These two novels are extremely dissimilar. An American Tragedyis a long, complex work with many characters, while Ethan Frome is a novella: a brief, fast-moving story. But the basic points of resemblance between the books, if we consider them together, are that both involve a love triangle and that...
These two novels are extremely dissimilar. An American Tragedy is a long, complex work with many characters, while Ethan Frome is a novella: a brief, fast-moving story. But the basic points of resemblance between the books, if we consider them together, are that both involve a love triangle and that both end tragically. Nearly everything else about them is different, though one could make a case that the central male character of Dreiser's novel is an inverted version of the one in Wharton's story.
Ethan Frome is in love with his wife's cousin Mattie, but it's a hopeless love. Frome's wife, Zeena, is ill, and Ethan cannot, in good conscience, abandon her to run off with Mattie. In An American Tragedy, Clyde Griffiths, by contrast, is a social climber who plans not only to abandon his pregnant girlfriend Roberta but to murder her so that he can marry the wealthy and more attractive Sondra. Roberta is a poor "shopgirl," and Sondra is an heiress. (For those who are film buffs: in A Place in the Sun, the famous 1951 adaptation of Dreiser's novel, this part of the plot is basically retained, but the names are changed; Clyde Griffiths is called George Eastman, Roberta becomes Alice, and Sondra is Angela.)
For most readers, any sympathy they might have felt for Clyde (who is portrayed as a kind of victim of the American capitalist rat-race for success) disappears when he conceives the idea of killing Roberta. He takes her out in a boat on a remote lake with the intention of drowning her but can't go through with it. But an accident capsizes the boat, Roberta drowns, and Clyde, who manages to swim to shore, is arrested and convicted of murdering her. He's executed in the electric chair.
It's uncertain how much of Clyde's love for Sondra is genuine and how much is based on the fact that she has money. On the other hand, Frome's love for Mattie is real, and everything suggests that Frome is a genuinely kind, decent man, trapped with a woman he doesn't love. He and Mattie grasp that they have no future, but their love for each other bonds them to the point where they end up crippling themselves for life. Clyde destroys not only his girlfriend and his unborn child (though presumably by accident) but himself as well. But Clyde comes off not so much as a counterpart to Frome as an opposite. What the women in both stories all have in common, however, is that they are all in some way victims of their love.