Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024
An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s longest novel, has often been hailed as his masterpiece. It is divided into three books, the first of which foreshadows the events of the second, while the third describes Clyde’s trial. The protagonist is Clyde Griffiths, the son of street preachers who live in dire poverty. Thus, Clyde grows up longing for material things he can never attain except through his own efforts.
After a series of dead-end jobs, Clyde ventures to Lycurgus, New York, hoping for a place in his uncle’s prosperous shirt factory. Before long, he becomes supervisor of the stamping room, where he meets Roberta Alden, a hardworking, pretty, vivacious young woman whose attraction to him matches his interest in her. After a few months of casual dating, the two become lovers and Roberta gets pregnant. In the meantime, however, Clyde has met Sondra Finchley, a girl of wealth and social prestige, whose way of life represents everything of which he has ever dreamed. Infatuated with Sondra, but being pressured toward marriage by Roberta (who cannot obtain an abortion), Clyde feels himself in a trap. As in Dreiser’s previous novels, however, two incidents of fate influence his actions.
The first is a news report of a drowning, in which the woman’s body was found but not the man’s. Shortly after reading this, Clyde discovers a chain of isolated lakes north of the resort where the Finchleys have their summer home. It occurs to him that as Roberta cannot swim, an “accidental” drowning might be the way out of his predicament. Telling Roberta he will marry her, he plans a pre-wedding jaunt on one of these lonely lakes, choosing a boat that will easily overturn, When Roberta tries to draw closer to Clyde in the boat, he pushes her back, causing her to lose her balance and fall into the water. At this moment, Clyde experiences a fleeting change of heart. Reaching over to rescue Roberta, however, he upsets the boat, which hits her on the head, knocking her unconscious. Although Clyde might still have pulled Roberta from the water, a “voice” inside him says that fate has acted in his favor. Therefore, he lets her sink and heads back to Sondra.
When compared with Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, An American Tragedy seems closest to the spirit of naturalism, for Clyde appears to have no conscience. Dreiser foreshadows Clyde’s indifference to murder in book 1. Clyde and some other youths are involved in an automobile crash which kills a child. No one, including Clyde, seems to care about the child. Their only concern is to get the car out of sight and then hide from the police, like hunted animals.
Dreiser also refers several times to Clyde’s “thin, sensitive hands,” a symbolic reminder of his innate weakness that makes him run from a crisis. Finally, the author foreshadows Clyde’s tendency to place his own needs over those of others. When his unwed sister Esta becomes pregnant, Mrs. Griffiths asks him for some money toward the “confinement.” Although Clyde has fifty dollars in his pocket, he contributes a mere five, keeping the rest to buy his girlfriend a coat in return for her sexual favors.
In An American Tragedy, Dreiser strongly implies his own attitude toward religion. Before she can sleep with Clyde, Roberta must overcome the scruples of her church, which say that she will be a “bad girl” if she yields. Through Roberta’s moral struggle, Dreiser suggests that the ethical teachings of organized religion are not in accord with the drives of human nature. Furthermore, he implies that religion is ineffective in bringing about desired results. In prison, some of the men condemned to die chant the prayers of their faiths, hoping for a favor from God; they still end up in the electric chair. Clyde’s mother, who prays for her son’s acquittal and tries to raise money for a second trial, fails in her efforts, and Clyde dies, doubtful of God’s existence and peace in the hereafter.
Nevertheless, Dreiser suggests that for some, religion is a source of strength. Clyde’s mother is an example, as is the Reverend Mr. McMillan, who visits Clyde in prison. Although Clyde cannot fully believe what McMillan tells him about making peace with God, he is drawn to the man’s personal magnetism. McMillan’s magnetism may derive, in part, from his deep religious faith.
The title of the novel is significant. Besides the youthful deaths of Roberta and Clyde, it is a tragedy that no one can really understand the yearnings of another’s heart. Clyde confesses to McMillan the true motive behind his crime: the material deprivation that drove him to an obsession with Sondra and her glittering world. McMillan, who has never experienced such strong longing for wealth, cannot understand, and he is unable to offer the court this evidence in Clyde’s favor. Clyde’s obsession with wealth also leads him to forfeit his chance for a warm and companionable marriage with Roberta. His matrimonial tragedy is particularly “American,” for during the 1920’s, the United States was still recovering economically from World War I, and many saw wealth as their highest goal, sacrificing other joys.
The conclusion to this novel, like those of the others, is open to interpretation. An American Tragedy ends the way it begins, with the Griffiths preaching on a street corner. Now, however, they are accompanied by Esta’s son, Russell, and two converts. In one sense, it looks as if everything is hopelessly the same. On the other hand, there is a glimmer of hope in Mrs. Griffiths’s reflections concerning Russell. Before returning to the mission, Russell asks for money to buy an ice-cream cone. As he runs to the vendor, Mrs. Griffiths tells herself, “she must be kind to him, more liberal with him, not restrain him too much, as maybe, maybe, she had. . . . ’For his sake.’” It is possible, then, that she has learned something from her son’s ordeal and that Russell’s fate will not be a repetition of his Uncle Clyde’s.