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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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Book Two moves the story to Lycurgus and covers the rising action of the novel.



In Lycurgus, New York, the Samuel Griffiths family slowly assemble for dinner. The head of the household, Samuel himself, was in Chicago for business and just returned to town. He called home to say that he’d be at his office until dinnertime. Mrs. Elizabeth Griffith has Mrs. Truesdale prepare a leg of lamb. Elizabeth worries about Myra, still single because she is neither attractive nor socially active, preferring to keep to herself. In contrast, Bella was the opposite, too social and part of the local “fast set” - but a relief compared to Myra, as marriage won’t be a problem for her. When Bella arrives home, she’s flush with excitement and tells her mother of how the Finchleys and other prominent families in the city were no longer planning to summer at Greenwood Lake - instead, they would go to Twelfth Lake, where the Finchleys plan to build a new summer home.

In turn, Mama points that other families - the Anthonys and Nicholsons and Taylors - won’t leave Greenwood, but Bella dismisses them as old-fashioned. Elizabeth fusses over Bella’s choice of friends and warns that Bella isn’t old enough yet to go around unaccompanied. Bella complains that she turns 18 in July. At this point, Gilbert arrives home, 23 and a dead ringer for Clyde. Bella talks to Gilbert, who’s his usual disdainful self. She finds out he’s seeing Constance Wynant after dinner and tells Gilbert of the Twelfth Lake plans. Gilbert is intrigued by the Cranstons moving to Twelfth Lake and is jealous of Grant, who fared better socially while still doing well with his family’s business. Samuel finally arrives home and Bella goes to greet him.


In the same manner that Book One’s opening chapter introduces the Asa Griffiths family, Book Two introduces the Samuel Griffiths family. At one point, Gilbert admonishes Bella against using slang, saying she’ll sound like a factory girl. There are rules of conduct in the Samuel Griffiths home; unlike the Asa Griffiths home, those rules are determined by social and class-based expectations, not spiritual uplift. The city name Lycurgus is a sly take on the manner in which upstate New York uses the names of ancient Rome for their own cities and towns: rather than referring to a place, however, the best known Lycurgus from ancient times was a Spartan lawmaker who helped bring order and reform to his militaristic city. Similarly, Clyde would come to upstate New York and face judgments of his own abilities, including the restraint and composure often associated with ancient Spartans.



Samuel Griffiths, unlike his brother Asa, was a success, arriving at Lycurgus 25 years ago and started his collar business. His demeanor reflects this difference, as well - unlike the dissipated Asa, Samuel is forceful and superior in his attitude. Arriving home, Samuel is greeted by Bella, who proceeds to tell him of Twelfth Lake and the Finchleys. Samuel is interested because of the expenses involved and what that says of the Finchleys’ finances. Upstairs, Samuel greets his wife and Gilbert asks to see him tomorrow during business hours about a certain matter.

Joined by Myra, they all proceeded to dinner. Amid the usual family banter, Samuel announces that while in Chicago, he met the son of his brother Asa, a bellhop who looked a good deal like Gilbert. Gilbert is annoyed by the comparison, Myra and Bella are made curious about this previously unheard-of relation; Bella suggest Gilbert is jealous of someone looking like him, which Gilbert denies. Samuel wants to give Clyde a start at the factory, if no one in his family objected. Nobody objects, including Gilbert. Samuel insists that Clyde be treated like any other employee, that he get no favors simply because he’s a relation.


While he clearly cares for his immediate family, Samuel Griffiths’ predominant concern is business and finances. Thus, he does not come home immediately after his return from Chicago but stops into his factory’s office to get some work done. Then he is less concerned about news of the Finchley summer home than the implication that a good deal of money is involved. Last, and perhaps most significant, Samuel is determined to not treat Clyde any better than any other employee if he works in the factory.

While such a work ethic is a kind of strength, it also keeps him from becoming more involved in Clyde’s life and perhaps averting what happens between Clyde and Roberta. All of this does not mean Samuel has no conscience; if anything, he is the one member in his family who feels obliged to help Clyde and see to his welfare. However, the extent to which he feels obliged is considerably less than what Clyde himself expects from his uncle.


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