Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Clyde Griffiths, the tragic hero. The son of itinerant evangelists, he was reared in poverty amid an atmosphere of narrow-minded religiosity. He has thus always longed for the things that money can buy. At sixteen, he gets a job as a bellboy in a Kansas City hotel and uses his unexpectedly large earnings for his own pleasure rather than to help his family. When his sister is left penniless and pregnant, he contributes only a small sum; he is buying a coat for Hortense Briggs, a shopgirl whom he is trying to seduce. Because of a wreck in a stolen car, he has to leave Kansas City. In Chicago, he meets his rich uncle, Samuel Griffiths, who gives him a job in his factory at Lycurgus, New York. The job is an unimportant one, and Clyde is resented by his cousins, particularly by Gilbert. Clyde is forbidden to associate with the factory girls, but out of loneliness he becomes friendly with one of them, Roberta Alden, whom he persuades to become his mistress. Meanwhile he is taken up by Sondra Finchley, the daughter of a wealthy family, who wishes to spite Gilbert. They fall in love, and Clyde dreams of a rich marriage. Roberta, however, becomes pregnant and demands that he marry her, thus shattering his hopes. When their attempts at abortion fail, Clyde, inspired by a newspaper account of a murder, plans to murder Roberta. Though he intends to kill her, her death is actually the result of an accident. A long trial ensues; but in spite of...
(The entire section is 634 words.)
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Themes and Characters
Dreiser uses the tragic life of Clyde Griffiths to expose inequality and victimization. Clyde is a weak-willed character, but he has an avid desire to achieve wealth and social position. He hungers for the American Dream, and he leaves his family at the first opportunity in order to achieve it. Clyde comes from a poor fundamentalist Christian family who finds comfort in God's word, but Clyde seeks material rather than spiritual comfort. The novel follows Clyde from childhood to adulthood as he seeks to redefine his identity and find success. As events unfold, his actions reveal that he will never be at peace with himself or achieve the happiness he desires.
Clyde is shallow, self-centered, without scope, and incapable of reason. Undoubtedly, he is headed for moral decline. He lacks compassion because his materialism clouds his vision. He fails to think logically because he falls victim to chance events he considers opportunities for success. Clyde is an opportunist, but his desire for material wealth is, Dreiser suggests, instinctual; it is simply part of a pervasive social struggle for survival. Dreiser's world is the ruthless, cutthroat capitalism which awards a few by destroying countless others. So unlike the American Dream, this economic and social system is unjust and unyielding. Dreiser's characters enact this theme by falling into moral traps, by becoming victims who victimize and, ultimately, by becoming prey to an unjust system.
(The entire section is 1333 words.)
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 relationship with Clyde, her supervisor, which is also taboo. Then, she has a sexual relationship with Clyde, breaking not only society's moral code but her own.
When Roberta becomes pregnant, she first tries to get an abortion and then considers killing herself. Finally, she coerces Clyde into agreeing to marry her. Clyde, however, decides to murder her instead and lures her to an outing on a lake, where she drowns.
(The entire section is 174 words.)
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. For reasons that are a mystery to her, Sondra develops some degree of real attraction to Clyde. Though she is young, she is sophisticated and careful enough to be suspect of these feelings for an unlikely suitor. In spite of the attraction she feels, she always maintains a certain teasing distance between herself and Clyde, and she never really treats him as an equal. Clyde, on the contrary, responds to Sondra's interest by being willing to sacrifice everything in order to gain her.
When Roberta drowns and Clyde is arrested, Sondra leaves town. Because of her father's wealth and position, her name is never made public during the trial. She writes Clyde one last letter, expressing some sympathy for him, but she types the letter and does not sign it, maintaining her social and emotional distance from him.
(The entire section is 237 words.)
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 evangelists, Clyde, even as a child, is much more attracted to the material than to the spiritual. As a teenager, he gets a series of jobs, from drugstore clerk to hotel bellhop, designed to take him out of his parents' world and into a society that revolves around money and pleasure. A dreamer, Clyde has vague hopes of being catapulted to wealth and status by some happy accident or beneficent relationship. It never occurs to him that he might gain all he wants through some combination of hard work and ingenuity. Clyde is too weak-willed to be the master of his own fate, so he dreams that circumstances will somehow transport him to a better life.
When Clyde runs into his rich uncle, Samuel, in Chicago, it seems that his dreams have begun to come true. Samuel Griffiths gives Clyde a job in his factory in upstate New York. Clyde's entry into upper-class society is not as...
(The entire section is 472 words.)
Roberta's father, Titus Alden is a poor farmer. He wants revenge for Roberta's death.
Belknap is Clyde's defense attorney. It is Clyde's wealthy uncle, Samuel Griffiths, who hires Belknap.
Hortense is an attractive but coarse Kansas City girl who manipulates Clyde's emotions to get him to buy things for her.
The assistant district attorney in Lycurgus, Burleigh tampers with evidence in Clyde's case to ensure that he is convicted of first-degree murder.
Rita is a promiscuous girl who pursues Clyde in Lycurgus.
Asa is Clyde's father, a poor evangelist who, with his wife, runs a mission and preaches on the streets of Kansas City. Asa is dull and ineffectual; he does not understand human nature or society, and he does not know how to respond to the tragedies that befall his children.
Bella is the daughter of Samuel and Elizabeth Griffiths, Clyde's uncle and aunt. She is gregarious and willing to help Clyde enter her social circle.
Elizabeth is Clyde's aunt (Samuel's wife). She invites him to dinner out of a sense of obligation.
Elvira is Clyde's mother. She runs a Christian mission along with her husband. She stands by Clyde...
(The entire section is 661 words.)