Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Kansas City

*Kansas City. Northwestern Missouri city in which the novel opens when the fictional Clyde Griffiths at the age of twelve years is living an uneasy life there with his urban-missionary parents. The dingy neighborhood of his parents’ Bickel Street mission contrasts sharply with the life of luxury and excitement that Clyde craves and eventually seeks, first in employment as a bellhop in an upscale hotel, where a “fast” crowd gets him into serious trouble, and later in the small eastern city where most of the novel’s action takes place.


Lycurgus. New York town between Utica and Albany, near the actual location of Troy, where Clyde Griffiths arrives at the age of twenty, goes to work in his uncle’s collar-manufacturing factory, and takes a room in a rooming house. Nearly all of the descriptions of the fictional town match the real town of Cortland, where Chester Gillette worked at a skirt factory owned by a relative. Moreover, like the historical Grace Brown, Clyde’s lover Roberta Alden works in the same factory and lives in another rooming house nearby, occasionally returning home to the rural community of Biltz.


Biltz. New York town fifty miles from Lycurgus where Roberta grew up on a poverty-stricken farm to which she returns after working in Lycurgus. Biltz’s bleak landscape contrasts depressingly with the pleasures Roberta remembers from her...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Roaring Twenties
The 1920s are variously known as the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, and the Dance Age. They were a time of...

(The entire section is 358 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story begins on the streets of Kansas City, moves to Chicago, and then shifts to Lycurgus, New York. It is set in the early twentieth...

(The entire section is 206 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Many scholars consider An American Tragedy the defining work of American naturalism, and the novel does...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The title of the novel reveals the author's belief that this story is not a personal tragedy but a national one. Dreiser presents a tragic...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Dreiser was clearly disillusioned with the American Dream, and his concern with the conflict between morality and the pursuit of success is...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1920s: Pregnancy outside of marriage carries a heavy social stigma for the woman, the child, and, to a lesser extent, the man...

(The entire section is 277 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Do you think Clyde truly loved Sondra Finchley? Do you think he was capable of love?

2. Ambition implies a strong sense of...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Read Sister Carrie, Dreiser's first and most controversial novel. Discuss the conflict between morality and the pursuit of the...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

At one point during the writing of An American Tragedy, Dreiser thought of entitling it Mirage. Why do you think he considered...

(The entire section is 185 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

An American Tragedy was adapted into a motion picture called A Place in the Sun (1951), which, like Dreiser's book, was based...

(The entire section is 288 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

An American Tragedy was first adapted to film in a 1931 production with the same title directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring...

(The entire section is 98 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Murder in the Adirondacks (1986), by Craig Brandon, is a nonfiction account of the murder around which Dreiser built his novel....

(The entire section is 201 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Pizer, Donald. Critical Essays on Theodore Dreiser. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981. Pizer, a noted Dreiser scholar, presents this...

(The entire section is 213 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Duffus, Robert L., "Too Big to Write Smaller," in New York Times, January 10, 1926, p. 24.


(The entire section is 250 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. One of America’s leading literary critics updates Salzman’s collection (listed below).

Gerber, Philip L. “Society Should Ask Forgiveness: An American Tragedy.” In Theodore Dreiser Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1992. A structural analysis that also examines Dreiser’s sources, his progression through early drafts, and the novel’s effect on his career. Annotated bibliography.

Gerber, Philip L. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992....

(The entire section is 249 words.)