An American Tragedy – Theodore Dreiser

Author Background

Theodore Dreiser was born in Indiana as the twelfth of thirteen children to a couple of partly German descent. He worked for some time as a journalist. He married in 1898 but his married life was marred by a series of affairs that led to nothing. The heavy prose of Dreiser has been bitterly criticized by twentieth century critics.

Relevance of the Title

The novel is a tragedy but there is nothing exclusively American about it. The novel tells the story of a young man who growing up in poverty, desires wealth and the good times that money can bring. The desire to rise up in society is at the core of the American ambition but the way Clyde goes about trying to reach there is tragic. Though he has a criminal mind, he isn’t a good planner so the crime is detected soon and the young man is executed. It is difficult to feel sympathy for him at any time but we do not despise him either.

Main Themes

America is a battleground for tensions between social classes. The poor and disadvantaged in America constantly strive to succeed in making money. That by itself is laudable but often young people stray in the path they take. That’s when the American dream turns into a tragedy.

Class Distinctions

Dreiser describes in great detail different classes that make up the American society. Within a class exists finer distinctions that set people apart. Thus Roberta’s parents belong to the farmer class but they own property and work hard on it. Clyde is content to do work that will never make him rich. He wants it to happen the easy way.

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Characters

Clyde

He was the son of poor Protestant evangelists who travelled from town to town preaching. He despised the deprivations that lack of money caused and dreamed of a better life. But he lacked the drive and focus that was needed for success.

Summary

Clyde Griffiths aspires to a life filled with luxury, fine clothes, a mansion and a rich woman who loves him. He has none of these as the son of poor evangelists. He travels to other cities looking for opportunities. In Chicago, he runs into his rich uncle who offers him a job in his shirt factory. Though he has been warned against it, he begins an affair with a poor girl who works in the same factory. A rich heiress falls for him making his dreams of becoming rich come alive again. Meanwhile the girl at the factory becomes pregnant and wants him to marry her. Clyde plans to kill her as she threatens to make the news of her pregnancy public. He plans to kill her by drowning as she cannot swim. At the lake, she falls in by accident but he does not help her so she drowns.  He is arrested and executed for the crime.

Quotes

  1. Dusk – of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants –such walls as in time may linger in a mere fable.

This is how the novel begins. The emphasis on darkness and shadows of a summer night and the closed housing areas where inhabitants who have no identity live in warren like houses help us understand the deprivation and poverty people experience.

  1. The principal thing that troubled Clyde up to his fifteenth year, and for long after in retrospect, was that the calling or profession of his parents was the shabby thing that it appeared to be in the eyes of others.
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Clyde is embarrassed by the profession his parents pursue, that of being missionary workers. To him it seems that others considered it to be a shabby one. He does not seem to have had an opinion of his own but was swayed by what he thought others saw.

  1. And yet, before he had ever earned any money at all, he had always told himself that if only he had a better collar, a nicer shirt, a good suit, a swell overcoat, like some boys had!

Clyde seemed to consider material things led to fulfillment and wealth would automatically produce happiness. His world view was coloured by desire for flashy possessions; beyond it lay nothing in his eyes.

  1. Gentlemen of the jury, the individual who is on trial here for his life is a mental as well as a moral coward – no more and no less – not a downright, heartened criminal by any means. Not unlike many men in critical situations, he is a victim of a mental and moral fear complex. Why, no one as yet has been quite able to explain. We all have one secret bugbear or fear. And it is these two qualities, and no others, that have placed him in the dangerous position in which he now finds himself.”

This is the attorney arguing for him before the jury. He says that Clyde’s crime has its roots in some “moral fear complex”. He is not a hardened criminal. But he commits the crime because he is a moral coward. He wants to escape facing the reality of Roberta’s pregnancy, marriage to her and living his life out in poverty – the last was what he has always wanted to escape from.