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[553] An American Tragedy – Theodore Dreiser


” On the other hand, while Roberta was not of that high world to which he now aspired, still there was that about her which enticed him beyond measure. Day after day and because so much alone, and furthermore because of so strong a chemic and temperamental pull that was so definitely asserting itself, he could no longer keep his eyes off her—or she hers from him. ” (Book Two, Ch.15, p.254)

An American Tragedy is based on an actual New York murder and in it Dreiser describes, with almost excessive details, the arc of a young man’s life up the ladder of social success and how a secret relationship with a factory girl threatens to destroy that success. Clyde Griffiths is the eldest son of a street preacher. Throughout his childhood the family is on the move, thus depriving him of a proper education. When is a teenager, determined to break away from the world bound by Bethel Independent Mission, he becomes a bellboy in a fine hotel in Kansas City. An escapade with a borrowed motor car, ending in tragedy, forces him to leave the city. A chance meeting with his father’s brother, Samuel Griffiths, a wealthy collar manufacturer of Lycurgus, N.Y., seems to promise a reversal of fortune.

And so disturbed was he by the panorama of the bright world of which Sondra was the center and which was now at stake, that he could scarcely think clearly. Should he lose all this for such a world as he and Roberta could provide for themselves—a small home—a baby, such a routine work-a-day life . . . A sense of nausea seized him. He could not and would not do this. (Book Two, Ch.38, p.414)

The uncle gives Clyde a small place in the factory, and despite the opposition of his cousin Gilbert, Clyde with his smart look and warm personality, sees the road to wealth and social position unfolding before him. He even manages to make headway with Sondra Finchley, the daughter of one of Lycurgus’s upper-class families. Unfortunately he has succumbed to the beauty of Roberta Alden, and has been injudicious enough to enter an affair with her. By the time he is tired of the poor operative in the collar factory she is to become a mother. Fascinated by two girls, trapped by one (who is pregnant) and desperately in love with the other (who is rich), on the hook of the dilemma he is impaled. He has to get rid of one before he can be with the other, and be discreet about Roberta’s pregnancy. He is fastened upon Sondra and all that she represents. He has the incurable selfishness that sometimes leads to success, but he lacks the intellectual strength to extricate himself. In Sondra he sees his opportunity to wealth and success, but he does not understand the world she lives in. He sinks deeper and deeper, being led on by his vanity and desires. A chance news clipping imbues in him a gruesome idea that will ruin his life for good.

While Dreiser illuminates us on his character’s motives and how emotions translate into physical actions, An American Tragedy is longer than necessary. Dreiser leads us, across nearly a thousand pages, to understand a killer, and to regret his fate. The novel is a massive portrayal of the society whose values both shape Clyde’s tawdry ambitions and seal his fate. All of society conspires to persuade him that his goals are admirable, perhaps even sacred. It is also portrayal of achieving American dream at the expense of one’s fundamental moral value. To break through the barrier, lifting from poverty to wealth, he must resort to criminal means. As it happens, he does not commit the murder he has planned, but he might as well have, for he is trapped in the machinery of social punishment and destroyed. His weakness is the essential shoddiness of mortality, thus making the novel timeless, despite its occasional awkwardness.

828 pp. Signet Classic. Mass Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


6 Responses

  1. I read thiis novel some 33 years ago (or so) but I recall enjoying it. I agree that it is longer than it needs to be. I remember reading how he came to commit the crime, how he “committed” the crime and the having to go through it all again when he went to trial. But it is a story that has stayed with me ever since.

    The movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff is terrific, too. It’s called A Place in the Sun.

    • I can see it being an American classic even though the ideas drawn and raised in the book (i.e. pre-marital pregnancy) are outdated. After all, the chasing after American dream at the expense of one’s moral virtue and conscience is still relevant today.

  2. This story has stuck with me through the years. I thought it was well written and don’t recall thinking it was too long. Dreiser somehow managed to get me immersed in the story because I was never bored!

    • It will be an unforgettable book. I actually enjoy his stern and contemplative writing style. The story is very straight-forward, but I was trudging a bit toward the end on the part about his court proceedings.

  3. I don’t think I ever realized how long this book was, even though it has been on my list to read for years. The fact that you enjoyed it has made me want to move it further up my list. Now I just have to hope that I can find it on my shelves somewhere.

  4. What I love about that book is how much it comments the time of it’s publishing; a novel centered around social structures when American social strictures were breaking down. Very awesome indeed!

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