Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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The novel begins with these lines:

Dusk - of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants --such walls as in time may linger in a mere fable. (1)

The emphasis on dusk and summer night evokes a sense of exhaustion and heat, of the long hours of uncomfortable toil by American workers. From there, the emphasis on walls shows a kind of closed-off mentality, of a nation besieged or seeking protection. The notice of how many people are possibly living behind those walls is a typical Dreiserian touch in journalistic detail.

Describing Clyde's childhood, we find:

The principal thing that troubled Clyde up to his fifteenth year, and for long after in retrospect, was that the calling or profession of his parents was the shabby thing that it appeared to be in the eyes of others. (8)

Describing missionary work as "the shabby thing that it appeared to be" is quite poetic, evoking the shame Clyde felt in precise terms, a clear distinction between appearance and reality, and how in this case, appearance and reality are the same in Clyde's estimation. He cannot see the spiritual fulfillment that his parents understand their missionary work to truly be. Instead, he opts to see the world as a series of acquisitions which equate happiness, as seen here:

And yet, before he had ever earned any money at all, he had always told himself that if only he had a better collar, a nicer shirt, a good suit, a swell overcoat, like some boys had! (13-14)

The emphasis isn't only on acquiring certain goods - all focused on surface appearance - but also on the simplicity of the equation. For the young Clyde, as for the older Clyde, wealth equals happiness, material goods equals fulfillment. Such a straightforward view of the world helps him mark his personal progress - or lack thereof - throughout the course of the book.

Dealing with Hortense Briggs, his first romantic interest, we are given a hint of potential trouble in his future. When provoked by Hortense on how other men could better provide for her, we discover this reaction:

At once Clyde’s countenance darkened. The witchery of her look was too much for him. The skin of his forehead crinkled and then smoothed out. His eyes burned lustfully and bitterly, his old resentment of life and deprivation showing. No doubt all she said was true. There were others who had more and would spend more. He was boasting and being ridiculous and she was laughing at him. (77)

We see a transformation in Clyde for the first time, a sense that some powerful force drives him and defines his relationship with women - and, as the fourth sentence indicated, is linked clearly to his poor origins and desire for social ascent. Thus, it is no surprise the romances in his life all represent a kind of social mobility, an attempt to either climb further up or to make use of what social standing he's already attained. When the social mobility aspect of his romances go awry - as it does here with Hortense's ridicule, and much more significantly in Roberta's pregnancy thwarting Clyde's ultimate grab for Sondra Finchley's love and social standing - Clyde's darker side becomes manifest and threatens violence.

Violence is of course not the only means Clyde employs, as he also rationalizes and makes excuses when considering the opposite sex. Pondering Esta's pregnancy out of wedlock and how it relates to his own desire for women, Clyde concludes:

Rather, as he saw it now, the difficulty lay, not in the deed itself, but in the consequences which followed upon not thinking or not knowing. (99)

Already we see how far removed Clyde is from the morality his parents preach: for them, it is the deed itself which is the difficulty, the spiritual difficulty from which Clyde turns away. By thinking of consequences, by placing the blame on lack of preparation instead of actually doing something immoral, Clyde unwittingly lays down the pattern of thought which will lead him to the death chamber.

Hortense is by no means innocent, however, and proves a useful teacher for Clyde in immoral behavior for personal gain:

After reaching the age where she was old enough to go to work, and thus coming in contact with the type of boy and man in whom she was now interested, she was beginning to see that without yielding herself too much, but in acting discreetly, she could win a more interesting equipment than she had before. Only, so truly sensual and pleasure-loving was she that she was by no means always willing to divorce her self-advantages from her pleasures. (101)

The voice is passive, non-judgmental - making a clear distinction between the narrator and the protagonist, Clyde. It also attributes a certain amount of genuine pleasure with the scheming she engages to enrich her life materially.

After Clyde arrives in Lycurgus and is forced to work a menial job at the Griffiths factory, we find a telling detail about his relationship with his co-workers:

... Clyde was not one of them, and under such circumstances could not be. He might smile and be civil enough - yet he would always be in touch with those who were above them, would he not - or so they thought. He was, as they saw it, part of the rich and superior class and every poor man knew what that meant. The poor must stand together everywhere. (198)

For his part, Clyde does aspire to move up and often keeps the lower classes at a distance, even when he works and lives among them. If anything brings him back down to earth, it is the conflict between his material ambition and his sensual yearnings. In effect, the morality demanded of an elevated status did not reflect the desires he had long harbored for women:

... he had sought to be as retiring and cautious as possible. For - after that and while connected with the club, he had been taken with the fancy of trying to live up to the ideals with which the seemingly stern face of that institution had inspired him - conservatism - hard work - saving one’s money - looking neat and gentlemanly. It was such an Eveless paradise, that. (202)

The last line works almost as a punch line, as the virtuous life that Clyde seeks to pursue in Lycurgus has its reason and merits... but ultimately falls short of his expectations, particularly his desire for sensual - and even sexual - pleasure.


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An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser Free BookNotes Summary

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