The defining theme of An American Tragedy - indeed, the basis for its title - is the contradiction of American ambition. Dreiser has stated repeatedly that the desire to rise up socially and financially in modern America often holds the very seeds by which such desires are denied. This holds especially true for the poor of America, who are most desperate to attain a higher status and least equipped to properly do so. In pursuing a better life for himself, Clyde is doing exactly what's expected of him by American society - however, in murdering Roberta, he overstepped the boundaries of the society in which he wanted to excel. Was murder a necessary part of his actions - and thus, an acceptable part of the American dream? No, but Dreiser structures and writes the novel so that Roberta's murder became inevitable for Clyde in his desire to be with Sondra Finchley.
Related to this is the theme of tensions between social classes in America. Dreiser goes to great troubles to describe the differences between the poor, the middle class, and the rich. If anything, Dreiser draws even finer distinctions than these very general ones: for example, the social class that Clyde's parents inhabit and the ones that his fellow bell hops inhabit are quite similar to society in general, but Clyde is acutely aware of the differences in income and in attitude that make the latter lifestyle more affluent and engaging.
When Clyde encounters Roberta Alden's family, poverty-stricken farmers who
nevertheless own property and work steadily, we find yet another clear
distinction between kinds of people within a general social class. As
someone who wishes to move up the social ladder, Clyde becomes privy to
a wide swath of America and the different social classes it encompasses,
from the very poor to the fabulously wealthy. This provides Dreiser with
the ability to explore and dissect each group to a certain degree, showing
not only their material wealth but also their attitudes, beliefs, and
their opinions on other social classes (brought out most vividly whenever
Clyde's upward mobility is made known). In such a manner, Dreiser aims
to make his novel an allencompassing, truly American tragedy.
Related to the major themes are minor themes such as the lure of materialism and the corrupting influence of power.
The lure of materialism isn't solely the acquisition of wealth and goods, but the attraction such wealth and goods holds over people, often at the expense of other values. This is evident from the start, given Clyde's constant desire to move away from his parents' spiritual teachings in order to pursue a more affluent lifestyle and more fashionable appearance. Not even Roberta Alden is immune to materialism: she is won over by Clyde's gifts and compares herself unfavorably to the richer women that Clyde meets.
The corrupting influence of power is evident from the moment Clyde aspires beyond his parents' spiritually-defined lifestyle. People in charge of Gilbert often abuse their position, forcing him to do certain tasks or asking for a share of his tips. Upon moving to Lycurgus to work at the collar factory, Clyde is treated poorly by his own cousin Gilbert Griffiths under the guise of professional conduct but really out of jealousy and anger towards Clyde. When he is promoted, Clyde uses his role as a manager to help persuade Roberta to have sex with him. When he's put on trial, Clyde is unaware that there is another conflict besides whether or not he's guilty of murder: the Republicans and Democrats of the county had taken sides in the hope of gaining enough prominence and leverage to win a judgeship election.
Another theme to consider is the influence of the media on American society.
From the movies that enchanted a young Clyde to the newspaper articles
about Sondra and her friends, Clyde is molded by what the media tells
him is desirable, provides a template by which he shapes his own ambitions.
Thus, it is no surprise that he takes his cue for Roberta's murder from
a newspaper article he reads. Ultimately, the media proves his undoing
as well, painting him as a killer of the worst sort and, when he is found
guilty, abandoning coverage of his appeal for newer, more sensational
events that will appease the audience of which Clyde once was a member.
The mood of An American Tragedy is that of any other tragedy - somber, reflective, often emphasizing the inevitable turn of events that leads to the hero's downfall.
Cite this page:
Mescallado, Ray. "TheBestNotes on An American Tragedy".
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