Three American Tragedies (1906, 1925, and 2002)
I first read Theodore Dreiser’s masterpiece An American Tragedy (1925) during the summer of 2003. Little did I know that the story unfolding before me in that book would also play out on my television set. It was as if Dreiser had gone to the future, observed what Scott Peterson did to his wife Laci and their unborn son, and wrote about it. Or, it was as if Scott Peterson had read Dreiser’s 814-page book and decided to commit murder the same way that desperate main character Clyde Griffiths did.
If you don’t know the story, Laci Peterson, pregnant with her first child Conner, went missing on December 24, 2002. Her husband Scott said he had been fishing all day and that when he returned home, she was not there. Nobody had seen her that day. Her car was in the driveway. Her purse was at home. The family dog was running around the neighborhood. Well, after some intense months of searching and suspicion, Laci’s body (and her unborn son’s body) washed up on the San Francisco Bay shore. Scott, a man who had been having an affair, was arrested a few weeks later and charged with Laci’s murder. He had apparently disposed of her body on his “fishing” trip. He is now on death row at San Quentin State Prison.
I know, you’re thinking, how could anybody do this? I thought the same thing. Yet, as I read An American Tragedy I realized that this story was as old as time and just as real. A man has a pretty wife. That pretty wife gets pregnant. The man isn’t attracted to her any longer. He strays. With his unfaithfulness, comes the desire to be free. He sees the impending birth as a restriction. He acts like a monster and kills the mother of his child. He does not want to accept responsibility for his actions. In our 2002 story, the man from Modesto, California, was caught. He is now paying for his crimes.
The same ending occurs in Dreiser’s book. Clyde Griffiths pays for his crimes with his life. But, how did he get there? Clyde is raised the poor son of religious parents. Once he leaves the family home to work on his own, he finds a cute girlfriend named Roberta whom he convinces to sleep with him without being married. Because they work together in a factory, a relationship is forbidden, but Clyde pursues it anyway. Roberta, a poor and innocent girl who loves Clyde deeply, agrees to this physical relationship and becomes pregnant.
But, her pregnancy is an inconvenience to Clyde, who has already moved on to his next girlfriend. The beautiful Sondra has a rich family, and through his connection to her, Clyde sees opportunity. He is also more taken with Sondra, because compared to Roberta, Sondra is prettier and more dazzling. She introduces him to higher society and has more lavish clothing to adorn herself with. Poor Roberta cannot compete. Yet, as Clyde tries to sever ties with Roberta, he finds that she is pregnant. He is trapped. He does not want to marry Roberta and give up Sondra. He also does not want Sondra to know what a scoundrel he has been. And, if Sondra’s family found out about his behavior with Roberta, they would certainly shun him.
So, Clyde does what he thinks is necessary. He kills Roberta. So, yes, this story is similar to Scott Peterson’s tale so far, but it gets even more eerily similar. Clyde decides to end his relationship with Roberta in a row boat on a lake. He rows to a remote area, one thing leads to another, and Clyde ends up hitting Robert with his camera, capsizing the boat, and leaving her there to drown while he swims safely to shore. The novel leaves Clyde’s intentions unclear, but he is eventually convicted of murder in court and executed.
Dreiser apparently modeled this story on the death of Grace Brown, whose body and an overturned boat was found at Big Moose Lake in upstate New York on July 11, 1906. Her boyfriend Chester Gillette was executed for killing her, although he claimed it was an accident. Apparently, Dreiser researched this case in writing his own book, and he modeled Clyde Griffiths on Chester Gillette, as they have the same initials.
The novel has many warnings. The fact that Clyde comes from a religious family shows a kind of warning against leaving behind one’s faith for the vain things of the world, which is what Clyde pursues once he is making money and dining with Sondra’s wealthy family. The story also serves as a warning against premarital sex. Clyde’s selfishness caused him to convince innocent and naïve Roberta to sleep with him. His pride led to his trying to back out of that commitment. It ultimately led to criminal actions. I suppose these two attributes, selfishness and pride, also led to Scott Peterson’s actions. We’ll never know exactly what happened, as he isn’t talking, but we know he had another woman, like Clyde, and we know that he went fishing in the bay and that’s where Laci’s body was found. Did Scott kill her at home and dump her in the bay? Did her take her out for a Christmas Eve fishing trip and throw her over the side? Who knows? But we do know that his actions were wrong and resulted in the unhappiness of many people.
Perhaps that is the ultimate problem with selfishness and pride. We ignore the feelings of others when we act for ourselves. We ignore the fact that Laci’s parents were devastated, that Conner deserved to have a life, and that Amber Frey, the other woman, did not deserve to be dragged into the media spotlight as well. Yes, we learn from Dreiser that we shouldn’t kill people and that sometimes we must accept the difficult consequences of our actions, but we also learn that our actions affect others. Clyde’s actions hurt Sondra, Roberta and her family, and his mother, who wrote heartbroken letters to him before he died. But, the most funny thing about acting selfishly is that your actions affect you most of all. You can end up alone and unhappy if you alienate everyone around you. And, in the cases of Scott Peterson, Clyde Griffiths, and Chester Gillette, you ultimately end up dead.