An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser Summary

Theodore Dreiser reveals in his great novels a certain innocence of spirit, a deep and permanent curiosity, often exhaled from the astonishment of his characters’ behavior. It seems that Dreiser wrote under the belief that the world was only an insignificant mechanism, that life had no meaning at all. However, in his novels and in his personal life he responded with a direct, honest and overwhelming emotional participation. Dreiser methodically examines the condition of America through the life of the young and impressionable Clyde Griffiths. As we follow Clyde from his humble upbringing as the son of street preachers in Kansas City to Chicago to upstate New York in pursuit of altering his lot in life, Dreiser seemingly leaves no aspect of society untouched by his prodding, examination and questioning of its legitimacy, foundations and effect on us as humans.

“An American Tragedy” is an uncomfortable book and for me, it was an emotional rollercoaster. As Clyde’s story unfolds we are witnesses to scenes of poverty, lavish luxurious life, cheap thrills of brothels and booze ups in the big city, bucolic amusements of mid 20th century rural life, the power of lust and greed, but also of faith and love and the fact that we have no choice but to go on until the end. Theodore Dreiser restored the complex situation of a young man raised in poverty and deprivation in a family of religious missionaries, who wanted to pass into a new social class. The action flows slowly, “as magma”, and is preserved in three serious volumes with no stop for any surprises. I slowly came to enjoy the unfolding of this monotonous series of events. I lost a few nights with the main character that I got attached to at the beginning, but I ended up adjudging him. All events happen around the main character, Clyde: early manifestations of his personality, getting the first job, appearance of the first friends, first love or passion, the accident in which he was involved and because of which he was forced to flee from their parents, from Kansas City, the rebellious life in Chicago until reaching Lycurgus.

 Clyde arrives at this small, upstate New York town where a distant uncle owns and operates a factory. Clyde is given a job in the factory, and even raised to a senior position, however once again we see him torn between his desire to live the high life and his inner lusts. Inevitably he gives into his lust and forms a relationship with one of his employees, something that is forbidden in the factory. This becomes even more complicated when it turns out that the woman that he is sleeping with becomes pregnant. Now, ironically, most of the upper echelons of society would easily be able to get out of this situation, but Clyde is not there yet (even though he is associating with his Uncle’s friends) and decides to take the easy way out: kill her. Unfortunately, the easy way out is not necessarily the best way out and he is caught and executed. Based on a real criminal case from 1906, Dreiser used the story as a basis for one of his continuing themes, that of the illusory nature of the American Dream and the pointlessness of pursuing success. Clyde took Roberta to a lake and killed her. He swam to the other side and ran through the woods, while Roberta was shouting for help. He was seen by some residents of the region who then testified against Clyde at trial – they recognized that it was the young man who fled from that tragic accident and drowned a young pregnant. The second part of the novel is devoted to the trial process undergone by Clyde. Only in jail he realizes that wealth in society is no longer so important, and he would rather go somewhere far away, to forget all the torment he has been through, fighting with himself and with the painful thought that death is coming.

Clyde is the harbinger of his fate. His lusts get the better of him and when he finds himself in the mess he takes the easy way out. Despite all this, looking over the characters of this book, it does not draw me in as the great tragedies do. It is one of those painful books where you see where the main character is heading, but unlike a true tragic hero, you do not sympathise with him. We see Clyde as being somebody fully responsible for his actions and deserving of the consequences. However, because we have been drawn into Clyde’s life, we do not want to see anything bad happen to him; we want to see him succeed, but this is not going to happen. At least, in the end, he acknowledges his sin and seeks forgiveness.

The book is primarily a tragedy of the American dream, which will be shattered from the first minute to the last page of the novel. Dreiser’s writing contains a pronounced tinge of religious approaches and makes frequent references to God. The tragedy of this novel is in addition to the death of some poor kid, the tragedy of losing hope and ruining the dreams of a young ambitious man with a desire to become someone in life. The tragedy comes in different forms: the lure of wealth, of love, of religion. The only happy characters in the novel are the wealthy ones; the only lucky characters are born in rich families. Wealth means first of all a social status. Happiness is when others believe you are happy and wealth, if others think you are rich. When the main character almost succeeded his plan, his past and poverty brutally pulled him back. The thrill of love and the passion for money are strong feelings that pierce us all. But only the rich can withstand these human weaknesses, ignore them or exceed them, while the poor are the most vulnerable.

“An American Tragedy” is the tragedy of a man who discovers that the engine of his life is money and the engine of his wildest impulses is love. Religion cannot stop either of them. Moreover, religion channels them in the wrong direction. When I turned the last page, I sadly read “the end” that always creates a gap between us and the story we lived. The story ended and I turned back to my reality full of worries, problems, needs and thoughts, but I was also happy to get out of that world which had become so unbearable.

Consulted work

Lehan, Richard. “Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: A Critical Study.” College English (1963): 187-193.
Newlin, Keith. A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.

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