Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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The protagonist of a story is the main character who traditionally undergoes some sort of change. Clyde Griffiths is the central character of the novel, the one whose progress we follow throughout the novel.


The antagonist of a story is the force that provides an obstacle for the protagonist. The antagonist does not always have to be a single character or even a character at all. In a large sense, American culture is the antagonist. However, individual obstacles to Clyde's goals are pointed out over the course of the novel: his cousin Gilbert Griffiths, his lover Roberta Alden, district attorney Orville Mason, and finally the Reverend Duncan McMillan. The first two deprived Clyde of the opportunity to pursue higher social standing; the latter two deprived Clyde of his ability to stay alive.


Clyde kills Roberta, ensuring that her pregnancy will not spoil his chances with Sondra Finchley. However, his murder is discovered and he's caught, then placed on trial.


Clyde is found guilty, sentenced to be executed, and dies on the electric chair, losing his chance at a commuted life sentence when Reverend McMillan decides not to speak on his behalf.


An American Tragedy follows the life of Clyde Griffiths from late childhood to his infamous death. Beginning his life as the impoverished son of street missionaries, young Clyde aspires to a more affluent life with luxuries, fine clothes, and a woman who'll love him. As a young man, Clyde achieves a measure of this as a bellhop for the Green-Davidson hotel in Kansas City until a car accident involving the death of a little girl forced him to flee the city.

Traveling and working under a different name, Clyde winds up in Chicago and meets his prosperous uncle, Samuel Griffiths. Samuel invites Clyde back to the city of Lycurgus, New York, to work at his collar factory. Clyde accepts, believing he'll have a chance to work up social circles and become as rich and prominent as his uncle. However, he begins as a common laborer in the shrinking room before being promoted to manager of the stamping department. Going against company wishes, Clyde seduces one of his employees, Roberta Alden, a poor farm girl from nearby Biltz.

At Moon Cove on Big Bittern, Clyde finds himself unable to murder Roberta when she touches him, catching him by surprise and provoking his anger. He unintentionally lashes out at her, knocking her over and tipping the boat. He then lets Roberta drown to death, as he originally planned.

Soon, Roberta's body is discovered and Clyde is caught, put on trial, and sentenced to be executed. Clyde has a chance at escaping the death sentence through the intervention of a Reverend, Duncan McMillan, but McMillan has doubts about Clyde's innocence and allows the execution to take place.


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An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser Free BookNotes Summary

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