Theodore Dreiser is one of the primary practitioners of American naturalism, a school of writing that, like its counterpart in France, seeks to convey realistically and almost clinically the effects of social conditions on individual lives. All of Dreiser’s characteristics are most clearly reflected in An American Tragedy, the masterpiece of an author who had earlier published three important novels: Sister Carrie (1900), Jennie Gerhardt (1911), and The Financier (1912, 1927). In this book, Dreiser the naturalist asserts the doctrine that the individual is struggling endlessly to survive in an uncaring world. The individual is also a victim of heredity, environment, and chance, all of which leave one with little room for free choice. Dreiser’s theory of life is largely mechanistic, and for An American Tragedy, he invented the term “chemism” to explain the chemical forces that he believed propel people to act the way they do. Humanity, according to Dreiser, is a “mechanism, undevised and uncreated and a badly and carelessly driven one at that.” Such a poor creature is Clyde Griffiths, the central character of An American Tragedy. The book, which is full of scientific imagery, shows readers how Clyde is driven to his final destruction.
Dreiser chooses to concentrate an individual’s struggle against one particular force: society and its institutions. In each of the novel’s three sections, Clyde strives not against a malign God or a malevolent fate but against the unyielding structure of his culture. In other times, people have defined themselves by other touchstones (religion, honor, war), but Clyde can answer his craving for meaning in only one way. To matter in America means, in the book’s terms, to be masterful, to have material goods and status. Clyde’s America tempts him with its powerful businesses, its glittering social affairs, and its promises that anyone who is deserving can share in its riches. That is a false promise; the American tragedy is the gap between the country’s ideals and its reality.
Doomed to failure in his quest, Clyde, whose story has been called a parable of the American experience, cannot be blamed for desiring what he sees all about him. He cannot be blamed for the weaknesses and handicaps that ensure his end. Immature and shallow, offering a “gee” on all occasions, uneducated and poor, Clyde is...
(The entire section is 990 words.)