#5 – An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

1 02 2009

At 856 pages, An American Tragedy is by no means a fast read.  It took me over two weeks of diligent reading to finish.  At times, I found the prose to be ponderous.  But, Dresier drew me into his story early on and I became invested in finding out what would become of Clyde Griffiths.   

An American Tragedy is based on the Chester Gillette murder case of 1906.  Comparatively the OJ Simpson trial of the early 20th century, it is studied as a model case of getting a conviction via circumstantial evidence. Dresider models his protagonist, Clyde Griffiths, on Chester Gillette. 

Griffiths endures an impoverished childhood with his evangelical street-preacher parents.  As a teenager he goes to work as a bellhop at the Green-Davison Hotel in Kansas City.  Here he interacts with travellers of a much greater means than himself and the reader sees the beginnings of his aspirations to attain a much higher social class for himself.

After a tragic incident, Clyde travels about the country for the next few years in order to evade the law.  Settling in Chicago and securing a position at a high class hotel, he comes into contact with his wealthy uncle who agrees to give him a position at his collar company.  He moves to New York where he starts out in the lowest position in order to learn the company from top to bottom.  A few months later he is given an important position as a department head.  There he falls in love with his subordinate, Roberta. 

Due to a strict company rule against dating employees they keep their love secret.  Clyde uses emotional blackmail to pressure Roberta into having sexual intercourse with him.  The act is secured with his promise that he will help her “get out of it” or marry her if she becomes pregnant. 

Months later, Clyde meets Sondra, the beautiful socialite daughter of an extremely wealthy family.  Other than a few trysts, he abandons Roberta and focuses on making Sondra fall in love with him.  Despite her parents’ objections to their relationship, she agrees to secretly elope with him as soon as she reaches her majority. 

Roberta turns up pregnant and remains so despite attempts at causing a miscarriage and obtaining an abortion.  Clyde grudgling agrees to run away with Roberta after she threatens to expose him, but keeps putting the ceremony off by telling her that he needs to earn a little more money first. 

Clyde reads a newspaper article about a couple who drowned during a boat trip and formulates an elaborate scheme to get rid of Roberta and their unborn child.  He takes Roberta on a pre-wedding trip to a secluded lake.  Although he has a change of heart at the last minute, she drowns due to an accident.  He flees the scene and takes up with Sondra at her summer retreat. 

The police apprehend Clyde and the trial ensues.  The trial was one of my favorite parts of the book.  Dreiser covers it from jury selection to the carrying out of the sentence.  Every aspect is shown from several different points of view making it even more interesting to the reader.

An American Tragedy provides a social commentary on many scandalous topics.  Dreiser was an extremely forward and liberal thinker for his time. 

Dreiser addresses the uneven way society treats the parents of unwed children during the early parts of the twentieth century.  The mother was viewed as a pariah.  People believed that it was the mother’s fault that the pregnancy occurred, since she should have behaved in a more virtuous manner.  In current society, I have noted that it is frowned upon for a woman to be free with her sexuality, but men that have a lot of lovers are almost revered. 

In his introduction, Richard Lingeman notes: 

“Dreiser regarded the dominant religious morality that condemned to disgrace a young woman who was pregnant out of wedlock as harsh and unnatural, a puritanical punishment for expressing normal and natural urges.”

Clyde’s mother, Mrs. Griffiths, is one of the most tragic characters that I have encountered in American literature.  She devotes her life to spreading the word of God, yet she is unable to instill lasting values in her own children.  Like a true Christian, she stands by her children when they are in trouble. 

Religion and the motives of its followers always fascinate me.  Dreiser addresses religion both as an entity forced upon one during childhood and as an entity found upon ones deathbed.  The below paragraph helped to draw me into the story.    

“The truth in regard to Esta was that in spite of her guarded up-bringing, and the seeming religious and moral fervor which at times appeared to characterize her, she was just a sensuous, weak girl who did not by any means know yet what she thought.  Despite the atmosphere in which she moved, essentially she was not of it.  Like the majority of those who profess and daily repeat the dogmas and creeds of the world, she had come into her practices and imagined attitude so insensibly from her earliest childhood on, that up to this time, and even later, she did not know the meaning of it all.  For the necessity of thought had been obviated by advice and law, or “revealed” truth, and so long as other theories or situations and impulses of an external or even internal, character did not arise to clash with these, she was safe enough.  Once they did, however, it was a foregone conclusion that her religious notions, not being grounded on any conviction or temperamental bias of her own, were not likely to withstand the shock.”

Another thought-proking theme in An American Tragedy is social class.  Clyde’s problems come about because he is trying to make his life something that it is not.  He has a lot more in common with Roberta than he does with Sondra.  While Roberta seems intelligent and kind; Sondra is vapid and verging on annoying.  Clyde only likes Sondra because he thinks that marrying her will bring him wealth and power.  In my opinion, the current economic climate is vastly due to the need of people to “keep up with Joneses”, causing them to live beyond their means.  As Clyde proves, this may not be the wisest path to take. 

Although an extremely long novel, I did become engrossed in An American Tragedy.  I definitely recommend putting this book on your to-be-read list.  A Place In The Sunstarring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift was based on Dreiser’s novel.  I have added this film to my Netflix queue.

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One response

2 02 2009
Jennifer

L, I’m so impressed with your stick-to-itiveness. I think that’s the great thing about classic books, they force one to slow down, to accept longer character development and tend to cover very though provoking themes.
BTW, I’m still reading “Of Human Bondage” and enjoying it.

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