An American Tragedy

Friday, December 5, 2014

An American Tragedy
by Theodore Dreiser

Based on the story of an actual murder committed by Chester Gillette, who was convicted of killing Grace Brown in 1906, Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths is a complex picture of the American dream gone wrong. There is perhaps no greater American novel that paints the portrait of one young man striving towards the wealth and glamour of the social class above him except The Great Gatsby. 

Published in the 1920s, the main character Clyde did remind me a bit of Nick Caraway from The Great Gatsby. He's a complete outsider to the world of wealth, but unlike Nick he's completely enrapture by the opulence. He was raised by mild-mannered religious parents who eschewed any sort of fancy clothes or drinking. He is quickly seduced by a life of partying when he begins working as a bellhop in Kansas City.

Things spiral out of control for Clyde as he starts to value the high society life of his cousin above all else. He realizes that he'll do anything to get what they have no matter what the consequences are. That’s a gross simplification of a novel that is almost 1,000 pages long, but there’s so much more to the plot. 

“The beauty of that world in which they moved. The luxury and charm as opposed to this of which he was a part. Dillard! Rita! Tush! They were really dead to him. He aspired to this other or nothing.” 

The book is split into three almost equal parts. The first introduces Clyde to the world of luxury and excess and all of its temptations. The second involves his rise in the social world and his relationship with both Roberta and Sondra. The third deals with the murder trial and his conviction. For a short time I thought maybe the first section wasn’t necessary, but it sets the stage for the rest of his life. It shows us why he values money and status. It builds a foundation for doing wrong and believing you can get away with it. 

The way he sees women is shaped by his trip to the brothel and by his sister’s experience with becoming pregnant and being jilted. The car accident that ends in a little girl’s death teaches him that man slaughter might be ok as long as you can escape without consequences. The section with Roberta is where much of this unfolds, but the seeds were planted in the first section. As it unfolds you value the structure of the novel more and more.

As Clyde progresses down that path of selfishness it becomes harder and harder to sympathize with him. He takes no responsibility for his actions and seems completely surprised when he finds himself in one difficult situation after another. He never acknowledges the fact that his own actions and decisions lead to the situations. He falls in love with someone, seduces her, gets her pregnant and he then thinks that the universe trying to keep him from achieving greatness. He was strangely delusional at times and had an overwhelming sense of entitlement.  

“For to say the truth, Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement.” 

Honestly I wasn't sure that he ever loved Sondra. I think he loved what Sondra embodied; the lifestyle and wealth, but he never loved her. Instead of dealing with the situations he creates, all he wanted to do was escape. He wanted a perfect life with wealth and power and status, but he didn't want to have to work for any it. 


American Tragedy at its core is the story of the dangers of pursuing the American dream with no moral code. We put such an emphasis on success and wealth in our country, that the “ends justify the means” mentality is so prevalent. But is it really worth it if you lose your soul in the process? 
This story seems to be a common one in American literature. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gatsby’s ambition, the awful outcome in “A Lesson Before Dying,” and of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and his disastrous end. We seem to repeat this pattern of longing for something else and making horrible decisions attempting to reach our goal.  

BOTTOM LINE: Although the moral message can be a bit heavy handed at times, this epic novel was unforgettable. The attention to detail, the large scope, the rise and fall of Clyde’s social standing, all of these elements meddled together to create a tragic picture of ambition and selfishness.  

“There are moments when in connection with the sensitively imaginative or morbidly anachronistic . . . the mind [is] befuddled to the extent that for the time being, at least, unreason or disorder and mistaken or erroneous counsel would appear to hold against all else. In such instances the will and the courage confronted by some great difficulty which it can neither master nor endure, appears in some to recede in precipitate flight, leaving only panic and temporary unreason in its wake.”

“Titus Alden was one of that vast company of individuals who are born, pass through and die out of the world without ever quite getting any one thing straight. They appear, blunder, and end in a fog.” 

p.s. This book is also the basis for the famous movie A Place in the Sun.


JoAnn said...

I totally agree with you about Clyde. At first, I felt sympathetic, but as the book progressed I wanted to shake him. Although it could have been shorter, I loved the book and will include it on my list of favorites this year. I'm hoping to read Sister Carrier in 2015.

Bybee said...

I read this book in a class called The American Novel. It was my favorite book in the whole course.

Joseph said...

It's in my TBR...though I probably won't get to it until 2016. I skipped your spoilers, but I'm definitely looking forward to it now. I liked Nick in GG better than anyone else, so a Nick-like main character is appealing.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

JoAnn - I definitely want to read Sister Carrie now too!

Susan - I would love to know what else you read for the class!

Joseph - It sat on my TBR for so many years!

Jeanne said...

Ha! I'm sorry that it took me so long, but I finally figured out that in order to comment, I had to click on the title of the post.

I'd forgotten about the ends justifying the means theme in this novel, but that does make it seem timely. What has the American Dream become, after so many decades of such reach?

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jeanne - It really is timely. I feel like that's often the test of a true classic, do its themes still apply to our life?

Joseph said...

I see that I commented when you first posted, but I skipped your spoilers. Really glad I did now. I thought this was a powerful book. You is the second review I've read that compared it to The Great Gatsby, but I didn't feel that comparison at all. This did remind me quite a bit of American Pastoral.

My review:

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Joseph - I definitely see the American Pastoral comparison! Dreams and disillusionment seem to be a common theme in American novels.