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,...
(The entire section is 990 words.)
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