While characters have the potential for growth and change, very few actually undergo this. Part of this is the thematic concerns Dreiser stresses, especially regarding the way social and especially class circumstances have a way of defining people's behavior. Even traits that seem different from social expectations - the touching generosity of Sondra Finchley, the conflicted allegiances of Reverend McMillan - are shown to have already existed in these characters, but are brought to the forefront by circumstances.
As a bildungsroman - that is, a novel of education - Clyde Griffiths does go through a process of learning and enlightenment. However, much of his progress is about material wealth and social climbing; ironically and quite intentionally, it is only very late in the novel that intellectual and spiritual growth become a priority. This is of course a key part of the American tragedy: that Clyde would invest so much of his life on superficial attainments, and in doing so lose his life.
However, it is best to consider the characters as a functioning matrix of
society, as people who interact each other based on their individual upbringings,
attitudes, and motivations. In this light, Clyde is not the only one who
contributed to his crime: Dreiser shows how everyone, from his mother
Elvira to his victim Roberta, to his cousin Gilbert. and even characters
such as Orrin Short played a hand in the events as they unfolded. Taking
Clyde out of the equation is possible, and the crime may have been avoided
if Clyde wasn't there: but he wasn't alone in what happened, Dreiser is
clearly telling us.
The structure of the plot is meant to be symmetrical, each Book providing the same basic cycle. Each Book begins with Clyde about to enter a new phase of his life: Independence as he matures in Book One, Lycurgus in Book Two, Prison in Book Three.
Further, each book ends with a death that also signals an end to that part
of his life: the death of the little girl in the car accident forces Clyde
to flee Kansas City, the death of Roberta ends his life as an upstanding
Lycurgus citizen, and Clyde's own death concludes his time on earth.
The themes as described in an earlier section are played out in each book of the novel, but also build in scope and consequence as the novel progresses. If anything, the major and minor themes are elevated from one book of the novel to the next, taking on greater import until they truly become issues of life and death. For example, consider the tension of social classes: what is a minor distinction between the working poor in Book One becomes a middle-class concern for Clyde as he becomes upwardly mobile in Book Two. By Book Three, Clyde's trial involves not only the wealthy of the area, but also political factions vying for supremacy.
It is possible to read each book as a story in itself, but the over-arching story is the best way to look at the themes. Taking into account the matrix of situations and characters, the theme of an inevitable tragedy of misguided American ambition spring up from Clyde's early years, from his first desire to have more than he actually had, from every encounter and lesson learned. Given the mythic nature of this theme, it seems to be played out time and again in smaller terms: from the misguided encounter with the prostitute, to Clyde's escape to Chicago, to the core plot of Roberta and Sondra.
The thematic tragedy of Clyde's story is the inevitability that Dreiser
imbues upon it, the carefully detailed and often pedantically recounted
nuances which make up everyday life. Far from seeming far-fetched and
unlikely, Dreiser's style and methodical concern for these finer points
are what elevates An American Tragedy into a work
that explores the American dream - and its inherent failures - in a manner
unlike any book before it.
Dreiser's writing style is not the most compelling aspect of his work. Even admirers of his novels admit that Dreiser's style is clumsy, overworked, lacking in subtlety, and even dully ungrammatical at times. However, there is also a critical consensus that An American Tragedy is a great work of literature, provoking the question: what makes it so great if it's often a chore to read?
While it is often difficult to wade through some of Dreiser's impenetrable prose, there is a sense of reward, of insights gained, that is the hallmark of great literature. The main virtue of Dreiser's writing is the detail he brings to each setting, a dense reportage that comes from his background as a journalist. Indeed, he is known to integrate his journalistic work with his fiction, the former being a basis for large sections of the latter.
Due to this density of detail applied to various aspects of the story, Dreiser is able to create a sense of inevitability in his writing. Plots aren't a simple A to B progression but a complex weave of events that are outside of any one individual's control. Dreiser often explores the psychological background of characters to help explain their behavior, no matter how irrational or immoral it may seem. And as narrator, Dreiser often takes the time to expose cultural assumptions and biases (some of which he himself holds) which also contribute to the outcome of events. As a result, the moments of odd coincidence in the novel often feel as natural as the events which seem more circumscribed. For example, one may say that it's odd for Clyde and Roberta to first meet outside of the workplace at a small lake, and yet Dreiser goes out of his way to provide a common-sense rationale for this occurrence: a romantic longing in each, mutual limitations on their travel plans. The stylistic nature of Dreiser's inevitability reaches its climax when Clyde faces a long row of witnesses who can attest to his action and behavior regarding Roberta's murder. In a sense, all the details Dreiser fussed over throughout the novel have come home to roost, become the very basis by which we understand Clyde's trial.
Dreiser is a very sympathetic writer, in his stylistic choices as well as his philosophical attitude. In seeking to explore a situation in great detail, he also seeks out the motivations and beliefs of his characters with similar depth. The large cast in An American Tragedy hold a wide range of social status, political positions, and personal beliefs, and Dreiser makes a point of exploring this range in as full and journalistic a manner as possible. Thus, the novel is told from the third person narrative voice but often assumes the perspective of one of the characters, most often Clyde himself. It is in this manner that doubts about his murderous acts are cast, as we are given first-hand knowledge of the way Clyde struggled to find an alternative, tried to fight off the "genie" encouraging him to murder, and finally lashed out without premeditation on the waters of Big Bittern.