An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser's massive novel An American Tragedy was published in December 1925 in two volumes.

Coming in the middle of Dreiser's long career, it was the first novel to earn him fame and wealth, though not the first to be controversial. An American Tragedy is a detailed portrayal of the dark side of the American Dream—the story of what can happen when an ordinary man's desire for wealth and status overwhelms his moral sense. Dreiser built the novel around a real-life crime after spending years researching incidents in which men murdered women with whom they had been romantically involved but who had become inconvenient for one reason or another (often because of an unwanted pregnancy, as in the novel). Dreiser chose as his starting point the case of Chester Gillette, who drowned his pregnant girlfriend in a New York lake in 1906. Like the novel's Clyde Griffiths, Chester Gillette was electrocuted for his crime. An American Tragedy is widely considered Dreiser's best novel and an important work of American naturalism. Naturalism, which began in Europe and flowered in America, is a literary style that explores the premise that individuals' fates are determined by a combination of hereditary and environmental constraints that leave no room for free will or true individual choice. Some scholars and critics consider An American Tragedy one of the greatest American novels of any style or period.

An American Tragedy Summary
Book 1 An American Tragedy opens on a summer evening in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early years of the twentieth century. Dreiser introduces twelve-year-old Clyde Griffiths along with his family: his father, Asa, and mother, Elvira, poor evangelists who run a mission in a shabby part of the city; and his two sisters and one brother. From the beginning, Clyde is antagonistic toward his parents' beliefs and activities. He is entranced by the material world that his parents shun. As a teenager, Clyde gets a series of jobs in increasingly glamorous settings—from streetcorner (as a...

Book 2

Book 2 opens three years later. Clyde is now living in Lycurgus. He fled to Chicago after the car accident and, at his job at the Union League Club, encountered his wealthy uncle, who was on a business trip. Samuel Griffiths gave his nephew a job in his shirt factory. Clyde's cousin Gilbert resents him. Being the nephew of the factory owner makes Clyde the social superior of the workers, but most of his relatives see him as an inferior. Clyde is briefly attracted to a lascivious factory worker named Rita Dickerman. When his uncle promotes him, though, he shifts his sights higher.... Book 3 Clyde flees the scene of Roberta's death, but circumstantial evidence, including letters to Clyde from both Roberta and Sondra, leads to his arrest for first-degree murder. Sondra leaves town, and her identity is never publicly revealed. Samuel Griffiths hires attorneys for Clyde, and they devise a complex defense strategy for a client whom they view as extremely inept. Clyde lies to everyone, including his attorneys, about his intentions and actions. After a long trial, a jury finds Clyde guilty. His mother's efforts to have his death sentence overturned or commuted fail. Clyde... Themes The American Dream as Illusion The idea of the American Dream is that all Americans have the opportunity to improve themselves economically and socially. In America, it is said, a person's circumstances at birth place no limit on his or her potential; people can make of themselves whatever they choose and rise as high as they are willing to climb. If Dreiser's message in An American Tragedy can be summed up in a sentence, it is: the American Dream is a lie. Dreiser creates a microcosm of America by introducing characters that represent every stratum of society... The Historic context The Roaring Twenties The 1920s are variously known as the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, and the Dance Age. They were a time of both success and excess. More Americans were rich than ever before,

thanks to a booming stock market, rising land values, new inventions, and new ways of producing goods that made things affordable to more Americans. Even average-income Americans began to acquire conveniences that had been either unavailable or unaffordable just a few years before: cars, radios, indoor plumbing, electric refrigerators and washing machines, and more. With so... Characters

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. She enters into a romantic... 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.... 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. The son of poor, shabby... Other characters 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. Topics for Further Study At one point during the writing of An American Tragedy, Dreiser thought of entitling it Mirage. Why do you think he considered this title? Which of the two titles do you think better suits the book, and why? Do you agree with the jury that convicted Clyde of first-degree murder? Why or why not? If you disagree, what crime, if any, was Clyde guilty of, and what punishment did he deserve? Do some research to learn about the crime on which Dreiser based his book. Discuss similarities and differences between the true story and the fictional one, and speculate...

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