An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser: Summary & Themes

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

This article discusses Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy, and the themes found therein. Read the article, then test yourself with the quiz!

The Crime Novel

Crime thrillers are among the most popular novels on the shelves right now. There is a great deal of variety within the genre, with something to please almost everyone. In true crime novels, the stories based on actual events. This genre has spilled over into television and movies, with a wide appreciative audience; however, this is not a modern phenomenon. The noted naturalist author Theodore Dreiser was also obsessed with true crime, keeping track of articles and cases in the early 20th century. The product of this obsession was his 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, based on a true crime story from New York's Adirondack Mountains region that Dreiser followed. This novel was one of Dreiser's most successful works.

Theodore Dreiser

Novel Summary

At the opening of the novel, the reader is introduced to Clyde Griffiths. He is poor, not well educated, and unsatisfied with his lot in life. His parents are deeply religious, and insist that he participate in missionary work in their community. He works various low-paying service jobs, and becomes a bellhop at a large hotel. His colleagues introduce Clyde to various vices, including drinking, and he begins to enjoy himself too much. He falls in love with Hortense, who is using him so that he will buy her clothing that she wants; Clyde has no idea that she is actually in love with another man.

When Clyde and his work friends, including the man that Hortense is in love with, get into a car accident, they unintentionally kill a little girl. Fearing that he will be connected with the event, Clyde leaves town, and settles in Chicago, where he gets another job as a bellhop. He has a chance meeting with his wealthy uncle Samuel, a factory owner in Lycurgus, New York. Samuel offers Clyde the chance to better himself by moving to New York and working for him. Clyde accepts and is brought to New York to work in the shirt collar factory.

Clyde is encouraged in New York to associate only with certain people, since he is a member of his Uncle's Samuel's upper class family; however, his uncle's social set ignores Clyde, and he becomes lonely. Despite his family's instructions, Clyde begins spending time with Roberta, a simple farm girl who works under Clyde at the shirt collar factory. While Clyde is amusing himself with Roberta, he is actually pining after Sondra Finchley, the daughter of another factory owner in town. Sondra reciprocates Clyde's interest simply because she wants to make Gilbert, Clyde's cousin, jealous.

Roberta becomes pregnant by Clyde, and expects that he will do the proper thing and marry her. Meanwhile, Clyde is becoming increasingly popular with the upper class, and finally has a chance to make Sondra his. Clyde tries to get an abortion for Roberta but is not successful. Roberta becomes increasingly demanding, and threatens to expose Clyde to his family and friends if he does not marry her.

Clyde decides that if he murders Roberta, all of his problems will go away, so he plans to make it look like a boating accident based on a story he read. When Clyde and Roberta are rowing on the lake, Clyde accidentally whacks Roberta in the head, and as she falls back, the boat capsizes. Roberta cannot swim and drowns, while Clyde swims to shore. Despite the fact that Roberta's death was actually an accident after all, Clyde is arrested and charged with Roberta's murder. It does not help that Clyde is nervous, and keeps saying various things that make him look guilty. Clyde is convicted of Roberta's murder, and receives the death penalty. His execution by electric chair ends the novel.

An American Tragedy dust jacket
Dust Jacket for An American Tragedy

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