(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

While a newspaper reporter in the 1890’s, Theodore Dreiser noticed a particular type of crime: A young man who was successful would murder his pregnant fiancée so that he might free himself from her and marry another woman who had more money and higher social standing. For years Dreiser collected these stories from the newspapers, planning someday to write a novel based on one of these crimes, because he felt that such a crime was typically American. This crime represented what was wrong with U. S. society. An American Tragedy is based on one such murder.

In 1906, Chester Gillette, a worker in his uncle’s skirt factory, drowned Grace Brown, a coworker. The crime was prompted by Grace Brown’s pregnancy, which restricted Gillette’s pursuit of a local socialite whose family was wealthy. Dreiser based Clyde Griffiths, the main character in An American Tragedy, on Chester Gillette. Clyde is born to a poor religious family, as were Dreiser and Gillette. Clyde longs for fine clothes, material goods, friends, and women. As a bellboy in various hotels, he improves his clothing and his financial status, but he always longs for more. Eventually he, like Chester, meets a wealthy uncle who offers him a position in the uncle’s factory—this position leads to further social and career opportunities. During Clyde’s advancement he develops a relationship with Roberta Alden, who becomes pregnant. While Clyde at one time promises Roberta that he will marry her, his success changes his plans. He wishes to marry Sandra Finchley, the daughter of a wealthy factory owner. When Clyde fails to find a doctor who will perform an abortion, he drowns Roberta, but he is caught, tried, and executed.

As in all of his works Dreiser realistically explores the motives of people in America. This long novel is considered Dreiser’s masterpiece. It weaves numerous perspectives and social issues into its fabric, never offering easy answers or solutions, always questioning the motives and values of characters who mean well. An American Tragedy represents the first time in American literature that a murderer is depicted with a degree of sympathy. This novel exposes the tragedies that occur when people seek wealth by quick, easy means. Dreiser’s complex and multifaceted representation of this crime moves beyond simple realism or journalism, revealing an elaborate portrait of an America that Dreiser saw as tragic.