Summary and Analysis Book I: Chapters 17-19

Having never really “traveled,” Clyde looks forward to a delightful automobile trip with Hortense and four other couples. At the Wigwam, they can eat, drink, and dance. Symbolic of the Jazz Age, the automobile is fast, easy, fun-geared, and possessed of real and illusory power; en route are drinks, gay banter, and refreshment stops. At the Wigwam, Clyde watches the Dionysian dancing of Hortense and the others. Offsetting these glorious moments, however, are other experiences: the terror of a hit-and-run accident, pursuit, a crack-up in a stolen automobile, flight, and further pursuit.

Clyde’s excessive sensibility is slowly beginning to devour him. As with illicit sex, it is not the act itself but the possible consequences that troubles Clyde about riding in Sparser’s “borrowed” car. But he is weak and so he succumbs to temptation and delights in the trip. Again the idea of Clyde’s soul being a battleground is valuable. Made jealous by Sparser’s dancing with Hortense, Clyde grows anxious, then angry. Lamenting his lack of strength, he yields to Hortense. He places himself in agonizing situations, determined not to show his jealousy. Unable, however, to control himself, Clyde accuses Hortense of letting Sparser kiss her. He summons up a trace of courage and tries to leave her, but he is too weak. Her empty, new promises are victorious.

Sex and violence are deftly woven into these final chapters of Book I. Hortense, genial and giddy, snuggles close to Clyde in the automobile. But at the Wigwam, she dances with the rhythmic and sexy Sparser. Worldly-wise, Sparser looks deep into her eyes and she stares back. To placate the angry Clyde, Hortense temptingly purses her sensuous mouth. Dreiser likens the young people to “satyrs and nymphs of an older day.” Later, Sparser and Hortense return holding hands, and, still later, while playing crack-the-whip, Hortense falls and shows off her legs to a laughing audience. Clyde can barely control himself. He thrills to her promise of yielding to him next week but cannot understand her attentions to Sparser. On the trip back, he holds her hand and kisses her often — until the series of violent mishaps.

This new world of Clyde Griffiths seems like a fantasy to him; it is exactly that. It is a world of make-believe and illusion. Sparser poses as being more than a farm superintendent’s son. Secretly borrowing his father’s employer’s Packard, Sparser pretends to own the car. Hortense removes her hat in the car, less to accommodate Clyde than to show off her new hair style; her plaster beauty mark and rouge dramatize her true beauty’s inaccessibility. On the drive, she senses with pleasure Sparser’s designs, and when Clyde realizes her fickleness and dishonesty, he pretends indifference. However, he cannot hide his jealousy and disappointment. Hortense first pretends innocence, but then the sting of truth angers her. Greedy for the beaver coat, she feigns liking Clyde best, but her mind is on Sparser. Later, on the ice, she screams in pretended fear as Sparser and Higby pretend to trip her. Clyde labels her a flirt; she labels him a bore, then masters him with her hurt-little-girl act. Clyde thinks of a new strategy: “If she wanted to lie and pretend, he would have to pretend to believe her.” Yet she is able to re-convince Clyde that she will have sex with him — shortly before she throws Sparser a secret look.

And then tragedy, resulting from unethical actions and ignorance. Misfortune results from Sparser’s fraudulence. Fearful of the owner’s early return, he prudently obtains the car earlier than originally planned, but the appointed day threatens snow. Bad luck slows Sparser’s race with time: freight trains, muddy roads, bridges, minor accidents, and heavy traffic. Panic drives him from one accident to another-from the incident involving the little girl to that of the lumber pile. By chance (or poetic justice), Hortense’s beautiful face is scraped. Finally, Clyde hopes to escape — “if the fates were only kind.”

Self-love and self-interest, it is evident, extinguish fidelity and decency. At the inn, Hortense and Sparser forsake their partners and dance together; playing on the ice, she prefers Sparser to Clyde. Later, Sparser fearfully speeds from the scene of his accident with the little girl. When the automobile crashes, Clyde thinks first of himself and then of Hortense; her face bleeding, Hortense runs directly home. When the others scatter, leaving the injured Sparser and Laura Sipes to the police, Clyde also flees. Crawling into a field, he hopes to desert misery, punishment, and disappointment.

The imagery of winter — a snowy road between white fields, dark woods, wave-like sentinel hills, a scarecrow fluttering in the wind, and a flock of crows — foreshadows death and destruction. Ratterer’s concern with returning on time anticipates calamity, while Clyde’s romantic view of travel foreshadows his fleeing danger in Book II. The Wigwam is a Midwestern version of the eastern resort later in the novel. Here, Clyde quarrels with Hortense; there, with Roberta. The chaotic game of crack-the-whip on the frozen lake foreshadows the tangled bodies of the impending automobile accident and, much later, the climactic upsetting of the rowboat on Big Bittern Lake. As Sparser flees from the wounded little girl, so later Clyde swims away from the drowning Roberta. The police chase in this section foreshadows the search for Clyde after Roberta’s drowning. Both incidents inform the trial. Finally, Clyde heads south and west, directions counter to his destiny, north and east; and, again, after Roberta Alden’s drowning, he runs in the same directions, south and west.