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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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ONLINE STUDY GUIDE FOR AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BY THEODORE DREISER

ANSWER KEY

1. c

2. c

3. b

4. b

5. a

6. c

7. d

8. a

9. c

10. a

11. b

12. a

13. c

14. d

15. c


ESSAY TOPICS / BOOK REPORT IDEAS

1. Compare the real-life story of Chester Gillette to the story Theodore Dreiser writes. What are the significant similarities? What are the significant differences? Citing specific examples, what is gained or lost by these decisions: that is, how does a decision to change a certain aspect of the Gillette case better serve Dreiser thematically or dramatically?

2. Consider the structure of the novel, especially the way each Book re-iterates and magnifies the general plot and theme. What is achieved by writing in such a manner? How does Dreiser avoid being too repetitive or reductive on this level of the novel? What does this structure tell us about Dreiser's view on life, on human nature?

3. Is the American dream as unattainable as Dreiserís work claims? Given the novelís structure and plot, is there any way Clyde could have achieved his dreams? For example, would this story have been as satisfying if Clyde had escaped punishment for his crime?

4. Imagine if this story was told from the perspective of the women in Clyde Griffiths' life. How would it differ? What issues would be emphasized that aren't considered as much with Clyde as the protagonist? Does Clyde come across as more or less sympathetic with such a change of perspective?

5. Examine the different strata within a specific social class in the novel, drawing specific examples from specific characters. For example, what are the different kinds of lower class groups in the novel? How are their values or beliefs different, what led to these differences, and are these various strata united in any significant manner?

6. Consider which major characters in the novel are morally uncompromised and contrast it to the characters who are very much compromised. How does each group come across to the reader? Are characters necessarily less sympathetic for being morally compromised - or for that matter, less believable if uncompromising in their actions and beliefs? Are there any amoral characters - that is, those who have no moral beliefs they are trying to promote?

7. Compare the testimony Clyde gives in Book Three, Chapter Twenty-Four to the way events are presented in Book Two. How much do the two vary, where are they key points of divergence? What is achieved in these differences? How much of these differences reflect the author's attitude about the protagonist? What does this tell us about the nature of storytelling?

8. Compare the heroine of Dreiser's first novel, Sister Carrie, to Clyde Griffiths. What do they have in common? What sets them apart? Whose story is more tragic, and why? Whose story is more ironic? What themes occupies Dreiser and drives his protagonists?

9. Using An American Tragedy, consider the basic aims and aesthetic choices of literary naturalism. What are the flaws in this literary movement, what are the advantages? Does the novel ever veer significantly from the tenets of naturalism - if so, when and why?

10. What is Dreiser's attitude about human sexuality in the novel? Address this issue in light of historical differences in morality from today and the turn of the twentieth century. Is the way Dreiser describes sexuality less shocking than it was at his own time? Why or why not? What about the consequences of sexuality, the relationship of morality to sex? How has that either changed or remain the same in the past century? What lessons can still be gleaned from the novel in this light?

 

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