Study Guide

An American Tragedy

by Theodore Dreiser

An American Tragedy Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Kansas City

*Kansas City. Northwestern Missouri city in which the novel opens when the fictional Clyde Griffiths at the age of twelve years is living an uneasy life there with his urban-missionary parents. The dingy neighborhood of his parents’ Bickel Street mission contrasts sharply with the life of luxury and excitement that Clyde craves and eventually seeks, first in employment as a bellhop in an upscale hotel, where a “fast” crowd gets him into serious trouble, and later in the small eastern city where most of the novel’s action takes place.

Lycurgus

Lycurgus. New York town between Utica and Albany, near the actual location of Troy, where Clyde Griffiths arrives at the age of twenty, goes to work in his uncle’s collar-manufacturing factory, and takes a room in a rooming house. Nearly all of the descriptions of the fictional town match the real town of Cortland, where Chester Gillette worked at a skirt factory owned by a relative. Moreover, like the historical Grace Brown, Clyde’s lover Roberta Alden works in the same factory and lives in another rooming house nearby, occasionally returning home to the rural community of Biltz.

Biltz

Biltz. New York town fifty miles from Lycurgus where Roberta grew up on a poverty-stricken farm to which she returns after working in Lycurgus. Biltz’s bleak landscape contrasts depressingly with the pleasures Roberta remembers from her...

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An American Tragedy Historical 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...

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An American Tragedy Setting

The story begins on the streets of Kansas City, moves to Chicago, and then shifts to Lycurgus, New York. It is set in the early twentieth...

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An American Tragedy Literary Style

Naturalism
Many scholars consider An American Tragedy the defining work of American naturalism, and the novel does...

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An American Tragedy Literary Qualities

The title of the novel reveals the author's belief that this story is not a personal tragedy but a national one. Dreiser presents a tragic...

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An American Tragedy Social Sensitivity

Dreiser was clearly disillusioned with the American Dream, and his concern with the conflict between morality and the pursuit of success is...

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An American Tragedy Compare and Contrast

1920s: Pregnancy outside of marriage carries a heavy social stigma for the woman, the child, and, to a lesser extent, the man...

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An American Tragedy Topics for Discussion

1. Do you think Clyde truly loved Sondra Finchley? Do you think he was capable of love?

2. Ambition implies a strong sense of...

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An American Tragedy Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Read Sister Carrie, Dreiser's first and most controversial novel. Discuss the conflict between morality and the pursuit of the...

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An American Tragedy 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...

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An American Tragedy Related Titles / Adaptations

An American Tragedy was adapted into a motion picture called A Place in the Sun (1951), which, like Dreiser's book, was based...

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An American Tragedy Media Adaptations

An American Tragedy was first adapted to film in a 1931 production with the same title directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring...

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An American Tragedy What Do I Read Next?

Murder in the Adirondacks (1986), by Craig Brandon, is a nonfiction account of the murder around which Dreiser built his novel....

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An American Tragedy For Further Reference

Pizer, Donald. Critical Essays on Theodore Dreiser. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981. Pizer, a noted Dreiser scholar, presents this...

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An American Tragedy Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Duffus, Robert L., "Too Big to Write Smaller," in New York Times, January 10, 1926, p. 24.

Gerber,...

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An American Tragedy Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. One of America’s leading literary critics updates Salzman’s collection (listed below).

Gerber, Philip L. “Society Should Ask Forgiveness: An American Tragedy.” In Theodore Dreiser Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1992. A structural analysis that also examines Dreiser’s sources, his progression through early drafts, and the novel’s effect on his career. Annotated bibliography.

Gerber, Philip L. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992....

(The entire section is 249 words.)