The Rivers of Eros is dominated by its characters’ struggles to direct their lives and attain their goals. They find, however, that they are unable to control the circumstances and overcome the obstacles that they encounter. The tragic outcome of Clotilda Pilgrim’s life is foreshadowed on the day of her infidelity with Chester. She has been reading a novel, The Rivers of Eros, in which a promiscuous woman racked by guilt eventually ends up in an insane asylum. At the beginning of the novel, Clotilda, although concerned about Addie’s problems and willfulness, appears to be relatively happy and in control of her life. She has a definite routine that she follows. She has just purchased a new sewing machine that will enable her to earn a better living. She has a good relationship with her roomers.
Soon, circumstances radically change Clotilda’s life. She discovers Addie’s affair with Dunreith. Clotilda has lived most of her life with a sense of guilt over her seduction of Chester and betrayal of her sister. Ironically, her daughter Ruby, the child born of her unfaithfulness, lost her life because her own husband mistakenly believed her to be unfaithful. Clotilda views her adultery as an immoral act, a sin. While she is not particularly religious, she has a sense of God as quick to anger and to punish transgressions. That the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children is a reality for her. She has lost control of Addie; she has failed in what was to her the most important goal of her life. Unable to find help, Clotilda withdraws into an increasingly morose, distorted private world. Addie becomes the living embodiment of her guilt, and Clotilda kills her in an effort to cleanse her own guilt.