Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658
The “Genius” is generally conceded to be the weakest of Theodore Dreiser’s major novels, but critical opinion differs as to whether it is a magnificent failure or simply a failure. Its weaknesses generally derive from the fact that Dreiser was too subjectively involved with his artistic protagonist to clarify his ideas. Although all of Dreiser’s writings contain many transcriptions of direct experience, The “Genius” chronicles traumatic events that were recent personal history. In many aspects, Eugene Witla’s artistic career closely parallels Dreiser’s own—impoverished youth, odd jobs, modest artistic success, nervous breakdown, restoration, financial success, monetary and professional collapse, and, finally, serious artistic endeavors. More important, in terms of Dreiser’s emotional identification with the story, is the fact that Eugene’s marriage to Angela Blue—with all of its consequent disappointments, frustrations, hostilities, and psychic damage—is a thinly disguised rendering of his own drawn-out, agonized marriage to Sallie White.
If the extreme subjectivity of The “Genius” weakens the book artistically, however, it also makes it a vital document to anyone interested in Dreiser’s life and works. The novel focuses on the tensions among three fundamental human elements: the urge to artistic creation, the sexual drive, and the corrupting influence of material success. For all of its complexity, inconsistency, redundancy, and confusion, at the center of The “Genius”—and what gives the novel its redeeming strength—is Eugene’s prolonged and agonized attempt to reconcile those three forces.
In the opening segment of the book, Eugene is introduced to creative activity and sexuality almost simultaneously. His artistic impulse, like Dreiser’s, is to portray life as realistically and graphically as possible. His vision of women, however, is idealistic: The perfect woman is beautiful, sensual, and “always eighteen.” His sexual impulses are intensified by the fact that he seeks an impossibility and becomes increasingly frustrated in his effort to find that ideal—which recedes even further as he ages.
His situation is made more complicated and painful by his foolish marriage to Angela, the one woman for whom he feels, at best, a lukewarm sexual attraction. Initially, Angela represents America’s small-town, conservative, hypocritical morality, especially in sexual matters. Her narrowness, provinciality, possessiveness, and domineering attitude toward Eugene frustrate both his artistic development and his personal fulfillment. When he begins to drift to other women, Angela becomes sexually aggressive in an attempt to save the marriage. In the novel’s most absurd hypothesis, Dreiser ascribes Eugene’s nervous breakdown to the excessive sexual activity Angela instigates.
Dreiser also blames Angela for Eugene’s turn from artistic creativity to crass commercialism. It is at her prompting that Eugene puts his painting aside and becomes an advertising executive. It is suggested, therefore, that a curious alliance of sex, materialism, and middle-class morality have combined temporarily to suppress Eugene’s creativity; his return to serious painting does not result from a repudiation of materialism but is the consequence, once again, of his sexual adventuring. Eugene’s affair with the daughter of a rich and powerful socialite costs him his job, his fortune, and his social standing, but it also forces him back to the easel, where he apparently regains all of his creative powers quickly.
Dreiser demonstrates that even the strong-willed and talented are ultimately buffeted by forces over which they have little control. Despite his remarkable abilities and powerful drive, Eugene allows major decisions—whether to be an artist, to marry, to become a businessman, to return to painting—to be made for him by outside circumstances and internal impulses over which he chooses to exercise little conscious control. At the end of the book, there are hopeful hints—his painting, his “forgiveness” of Angela, his feelings for his daughter—but the final image is that of an aged and unreconciled artist who feels no personal satisfaction, no social identification, or even a conviction that his own life and art have real value and meaning.