How is Dreiser's AMERICAN TRAGEDY similar to the novels of English author Thomas Hardy? What is American about Dreiser's tale of moral woe?
What seems especially "American" about Dreiser's An American Tragedy is the fact that there is so much wealth in America and it is so easy, under the right circumstances, for a young man, or a young woman, to move up from the bottom of the social ladder to somewhere near the top. This fact is in contrast to the situation in most other countries of the world. Could a story like An American Tragedy happen in England or France--or India? The opportunity that presented itself to Clyde Griffiths to marry a society girl with money might have happened on rare occasions in countries like England and France, but they would have been extremely unusual and would not seem "naturalistic"--maybe because there is a lot of old money in Europe but not much new money. What happened to Jay Gould Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is comparable in some respects to what happened to Clyde Griffiths. Poor boy meets rich girl who symbolizes everything a poor boy could dream of. America is the land of opportunity, and it also offers unique opportunities for different kinds of tragedies. Because it is easier to become rich in America than anywhere else, it also tends to make people more ambitious and more greedy. In the period depicted in Dreiser's great novel, the rich were envied and idolized; they were local celebrities or national celebrities, depending on how rich they were. In his lonely room, Clyde read about the social affairs of Sondra Finchley and the people of her circle in the daily newspaper. Since that time the social elite have lost their celebrity status, and the American public, for better or worse, have switched their interest to movie stars, television personalities, sports heroes, and others. The activities of the social elite were not sufficiently varied. They held dinners, dances, parties, and traveled abroad or vacationed in their summer homes. But in Clyde Griffiths' day the rich held the spotlight.
Both novelists write in the Realism/Naturalism genre which focuses on the stark reality of life without any embellishments. Realistic novels show life for what it really is for the common people - harsh, unforgiving, unfair and uncompromising. Naturalism goes a step beyond realism by adding a layer of further darkness and hyperbole, making the reality seem even bleaker than what it really is. In the case of An AMerican Tragedy, Griffiths character's religious upbringing cannot save him from the moral decadence of his inner nature. This nature is presented as inescapable and unavoidable. Basically, Griffiths, and all of humanity, are caught as victims of societies many evils and have little chance of redemption.