The Rivers of Eros Summary
by Cyrus Colter

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The Rivers of Eros Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Rivers of Eros, set on the South Side of Chicago in 1971, is the story of Clotilda Pilgrim and her efforts to protect her grandchildren and to help them achieve happy and successful lives. It is also the story of her inability to understand herself or to cope with the difficulties of her own life. Clotilda is a middle-class widow who sews and takes in boarders to earn a living for herself and her grandchildren, Adeline (Addie) and Lester. Clotilda lives with an ever-present sense of guilt and responsibility for the tragedy that took her daughter’s life and that may destroy the lives of her grandchildren.

As a young woman, Clotilda seduced her sister Pearl’s husband, Chester, and had a daughter by him. Years later, this daughter, Ruby, was violently murdered by her husband, Zack Parker. Zack had mistakenly believed that Ruby was having an affair with Sonny Greenlee, a mechanic who worked in his garage. Addie, a young child at the time, witnessed the murder. She is plagued by nightmares and refuses to talk about her mother.

Clotilda is determined to shield her grandchildren from violence and despair. She has problems dealing with Addie, however, because she is afraid to discipline her granddaughter. Addie is headstrong, defiant, and searching for excitement in her life. She finds it with Dunreith Smith, the married brother of her friend Thelma. Dunreith, who has grown up on the streets, is an alcoholic, a drug user, and a womanizer who is often in trouble with the police. Addie is fascinated by him and is soon involved in a sexual relationship with him.

When Clotilda discovers that Addie is sexually active and involved with this disreputable and dangerous man, she is devastated. Ridden with guilt, she slowly loses contact with reality. She believes that Addie is doomed to hell and cannot be saved. Dunreith eventually breaks off the affair, and the despondent Addie attempts to kill herself. At this point, Clotilda rejects her. Addie attempts to regain her grandmother’s love and approval, but it is too late. Clotilda has disappeared into an unhealthy mental state. One day, while alone with Addie, Clotilda murders her by clamping a plastic bag over her head and violently twisting it.

A subplot in the novel deals with Clotilda’s three boarders, Letitia, Hammer, and Neeley. Hammer is writing a book to be called A History of the Negro Race. Letitia, who is looking for a husband, begins typing his book. As they work on the book, a relationship develops between them. Neeley, a lost soul since his mother’s death, constantly heckles Hammer about his book, yet looks upon him as his only friend. The three boarders try unsuccessfully to help Clotilda.

At the end of the novel, Hammer, Letitia, and Lester are returning from the Elgin State Hospital, where they have visited Clotilda. Letitia, who is now Mrs. Ambrose Hammer, is driving the car, a used Chevrolet. Lester is extremely upset. His grandmother was thin and haggard looking in the hospital, and she did not know them. As a mental patient, she is kept alone.

Letitia assures Lester that everything will be all right if he learns to accept the situation. She tells him he is their son now and describes the room that he will have when they move to their new house. Neeley will also live with them. She suggests to Hammer that they not work on the book that evening. Hammer agrees but quickly once again withdraws into himself. Lester, pressing his face against the car window, keeps repeating that he will visit...

(The entire section is 863 words.)