Sunday, November 13, 2011

Tragedy Averted

Normally, I don't use this blog for book reviews, but this is a book that has an important message. I have been reading a classic by Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy. It is considered one of the best examples of "pathos" in literature. That is putting it mildly. I had to read it holding it at arm's length while peeking through my fingers. It was compelling and I couldn't put it down, but it was wrenching, as well. In short, it is about a man who plots to murder one girl after falling in love with a second. Christianity is mocked through most of the book, but in the end, in a rather shocking turn around, it is the devout mother and a selfless pastor that are able to finally bring the villain to a true understanding of what he had done, repentance, and peace. No other character in the book shows really any admirable quality. I suspect Dreiser didn't intend that to be the case, based on his sentiments about devout Christians through 9/10 of the book. But in the end, the only character I would want to be were the two Christians who appear at the end of the book.

The book was also compelling because the events were staged in upstate NY where I grew up. My hometown is mentioned, as was the very small town where my folks had a lake house. The hero, who is simultaneously a villain, starts off discontented but very likable. Throughout the book, I am rooting for him, even when he makes horrible, immoral choices. I keep praying he will change, seeing that he is spiraling downward into deeper and more consequential sin.

However, he never sees it, not till the very end of the book when confronted with a loving and uncompromising Christian. I almost threw the book aside in disgust as Christians were mocked, sin was rampant, and undesirable characters seemed to win the day. But now, having finished it, I am so glad I stuck with it. In the end, God wins. And Dreiser was a magnificent writer, somehow making the despicable main character one I sympathized with, struggled with, and prayed would overcome his significant frailties. I think it might be a book everyone should read, because it shows as well as anything I have ever read how small sins balloon into a life of sin. And yet even after a ruinous descent to becoming the handmaiden to Satan, God was there in the end to exhort, rebuke, uplift, and ultimately forgive.

In interviews during his lifetime, Dreiser said that , "Life is an accident from the beginning." He also believed that Christianity might keep our daughters virtuous and has some value for that reason, but it would never last. He could not accept or believe that the teachings of Christ were eternal. I find this very consistent with what I saw through 9/10 of his book, but it cheers me to see that in the final outcome, even this brilliant writer,  at best an agnostic cynic, could only find peace and redemption for his character through Jesus. I am again struck how ultimately, unwittingly perhaps, we all end up proclaiming the power and glory of God .

Isaiah 1: 16-20

 16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
   Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
   stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
   Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
   plead the case of the widow.
 18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”
   says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
   they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
   they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
   you will eat the good things of the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel,
   you will be devoured by the sword.”
            For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.


  1. The movie is also compelling.
    Another theme of the book was the perception and treatment of women in early 20th century society. A minor theme was the great deference accorded wealth and 'position'.
    The carefully-worded letter from the 'heroine' (without pleading) respectfully requesting consideration drove me to tears.
    Agree. A great treasure.


  2. you know it was based on a true story of a real murder in that part of the Adirondacks. Apparently Dreiser read all about the case, and even the part about the heroine's letters was true.