An American Tragedy
- Author: T. Dreiser
- Title: An American Tragedy
- Published: 1925
- Trivia: T. Dreiser never finished high-school
- …but was nominated for a Nobel Prize 1930
- Trivia: The novel was banned in Boston.
- A trial and an appeal dragged on in the courts for years.
- List: Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels 20th C
- Trivia: Dreiser based the book on a notorious criminal case.
- Chester Gillette murder of Grace Brown in 1906
- an upstate New York case that had been given
- extensive coverage in the newspapers.
- On July 11, 1906, resort owners found an overturned boat and
- the body of 20-year-old Grace Brown
- …at Big Moose Lake in New York.
- Clyde Griffiths – same initials as Chester Gillette
1. Explain the title. In what way is it suitable to the story?
The word tragedy means a drama about a serious matter
human suffering with a terrible end of events.
Tragedy here is Clyde wants a bit of freedom and pleasure.
He fails to attain it
The word American refers to Dreiser’s idea that
his in the story could happen only in America.
The barriers between social classes were low.
Clyde was able to meet Sondra (upper-class)
In England for instance, social classes did not mix..
2.What is the predominant element in the story?
Naturalism: Clyde’s life is determined by
instinct, heredity, and environment.
Run!- Clyde’s thoughtless escape after ‘hit-and-run’. (instinct)
Parents are sidewalk preachers from lower class. (heredity)
Clyde is a victim of (environment)
gap between social classes and a corrupt judicial system.
3. Who are the major characters?
Chaser of the American Dream of wealth and success.
He rises from his simple beginnings.
He is swept up in the promise of luxury and fast living.
Roberta is a poor factory girl.
She believes in love and has a secret relationship with Clyde.
Roberta is a threat to Clde’s relationship with Sondra.
Clyde plots to murder Roberta.
4. What sort of conflict confronts the leading character?
a. external – Clyde is from poor family.
He has not been raised to compete for power and wealth.
b. internal – Clyde lacks the moral compass to guide his actions.
He is motivated only by his instincts for money and a desirable mate
5. Where does the primary action take place?
Kansas City, Missouri – first job in upscale hotel
Lycurgus New York – second job in uncle’s textile factory
Lakes or ponds:
Uncle Samuel’s big house on a shimmering lake.
Clyde romances Hortence on skating pond.
Crum Lake: Clyde accidentally meets Roberta on the lake.
Big Bittern Lake: Roberta ’s tragedy occurs on the lake.
Bear Lake: Clyde is arrested arrested while boating on the lake
6. What is the structure of the story?
a. The first thing I noticed was the size of the book!
b. 100 chapters divided into 3 books, each representing a fase in Clyde’s life.
c. Book 1: Kansas City job; romance Hortence; hit and run accident
d. Book 2: death of Roberta and unborn baby
e. Book 3: capture, trial and execution
f. It is identical to a 3-act play: introduction – obstacle – resolution.
Trivia: Dreiser’s huge manuscript was cut by editors nearly in half
before it was published by Horace Liveright in 1925.
7. Does this story create any special mood?
There is a mood of empathy created in the story.
Feelings of pity, sympathy, sorrow are aroused
by the catastrophic love affair between Clyde and Roberta.
Clyde doesn’t quite decide to kill Roberta, but she dies anyway.
This creates the dramatic tension.
We feel uneasiness with her suffering.
We feel a need to find justice for this tragedy.
8. Does this story contain any of the following elements?
a. Symbolism: An American Tragedy is filled with symbols.
rented rowboats (lower class)
power launches skimming across lakes (upper-class)
cry of bird – boating accident on Big Bittern Lake (Roberta’s cry for help)
b. irony: religious upbringing cannot save Clyde from his lack of
9. Does the story have a thematic message?
Dreiser emphasized the theme of the ‘haves vs have-nots’.
People living the American dream vs people who lived hard up.
Cylde Griffith’s religious preaching parents, (lower class)
Clyde’s mistress, Roberta, a poor factory girl (lower class)
Clyde’s uncle Samuel, businessman, rich (upper-class)
Clyde’s love interest, Sondra, a rich socialite (upper-class)
- Impressive and controversial book…
- it deserves to be on Modern Library’s top 100 novels list.
- Weak point – the book is not perfect.
- Dreiser often drifts off into long convoluted sentences.
- Example: ch 32
- If you interested have a look at this one!
- “Tortured by the need of some mental
- […] not the faintest conception.” (total 98 words)
- Weak point – structure is similar to a 3 act play
- …but a very long play!
- This is probably the reason why….
- I rarely see An American Tragedy on reading lists!
- I started the book filled with enthusiasm.
- At the end of part one I realized this is a long,
- drawn out melodrama (soap-opera-ish) that seemed endless.
- Dreiser goes overboard with descriptions.
- soda fountains, hotel, belhops hopping around
- like Mexican jumping beans, grand houses,
- a bevy of factory girls….etc.
- The book felt massive.
- I dragged myself through 100 chapters…
- but must confess I skimmed the long descriptions
- …and concentrated on the dialogue, the real story.
- On a positive note…
- …it still is a classic in American literature.
- But I have read better books…
- like those of Steinbeck and William Faulkner.
- If you have the time for a long read…this is your book!