And they both lose self-respect: “Yet, not without, before all this, an exaction on the part of Roberta to the effect that never—come what might (the natural consequences of so wild an intimacy strong in her thoughts) would he desert her, since without his aid, she would be helpless. Yet, with no direct statement as to marriage” (American Tragedy 309).

During the same time, Clyde becomes infatuated with the lovely and glamorous Sondra Finchley. Sondra is a friend of Clyde’s rich relations, and she mistakenly invites Clyde to a society party one afternoon, thinking he is better placed socially than is true. Sondra nevertheless takes a rebellious liking to Clyde, and the two of them begin to spend a lot of time together going to parties and playing tennis. Meanwhile, the abject Roberta waits forlornly for Clyde to have time to come over, which he does, leading her on “most foolishly and falsely. . . that he regarded her as first, last and most in his heart, always. . .” (American Tragedy 375).

A few weeks later, Roberta is pregnant, and Clyde is very put out. He wants to marry up, not some pregnant factory girl, and he has convinced himself that a marriage to Sondra Finchley is a real possibility. No honest man, Clyde begins to bargain with Roberta. He tells her to wait another month. He offers to make the rounds of pharmacists to secure something to expel the fetus. Later he offers to pay for an abortion, if she can find a doctor who will perform one. (He himself is unwilling to risk his reputation to accompany her.) Finally, he offers to support the child if she will go far away and live where no one knows either of them.

Roberta hangs in through the bargaining. She quits her job at the factory and goes home to stay with her parents to wait for Clyde. The waiting is long and drawn out, however, and Roberta, starting to show, writes a letter and issues an ultimatum: “This is to tell you that unless I hear from you either by telephone or letter before noon, Friday, I shall be in Lycurgus that same night, and the world will know how you have treated me. I cannot and will not wait and suffer one more hour. . . . My whole life is ruined and so will yours be in a measure, but I cannot feel that I am entirely to blame” (American Tragedy 488-89).

Clyde had already been contemplating murdering Roberta—he just couldn’t see any other way out of his predicament. Now he has to act fast. He tricks Roberta into taking a trip with him, a sort of honeymoon, as she believes that Clyde has finally resigned himself to marrying her. Clyde however has other plans. He rents a little boat and rows her out to the middle of Big Bittern Lake, where he smacks her on the head with his camera just hard enough to stun her as she falls into the water. Then he swims away while she drowns. Sondra is expecting him, and he doesn’t want to disappoint.

I wish I were being cavalier about this story. I wish I were being cynical and snarky and toying with Dreiser’s good intentions. But the fact remains, Clyde is the tragic hero of An American Tragedy, and Dreiser is on Clyde’s side. “The poor boy!” Dreiser remarked about Clyde, “What a shame!” (qtd. in Swanberg 315). In the final analysis, according to Dreiser, Clyde—not Roberta—was the victim. He was a victim of biology and “very strong impulses and desires within himself that were very, very hard to overcome” (American Tragedy 825). He was the victim of anger and resentment “because of her determination to force him to do what he did not wish to do (American Tragedy 833-34). And he was the victim of her unreasonable moral demands: “he had a feeling in his heart that he was not as guilty as they all seemed to think. After all, they had not been tortured as he had by Roberta with her determination that he marry her and thus ruin his whole life” (American Tragedy 839).

The corollary in We the Living to the dismal relationship of Clyde and Roberta is not Kira and Leo, but Comrade Sonia and Pavel. Interestingly, Comrade Sonia is the seducer and the killer, whereas Pavel is the placeholder, the new Roberta. This reversal is not gender-bending. Ayn Rand did not play fast and loose with gender roles. The reversal is a philosophic one. It is likely that Ayn Rand could not bring herself to think of someone like Clyde as a man. She thought too highly of Man to let a character like Clyde Griffiths be a standard bearer. Moreover, she couldn’t bring herself to depict a character like Clyde as a woman either. Comrade Sonia is neither. She is a ruthless, power-seeking political hack, something not only not traditionally male or female, but not quite human either. Similarly, Pavel is not so much male or female as he is an underling. He is weak and easily dispensed with by Sonia, just as Roberta is outmaneuvered by Clyde.

Rand’s description of Sonia emphasizes this indeterminacy: “The young woman had broad shoulders and a masculine leather jacket; short, husky legs and flat, masculine oxfords; a red kerchief tied carelessly over short, straight hair; eyes wide apart in a round, freckled face; thin lips drawn together with so obvious and fierce a determination that they seemed weak; dandruff on the black leather of her shoulders” (WTL 59).

While she is broad-shouldered, husky, and wearing a masculine jacket and shoes, she fails to be a man.  Her hair, eyes, and face are neither handsome nor beautiful. Her lips are both fierce and weak. The toughness of her leather jacket is mocked by dandruff. In turn Sonia is depicted unflatteringly with “her stomach shaking,” grinning hugely, wiping the sweat from under her nose with the back of her hand (WTL 64), roaring with laughter (WTL 230) and “waving her short arms” while mobbed by Party loyalists, “snapping at them” and “trying to plough her way through” the crowd (WTL 323). She insists on being called “Just Comrade Sonia,” (WTL 60) thereby rejecting the masculine or feminine form the surname takes in the Russian language. She is not a woman but “the new woman,” who sees herself not exactly as equal to men, but as no different: “ambitious to have a useful career, to take our place beside the men in the productive toil of the world—instead of the old kitchen drudgery” (WTL 60) and “emancipated from the old slavery of dishes and diapers” (WTL 63), because now there is no women’s work or men’s work. Both men and women have only one job now, and that is “to serve the Proletarian State” (WTL 61). There is no individual identity, nothing to distinguish one human being from another. “Why do you think you are entitled to your own thoughts?  Against those of the majority of your Collective?” Sonia queries (WTL 324).

In contrast to Sonia’s, hardiness, Pavel is soft and insubstantial. His looks, Rand tells us, are faded and lifeless: “His face looked like an advertisement that had stayed in a shop window too long: a little more color was needed to make his hair blond, his eyes blue, his skin healthy. His pale lips made no frame for the dark hole of his mouth. . . .” (WTL 61).  Like Sonia, he rejects personhood. He is just one of the proletariat—a comrade: “We’re not here to further our petty personal ambitions,” he tells fellow students at the Red Technological Institute. “We have outgrown the slobbering egoism of the bourgeois who whined for a personal career. Our sole aim and purpose in entering the Red Technological Institute is to train ourselves into efficient fighters in the vanguard of Proletarian Culture and Construction!” (WTL 61).

Rand further develops Pavel in contrast to Andrei Taganov. Andrei is a man. Pavel, she makes clear, is less so. For example, as a child, Andrei went to work in a factory. Pavel stole “perfumed soap” for himself (WTL 100).  As a young man, Andrei joined the communist party and worked secretly and at great risk to smuggle messages from Lenin to the factory workers. Pavel worked in a men’s clothing store and “put eau-de-cologne on his handkerchief” (WTL 101). When it looked like the communists would succeed, Pavel joined the Party, although in February 1917, when Andrei was fighting for the revolution in the streets of Petrograd, Pavel “stayed at home: he had a cold” (WTL 102). In 1920, Andrei risked his life in the Battle of Melitopol brokering peace between the White and Red armies in the name of the Revolution. He was shot in the chest. Once the battle was won, Pavel rushed in from the sidelines to shake hands (WTL 101-102).

Pavel and Sonia meet while performing their bureaucratic duties, and their courtship is a series of career moves. Both are communist party officials who spend their days performing a range of bureaucratic functions, although Sonia is the more dedicated of the two. A typical day for Sonia, for example, includes, “At three o’clock—giving lecture at the Komsomol on ‘Our drive on the NEP front.’ At five o’clock—giving talk at the Club of the Rabfac, on ‘Proletarian Women and Illiteracy.’ At seven—discussion at the Party Club on ‘Spirit of the Collective’ ” (WTL 141-142). They appear to have a strictly collegial relationship, and when one evening Sonia invites Pavel over to her place—“Why don’t you drop in at nine?”—Pavel refuses good-naturedly, referring to her as “Sonia, old pal,” and the matter appears to be dropped. There is no mention of sexual tension or jealousy or desire and no indication that the invitation to her room is anything more than collective protocol.

But Pavel has been dabbling in the black market, and his prosperity has attracted Sonia’s attention. One night, Pavel decides to have a party. He is flush with cash from his latest black-market investment, and in the mood for “dissipating.” He decides to invite not friends exactly but Party friends, “a little crowd, our own bunch,” for a night of debauchery. He can use his Party privileges to buy vodka, “the real stuff,” and the kind of food available only to the Party elite. Pavel has reservations about inviting Sonia, however. While he is happy to be her Party friend, it has become clear to him that she wants something else, and she has been pressuring him to oblige: “Oh, hell. That cow’s after me. Has been for over a year. Trying to make me” (WTL 300). Pavel has to watch his step, however. Sonia ranks higher than him in the collective, and she can blacklist him at will: “[Y]ou’ve got to be careful. If you hurt her feelings, with Comrade Sonia’s position. . .” a friend warns him. “I know. Hell!” Pavel replies. “Two profunions and five women’s clubs wrapped around her little finger. Oh, hell! Oh, all right. I’ll call her” (WTL 300). Clearly, this is a case of cow and cowed.

Sonia seduces Pavel at his party, taking advantage of him in a moment of drunken self-pity. “Some people don’t know how to appreciate you,” she flatters him. Pavel concurs: “That’s it. That’s just the trouble. I’m going to be a very great man. But they don’t know it. No one knows it. . . . I’m going to be a very powerful man. I’m going to make the foreign capitalists look like mice. . . ” (WTL 303). That is all Sonia needs to hear. What follows is truly cringe-worthy sex. The kind of sex Rand warns against. The kind of sex that has nothing to do with desire or pleasure or value or admiration. It isn’t even mercy sex. No. It is means-to-an-end sex. What woman doesn’t want to hear this: “A fellow needs a woman. . . . A smart, understanding, strong, and hefty woman” (WTL 304). It sounds like he is trying out a sofa. It isn’t clear that he is thinking about sex. No matter, because Sonia isn’t thinking about sex either. She is thinking about money. She pulls Pavel into a storage closet and they have sex on the closet floor as he spills the beans about his financial prospects, “They think Pavel Syerov’s just gonna be another stray mongrel eating outta slop pails all his life. . . .Well, I’ll show ‘em! I’ve got a secret. . . a great secret, Sonia. . . . But I can’t tell you” (WTL 304).

Rand establishes Sonia as a social climber and a fortune hunter, as Clyde was, and she establishes that Sonia is in a position of power relative to Pavel, as Clyde was to Roberta, with a few important differences. Whereas mindless Clyde wouldn’t, or as Dreiser claims, couldn’t admit to himself what he was doing, Comrade Sonia has no reservations or scruples about her aims. This is not a love match. She wants to be one-half of a power couple, and she wants to be rich. She has the power already. Pavel has the money, and his weaker Party position will make it easy for her to push him around once they wed; in other words, he is the perfect trophy Party daddy.

A few months later, Sonia tells Pavel that they are going to have a baby and that they are going to get married. He asks if she knows for sure that he is the father. Then she threatens him, “don’t say anything you may regret.” When he tries to argue that he needs to further his career a bit first before marrying, she threatens him again, saying, “I could help you Pavel, or. . .” (WTL 331). Sonia gets her way, and the power couple emerges “Well, Pavlusha, all set to go far in this world? With such a wife. . .” (WTL 331).

Married, and with a baby on the way, Sonia has what she wants. The baby will enhance her position of power: “Our child will be a new citizen of a new state,” she tells Pavel. “I shall have it registered with the Pioneers, the very day it’s born.” The “it” in that statement is surely deliberate on Rand’s part, because Sonia is not talking about a human being, but a “living contribution to the Soviet future” that she can parade in front of communist officials. “We’ll have a real Red christening. You know, no priests, only our Party comrades, a civil ceremony, and appropriate speeches. . . .” (WTL 432).

As for Pavel, while Sonia doesn’t kill him outright the way Clyde killed Roberta, he is nonetheless a dead man. Any attempt by him to have an opinion of his own is met with a violent outburst from her.  When he questions a possible name she has picked out for the child, “Ninel”—Lenin in reverse—Sonia scolds, “Pavel, I won’t tolerate such language and such ignorance!” He tries to walk back the comment, but she only escalates the threats: “You’re not interested, that’s all, don’t you fool me, Pavel Syerov, and don’t you fool yourself thinking I’ll forget it!” And she means it. She has enormous power, and she can and does direct it through the collective to destroy her enemies. Angry about the outcome of one of his business deals, a deal in which Leo Kovalensky is involved, she tells him,” I hope your Kovalensky gets the firing squad and a nice loud trial” and “I’ll see to it that the women of the Zhenotdel stage a demonstration of protest against Speculators and Aristocrats!” (WTL 432-34). I can just hear Ayn Rand, muttering as she wrote, “I’ll show you a dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Part 5 here.


Marilyn Moore

Marilyn Moore
About the author:
Marilyn Moore

Senior Editor Marilyn Moore thinks that Ayn Rand is a great American writer, and with a Ph.D in literature, she writes literary analysis that proves it. As Director of Student Programs, Moore trains Atlas Advocates to share Ayn Rand’s ideas on college campuses and leads discussions with Atlas Intellectuals seeking an Objectivist perspective on timely topics. Moore travels nationwide speaking and networking on college campuses and at liberty conferences.

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