Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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Dreiser does not use many abstract symbols or motifs in his story, wishing to make them as natural and realistic as possible.

The genie and the bird are the two most fanciful symbols employed in the novel, made palatable to the realism of the novel by tying them closely to the imaginative flights Clyde's mind takes while planning and committing Roberta's murder. In a way, the genie and the bird are similar figures: both are figures that can be exotic (evidenced by the strange caw of the bird) and can defy gravity - that is, hovering above the fray, observing and judging Clyde's actions without holding any responsibility. However, they seem to encourage very different things: where the genie is clearly the dark side of Clyde's wishes, goading Clyde into murder for the "greater good" of Clyde's personal betterment, the bird judges Clyde's murderous intentions with sounds that provoke feelings of guilt and panic in Clyde. The fact that he cannot see this bird makes it more fearsome, elevating it to a kind of omniscience similar to God, a higher calling that Clyde is aware of but refuses to heed for most all of the novel.

Doubling is another strategy employed by Dreiser, showing too similar situations or people but emphasizing how a key difference leads to very different outcomes. One such example are the two Griffiths brothers, Asa and Samuel: while Samuel’s pragmatism and resolve led him to become a prominent businessman with a good reputation, Asa is a weak man whose romantic personality leads to a less admired and more irresolute life as a street preacher. A related example would be the two Griffiths cousins, Clyde and Gilbert, who actually look like one another - something mentioned repeatedly throughout Book Two. Whereas Clyde has the stronger physical features, Gilbert has the advantages of a more resolute personality and a wealthy upbringing. While Clyde has opportunities to raise himself above his poverty-stricken, ill-educated beginnings, he cannot achieve the same prominence that Gilbert does.


Title: An American Tragedy

Author: Theodore Dreiser

Date Published: 1925

Meaning of Title: The American pursuit of affluence and wealth is often the source of an American's downfall.

Setting: Midwest America, then upstate New York.

Genre: Tragedy

Protagonist: Clyde Griffiths

Antagonist: American culture in general: Gilbert Griffiths, Roberta Alden, Orville Mason, Duncan McMillan as its representatives.

Mood: Somber, introspective.

Point of View: Third person with frequent forays into a particular character's perspective, most often Clyde's.

Tense: Present.

Exposition: Clyde is introduced as a child, yearning for a more affluent and romantic life than what his family leads as street missionaries in the cities of the Midwest.

Rising Action: Clyde's desire for social and financial affluence force him to choose between Roberta Alden, the poor factory girl he impregnated, and Sondra Finchley, the daughter of a rich factory owner.

Climax: Clyde kills Roberta at Big Bittern, neglecting to save her from drowning when his murder plot goes awry.

Outcome: Clyde is arrested for his crime, placed on trial, sentenced to death and executed, though his life could have been saved by the intervention of Reverend McMillan.

Major Themes: The contradiction of American ambition, differences in social class.

Minor Themes: The lure of materialism and the corrupting influence of power.


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An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser Free BookNotes Summary

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