Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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At the trial, Clyde's defense makes a compelling case for Clyde's lack of moral fiber and reaches this conclusion:

“Gentlemen of the jury, the individual who is on trial here for his life is a mental as well as a moral coward - no more and no less - not a downright, heartened criminal by any means. Not unlike many men in critical situations, he is a victim of a mental and moral fear complex. Why, no one as yet has been quite able to explain. We all have one secret bugbear or fear. And it is these two qualities, and no others, that have placed him in the dangerous position in which he now finds himself.” (703)

It is, in its way, a simplification as insidious as the tampered evidence offered by the prosecution, seeking the complicity of the jury (all men, at a time when women didn't serve on juries) by saying they could also be victim to such circumstances as well.

The prosecution has its own ideas about Clyde, and Orville Mason's confrontation of the defendant leads to an unexpected epiphany on Clyde's part. Mason is cross-examining Clyde:

He was fairly trembling as he shouted this, and Clyde, the actual boat before him and Roberta’s eyes and cries as she sank coming back to him with all their pathetic and horrible force, now shrank and cowered in his seat - the closeness of Mason’s interpretation of what had really happened terrifying him. For never, even to Jephson and Belknap, had he admitted that when Roberta was in the water he had not wished to save her. Changelessly and secretively he insisted he had wanted to but that it had all happened so quickly, and he was so dazed and frightened by her cries and movements, that he had not been able to do anything before she was gone. (748)

Here we see that Clyde had indeed wished to see Roberta die at the lake - more important, we finally see him admit this to himself, if not directly to others.

From his own role with Roberta's death, Clyde also must contend the consequences of the death penalty if he is sentenced as such:

Death! That is what it would mean if this were final - and perhaps it was final. And then to sit in that chair he had seen in his mind’s eye for so long - these many days and nights when he could not force his mind to drive it away. Here it was again before him - that dreadful, ghastly chair - only closer and larger than ever before - there in the very center of the space between himself and Justice Oberwaltzer. (776)

Clyde's vision of the chair, dominating the space between himself and the trial judge, can be read several ways. First, it indicates how close death has become for Clyde, that the ultimate stake of his trial has become horrifyingly clear to him. Second, as Oberwaltzer is portrayed as a fair and impartial judge - and thus may symbolize justice in the abstract - this passage also emphasizes how the only way justice can be reached is by punishing Clyde with the death penalty.

Other issues concern the onlookers on the trial, as seen from this passage:

On the following morning Clyde was arraigned for sentence, with Mrs. Griffiths given a seat near him and seeking, paper and pencil in hand, to make notes of, for her, an unutterable scene, while a large crowd surveyed her. His own mother! And acting as a reporter! Something absurd, grotesque, insensitive, even ludicrous, about such a family and such a scene. And to think the Griffiths of Lycurgus should be so immediately related to them. (791)

The surreal nature of Elvira Griffiths' presence shows how the media can twist tragic situations in unexpected ways - in this case, calling to question the allegiance of Clyde's mother, whether it is for her son or for the newspaper sponsoring her. While the readers know that she is working for the newspaper to be by her son's side, we also know that what matters is the appearance of conflicting duties, as appearances are what the media and the broader public opinion are so often basing judgments. Beyond such appearances, there is a basic difference between mother and son that Dreiser alludes to from the beginning but finally states explicitly at the end:

It was as though there was an unsurmountable wall or impenetrable barrier between them, built by the lack of understanding - for it was just that. She would never understand his craving for ease and luxury, for beauty, for love - his particular kind of love that went with show, pleasure, wealth, position, his eager and immutable aspirations and desires. She could not understand these things. She would look on all of it as sin - evil, selfishness. And in connection with all the fatal steps involving Roberta and Sondra, as adultery - unchastity - murder, even. (848)

There is a simplicity and directness to this conundrum that cannot be resolved: Clyde wants certain things in his life and his mother does not understand the attraction of such things. This seemingly harmless gap in attitude has become a chasm between mother and son, however, and is another source of the tragedy in the novel.

As for the prison system, Dreiser shows how he can reach for a poetic notion and then hopelessly overreach:

There was a system - a horrible routine system - as long since he had come to feel it to be so. It was iron. It moved automatically like a machine without the aid or the hearts of men. These guards! They with their letters, their inquiries, their pleasant and yet really hollow words, their trips to do little favors, or to take the men in and out of the yard or to their baths --they were iron, too - mere machines, automatons, pushing and pushing and yet restraining and restraining one - within these walls, as ready to kill as to favor in case of opposition - but pushing, pushing, pushing - always toward that little door over there, from which there was no escape - no escape - just on and on - until at last they would push him through it never to return. Never to return! (848)

This passage does an excellent job of conveying the inhumanity of the prison system, especially on death row, and how the inhumanity of the system influences the people within that system as well, making them less human. Unfortunately, it goes overlong and sinks into histrionics. The last sentence in italics is clumsy and poorly chosen, meant to evoke the panic in Clyde but instead standing as yet another prime example of Dreiser's need to bludgeon readers with the obvious whenever he could do so.

Reverend McMillan is confused after Clyde's death, considering:

Had he done right? Had his decision before Governor Waltham been truly sound, fair or merciful? Should he have said to him - that perhaps - perhaps - there had been those other influences playing upon him? ... Was he never to have mental peace again, perhaps? (853)

One has the sense that McMillan will not ever get over his decision, with the consequence of being responsible for another man's death, no matter how much the death is considered deserved by society in general.

McMillan is not the only one impacted by Clyde's death, as we see in the closing chapter of the novel, "Souvenir". There, we find Elvira considering Russell, her grandson, who asks for an ice cream cone:

She must be kind to him, more liberal with him, not restrain him too much, as maybe, maybe she had - She looked affectionately and yet a little vacantly after him as he ran. “For his sake.” (856)

The "his" in the last sentence is clearly meant for Clyde. In effect, we find Elvira changing her ways just slightly in the hopes of not recreating the mistake with Clyde.

Given the somber mood of this chapter, one can debate whether or not this is a moment of hope in the novel, a chance to close with an optimistic view of humanity to change. Nevertheless, that change is apparent in this small decision to behave differently, to believe that this new decision will result in a better life for Clyde's nephew.


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An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser Free BookNotes Summary

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