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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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FREE ONLINE NOTES FOR AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY

CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES AND ANALYSIS

BOOK ONE

Book One covers the early years of Clyde’s life and is set in Kansas City. It’s useful to see Book One as a prelude and prolonged foreshadowing of Book Two, as Clyde’s early life helps establish patterns that makes Clyde’s actions in Lycurgus seem even more inevitable.


CHAPTER ONE

Summary

The novel begins by introducing a family of six who preach on a busy street in Kansas City: Asa and Elvira Griffiths and their children. Though elder daughter Hester leads a hymn, elder son Clyde is conspicuously uncomfortable. Clyde is actually uncomfortable about many things: with the night’s performance, with his parents’ decision to work as street missionaries, with his family’s poverty-stricken situation as a result of their mission work, with the way other boys tease Clyde about his family’s work and their lifestyle. And while appearing devout, young Hester is motivated more by the attention paid upon her for her singing than any deeper spiritual calling. After two hymns and separate addressing of the audience by both Asa and Elvira Griffiths, the family return to their home, a mission house. The parents’ enthusiasm and optimism for their night’s work is not reflected in their children.


Notes

The story begins at dusk as people return home from work, emphasizing the industrial capitalist system which has come to dominate America as well as symbolically evoking a darkening of the human spirit because of this system. The spiritual work of the Griffiths brings little solace to those who witness it; if anything, people are wary because they question the wisdom of parents who would force their children to do such work. Such opinions are not entirely unfounded, as we are quickly made aware of the ambivalence the older children, Esta and Clyde, hold about their parents’ evangelical efforts.


CHAPTER TWO

Summary

Asa is a sensitive yet dissolute individual, while Elvira has a sterner, more directed personality. While Clyde has an emotional and romanticizing quality taken from his father, he is ashamed of the poverty and shabbiness of his family’s missionary travels across the American Midwest. The constant moving and devotion to missionary work has kept the Griffiths children from a solid education and, often, from the bare necessities of survival. Currently, the family live in Kansas City on Bickel Street, in a building whose front half is used for meetings; various mottoes adorn the main hall, including those warning of the evils of alcohol.

While Asa was the one first inspired to evangelical work, Elvira became equally devoted upon marrying him. And despite the many people around Clyde who praised God, he is himself skeptical of the Lord’s role in the world, given his family’s situation. The one thing about his family that intrigues Clyde is Samuel Griffiths, a brother of Asa’s who owns and runs a successful collar factory in Lycurgus, New York. Though poverty-stricken and poorly educated, Clyde aspires to a better station and disdains the more menial work that would be immediately available to him. This vanity is further compounded by his growing interest and confusion over the opposite sex, which despite his good looks, only makes him more aware of his lower social standing. Thus, young Clyde is depressed and unsure of how to proceed.

Notes

Where the first chapter creates a tableau that conveys the overall themes of the novel, the second chapter sets out some of the specific motifs that will unfold. The signs warning against alcohol foreshadow Clyde’s descent into vice as Book One progresses. The parental dynamic is made clear: while both are quite devout, Asa is the ineffective romantic dreamer and Elvira is the practical pillar of strength. Clyde takes after his indecisive and idealizing father, though unlike Asa he seeks material - not spiritual - fulfillment. This fatal combination of traits and ambitions are the core of the novel’s tragedy.

We are informed of Samuel Griffiths and the collar factory in Lycurgus, symbols of the lifestyle to which Clyde aspires and the setting for Book Two. Further, Asa and Samuel are the first clear example of Dreiser’s “doubling” motif, using certain similarities to highlight significant differences that emphasize his themes. While these men are brothers, their lives have taken radically different directions: one is destitute, unconcerned with appearances, and devoted to spiritual work; the other is rich by devoting his life to the creation of an important marker of social status, the collar.

 

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