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 and every point on the spectrum of humanity. Then, he shows that their lives reflect the opposite of the American Dream. Clyde Griffiths, the Everyman at the center of the novel, cannot make of himself anything other than what he was when he was born: poor and not particularly perceptive or resourceful. When he sees the glittering material things and the pleasures that comprise success, he desires them but lacks the attributes that would allow him to attain them legitimately. In addition, the deck is stacked against him; the "haves" are devoted to keeping the "have nots" in their place. Because of this, most of his wealthy relatives do not accept him as their equal.
Clyde becomes so obsessed with having what his own shortcomings and other people's prejudices prevent him from attaining that he is willing to commit murder for the sake of obtaining his dreams. Dreiser's point is not at all that Clyde comes to a bad end because he is a bad person. To the contrary, Dreiser conveys that Clyde comes to a bad end because he is an average person who believed in the American Dream and tried to make it come true.
While An American Tragedy is Clyde's story, Dreiser drives home his point in the lives of all his other major players. Roberta, whose dreams of improving her lot are much more modest than Clyde's, hopes to...
(The entire section is 785 words.)