Calling BS Early.
Dreiser deconstructs the American Dream.
It’s amazing that his book was written so early.
While still a product of its time, Drieser’s novel is fantastically relevant today. At its core, it’s a commentary on class and the American Dream. The story follows a young Clyde Griffiths from a lowly, street-preaching family through several iterations of social status changes. What follows is an unsettling but cathartic reading; Clyde bears the sin of our own failures allowing us to live free of the American expectation.
[story/spoilers.] An American Tragedy is a pretty long book at over 900 pages divided into three parts.
Clyde Griffiths lives in Kansas City with his poor but religious family. While they have no drive to be something more, he wants wealth. To support his family, he takes on different menial jobs. He works as a bellhop at a hotel in town getting connected with other youth interested in dancing, drinking, and spending money. A fellow bellhop convinces him to go joy riding, but accidentally runs over a kid in the street. This leaves Clyde having to flee and leave Kansas City to avoid be prosecuted.
Having fled to Chicago, Clyde struggles to return to the same status he had as a bellhop. He serendipitously runs into his Uncle — Samuel Griffiths. A self-made man, and quite the foil to Clyde’s father, he feels sorry for Clyde. He invites him to work at his factory in Lycargus, NY. Clyde takes the offer and eventually works up to a small managerial position. Since he is not of high-class status, he is not invited to family outings. This leaves Clyde to spending most of his time with one of the girls he oversees — Roberta Alden.
As he becomes emotionally and sexually invested with Roberta, his luck with high-class society changes; he begins to be invited to parties by Sondra Finchley, the daughter of another industrialist in town. Now having his foot into the door, Clyde becomes obsessed with ingratiating himself into this new society. He begins to try and play a two way game: spending as much time with Sondra, whom he now loves, while doing just enough to placate Roberta, who reminds him of his previous poor life.
Roberta informs Clyde that she is pregnant, and after failed attempts to find an abortion, says Clyde must marry her or she will reveal all. Not wanting to lose out on Sondra and a path to upper society, he plots to kill Roberta, taking her out into the middle of a deserted lake full knowing she can’t swim. He has a change of heart, but the boat accidentally capsizes. Seeing Roberta calling for help, he decides to swim away letting her drown.
Even though he didn’t technically kill her, his actions and plotting leave a trail of suggestive evidence to the contrary. The local DA convicts him of murder, and he is sentenced to death by electrocution.
[story analysis.] The story can be analyzed by diving into its title.
American: While Charlie Chaplin described the film adaptation of the novel as “the most important film ever made about America,” I think he is right about it being a purely American expose. As a 30 year old, I’ve been around the way America stratifies its society long enough to feel relatable to Clyde.
I’m one of the most non-materialistic people you meet and put high value in things outside of money. Just being here, living here and working here, though, requires you to soak up a little bit of this American Dream culture. It’s easy to internalize the expectation that if I’m not successful then it’s my fault, even though there are more factors than just will power at play.
Tragedy: The story follows the format of a traditional tragedy — a fatal personal flaw condemns the main character, and through experiencing their demise, we gain some insight to human nature and catharsis because we identify and relate to some part of their feelings and actions.
Clyde’s fatal character flaw is debatable. His infatuation with upper-class society leads him down a path of irrational choices, but that seems to be more of a societal pressure than a personal one. His weak will seems to be more appropriate as this is what leads him to get involved in relationships that he shouldn’t (whether early on as a bellhop or later with Roberta or Sondra).
I think Dresier played it right by not having him ultimately commit the murder but have him swim away. This moral ambiguity allows us to emphasize with someone who is not an outright killer. His want to escape abject poverty and the bone crushing repetitive labor is understandable because isn’t that purpose of living in America?
Fate: Clyde was doomed from the start. He wanted to do something that was already predetermined not to happen; his desire to move from the lowest class to the highest was never feasible to begin with. The series of events that lead to the ultimate climax of Roberta’s death were many and accidental. If not for the car accident in Kansas, or meeting his Uncle in Chicago, or Roberta moving to the city, or a myriad of other possibilities, none of this would happen. Clyde was but a chess piece placed in a lower-class square, and he was only following the ripple of effect that proceeded him.
Class: When Clyde gets indicted, the upper class has the wherewithal to protect itself. They distance themselves from Clyde, are able to move to manipulate the press to avoid their involvement, and navigate this potential disastrous blow to their reputation with aplomb. This is not because of any inherent skill but connections and wealth. If Clyde were upper class, he could have easily obtained an abortion, paid off the girl, or been moved to avoid any embarrassment or personal loss. The upper class will never get knocked off their pedestal — they have all the tools to stay there. For lower-class people, it only takes one misstep.
American Dream: The American Dream got Clyde electrocuted to death.
[conclusion.] This book still packs a punch today. Dreiser was naturalist writer, and you can tell: everything is mechanical and objective. It gives the narration a feel of scientific quality, and further informs the idea that this is just an investigation of variables that determined the fate of the main character. Its message is a good reminder that almost 100 years ago, people were suspicious of what the American Dream really entailed, and it still applies today.
Other People’s Take:
- Immermittwoch: “And herein lies my first beef with An American Tragedy: I absolutely despised the main character.”
- Lilolia: “And the more I read about Dreiser the more I realised that there is real debate about how good his writing actually is.”
- Lost in France: “It could probably be more appreciated for its social-historical value than as ‘classic literature’.”