Universidad Decana de América Literary Analysis
An American Tragedy
By Theodore Dreiser
An American Tragedy tells the story of a bellboy, Clyde Griffiths, indecisive like Hamlet, who sets out to gain success and fame. After an automobile accident, Clyde is employed by a distant relative, owner of a collar factory. He seduces Roberta Alden, an employee at the factory, but falls in love with Sondra Finchley, a girl of the local aristocracy. Roberta, now pregnant, demands that Clyde marry her. He takes Roberta rowing on an isolated lake and in this dreamlike sequence ‘accidentally’ murders her. Clyde’s trial, conviction, and execution occupy the remainder of the book. Dreiser points out that materialistic society is as much to blame as the murderer himself. Dreiser based his study on the actual case of Chester Gillette (see http://www.craigbrandon.com/MITAhome.html), who murdered Grace Brown – he hit her with a tennis racket and pushed her overboard at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack in July 1906. An American Tragedy was banned in Boston in 1927.
First Published: 1925
Type of Work: Novel
Type of Plot: Naturalism
Time of Work: Early twentieth century
Setting: Kansas City, Chicago, and Lycurgus, New York
Genres: Long fiction, Social realism, Naturalistic literature
Subjects: Values, United States or Americans, Love or romance, Murder or homicide, Twentieth century, Chicago, Moral conditions, Ethics, Attorneys, Factory management
Adapted from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_Tragedy
Author: Theodore Dreiser
Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, the ninth of ten children. His parents were poor. Dreiser’s schooling was erratic, as the family moved from town to town. He left home when he was 16 and worked at whatever jobs he could find. With the help of his former teacher, he was able to spend the year 1889-1890 at Indiana University. Dreiser left after only a year. He was, however, a voracious reader, and the impact of such writers as Hawthorne, Poe, Balzac, Herbert Spencer, and Freud influenced his thought and his reaction against organized religion.
In 1892 Dreiser started to write for the Chicago Globe, and moved to a better position with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. During this period he wrote the short story ‘Nigger Jeff’, probably based on a lynching he witnessed. The story was published in Ainslee, a small monthly journal, and collected in FREE AND OTHER STORIES (1918).
In 1898 Dreiser married Sara White, a Missouri schoolteacher, but the marriage wa s unhappy. Dreiser separated permanently from her in 1909, but never earnestly sought a divorce. In his own life Dreiser practised his principle that man’s greatest appetite is sexual – the desire for women led him to carry on several affairs at once. While in Kentucky reporting on coal miners’ strike, he was charged with adultery. His relationship with Yvette Szekely Eastman is recorded in Dearest Wilding by Yvette Eastman (1995) – she was 16 and Dreiser 40 years older when they met.
Actors Patricia Racette (Roberta Alden) and Nathan Gunn (Clyde Griffiths) during the representation of the Opera in Two Acts “An American Tragedy”, Libretto by Gene Scheer, based on the Theodore Dreiser novel (http://www.tobiaspicker.com/aatphotos.html)
* Clyde Griffiths: The novel’s main character, Clyde is driven all his life in pursuit of his idea of the American dream. He is materialistic and pleasure-seeking, and he lacks any strong moral center. He is willing to lie and to indulge in unethical and illegal behavior in pursuit of his goals, and he repeatedly runs from difficulties, especially those he creates for himself. For Clyde, there is no clear line between reality and fantasy, right and wrong. To escape his sordid life, he daydreams of wealth and luxury. To live with his acts of cowardice, he rationalizes them.
* Roberta Alden: Roberta is a poor, shy, somewhat naive girl who works in the factory where Clyde is a supervisor. She is prettier and more sensitive than most of the “factory girls,” but these qualities do not help her prospects in life; her poverty and her position as a factory worker consign her to a low position in society.
Although Roberta hopes to improve her lot in life by getting an education and by marrying as well as she can, she repeatedly breaks the rules of social conduct. She talks with the foreign workers at the factory, which is considered taboo.
* Sondra Finchley: A wealthy and beautiful young woman who lives in Lycurgus, Sondra personifies all the things Clyde values and desires: money and luxuries, social status, and a life of carefree pleasure. Clyde so desperately wants Sondra and all that she possesses that he plots to murder Roberta when Sondra shows an interest in him.
When Clyde arrives in Lycurgus, Sondra quickly and correctly sizes him up as a poor relation of the local Griffiths, and she has no interest in him. However, when she becomes upset with Clyde’s cousin Gilbert, she decides to feign interest in Clyde to irritate Gilbert.
* Titus Alden: Roberta’s father, Titus Alden is a poor farmer. He wants revenge for Roberta’s death.
* Alvin Belknap: Belknap is Clyde’s defense attorney. It is Clyde’s wealthy uncle, Samuel Griffiths, who hires Belknap.
* Hortense Briggs: Hortense is an attractive but coarse Kansas City girl who manipulates Clyde’s emotions to get him to buy things for her.
* Burton Burleigh: The assistant district attorney in Lycurgus, Burleigh tampers with evidence in Clyde’s case to ensure that he is convicted of first-degree murder.
(For a detailed list of major and minor characters visit: http://thebestnotes.com/booknotes/An_American_Tragedy_Dreiser/An_American_Tragedy_Study_Guide02.html)
An American Tragedy takes as point of departure a notorious murder case of 1906-one among many that Dreiser studied in preparation. He immersed himself in the social background of the crime to produce a book that is a remarkable work of reportage, a monumental study of character, and a stunning jeremiad against the delusions and inequities of American society. (Adapted from: http://books.google.com.pe/books?id=bQAOAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA117&lpg=PA117&dq=an+american+tragedy+social+impact&source=bl&ots=yf_42-Qq1M&sig=KhkYujCgNZLz8swV1WStPMai-RY&hl=es&ei=W5ftTKDjGISs8Ab46-iqAg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CFEQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=an%20american%20tragedy%20social%20impact&f=false)
Few novels have undertaken to track so relentlessly the process by which an ordinary young man becomes capable of committing a ruthless murder and the further process by which social and political forces come into play after his arrest. In Clyde Griffiths, the impoverished, restless offspring of a family of street preachers, Dreiser created an unforgettable portrait of a man whose social insecurities and naive dreams of self-betterment conspire to pull him toward act of unforgivable violence. The murder that he commits on a quiet lake in the Adirondacks is an extended scene of overwhelming impact, and it is followed by equally gripping episodes of his arrest and trial. Throughout, Dreiser elevates the most mundane aspects of what he observes into emotionally charged, often harrowing symbols.
Around Clyde, Dreiser builds an extraordinarily detailed portrait of early twentieth-century America, its religious and sexual hypocrisies, its economic pressures, its political corruption and journalistic exploitation. The sheer prophetic amplitude of his bitter truth-telling, in idiosyncratic prose of uncanny expressiveness, continues to mark Dreiser as a crucially important American writer. An American Tragedy, the great achievement of his later years, is a work of mythic force, at once brutal and heartbreaking.