The novel “An American Tragedy” published in 1925. It based on a real event, when Chester Gillette murdered his girl-friend Grace Brown, which happened nineteen years earlier. In the aspect of ideology, “An American Tragedy” was an imaginative response to light novels, published in the USA in early XX century, which cultivated in the country’s population the idea that one of the ways to realize the famous “American dream” can be “Cinderella’s trail”: a poor young man meets a girl from a well-to-do family, marries her, receives a very handsome dower and takes a high position in society. By his novel, Dreiser made an attempt to dispel this myth, having pointed out its inadequacy in conditions of usual American realia.
The main character of the novel, Clyde Griffiths, is “true to the standard of the American youth, or the general American attitude toward life”. Since his very childhood he has been “yearning for a likeness in all things” with the majority of his fellow citizens, placing material values higher than spiritual ones. Having received a job as a bellhop in the “Green-Davidson” hotel, the young man who was risen in an exceptionally religious evangelical family joyfully plunges into a new attractive world with good earnings (based on good tips), devoted friends (whom he had almost no hope to find as a child because of his parents’ specific activities), beautiful girls who agreed to spend their time with him, and entertainments which were impermissible by his past way of life or by existing public morals – feasts in restaurants and visits to houses of ill fame. Clyde fails to stand a crash with real life at once: having become an accidental culprit of a girl’s death on the road, the seventeen-year-old boy abandons everything (his loving parents, his elder sister in trouble, his job) and runs away from Kansas-city. This is the end of Book 1, which introduces to the reader the main character’s basic features: his love of money and entertainments, losing his head over women’s beauty, his lack of life understanding and his inability to stand up for himself.
The second part (Book 2) of “An American Tragedy” tells a true story of relations between Clyde Griffiths and Roberta Olden, a simple worker from “Collar and Company” of Lycurgus, which belonged to a rich manufacturer and the young man’s uncle Samuel Griffiths. The third part is a judicial transformation and a moral continuation of the second part; it studies the components of the crime in thorough details, presents the assumed story of the girl’s murder, and shows that after the guilty verdict is announced, a certain moral crunch takes place in Clyde’s conscience.
The main protagonist’s feature which led him to the tragedy, is cruelly and mercilessly put to general judgment by his own barristers, Belknap and Jephson, who frame their defense on the fact that their defendant is “a mental and moral coward”. The book does not tell about it directly, but it is for a reader’s easy guess that had Clyde been a little bit cleverer, more moral and courageous, he would not have played himself into a corner. At any stage of his relationship with Roberta the young man could have referred for his uncle’s help; however, the fear of losing his wealthy relative’s trust and parting with his dreams about beautiful and wealthy Sondra Finchly for good prevented him from doing so.
The tragedy with Clyde is grounded on a number of both accidental and inevitable factors determined by his up-bringing (it was strict), young age (which is naïve and ungovernable in its wishes), position (he was a poor member of a wealthy family rejected by the best society, who had no opportunity to communicate with the lower social strata of Lycurgus). Clyde turns to Roberta because of his inner loneliness, and also because of his need of bodily intimacy with a woman, which was roused in Kansas-City by a charming flirt Hortense Briggs. Having not encountered a dutiful resistance, the young man grows cold towards the simple worker as soon as he meets a girl from a well-to-do family and understands that he can count on her heart and hand.
Raised in accordance with strict moral values, Roberta, in spite of her kind and loving heart, becomes stubborn and cruel when facing her unhappiness. Had she been more flexible, she would have either agreed with Clyde’s proposal to give birth to her child and receive money from him, or would have tried to influence him in some other way, for instance via his or her relatives. Roberta Olden’s tragedy lies in the fact that she, like her harebrained lover, felt enormous fear of facing her parents and society, and was afraid to confess her sin and be rejected.
Blinded with his love for Sondra, Clyde hits on the idea of a murder thanks to a newspaper article: however … whether he commits this crime or not, neither he, nor people around him, nor a reader can understand up to the very end of the novel, until Syracuse preacher McMillan draws the curtain on this horrible story. The priest believes that the young man is guilty even because of the fact that he committed a murder in his heart.
All Clyde’s inner thrash comes to nothing compared to a chain of simple facts: he wanted to get rid of Roberta; even it was an accident, he hit her out of spite and hatred; he did not help her to save herself as he understood that it would be extremely convenient for him.
Before his execution, the protagonist of “An American tragedy” survives a spiritual revolution under the influence of fear and loneliness; it enables him to tell a true story of what really happened at Big Bittern and Grass Lake, but he never comes to God. For Clyde he remains “this God”, to whom says her prayers Clyde’s mother who never understood her son, and the young reverend McMillan who has restrained his own passions.
In his novel Dreiser demonstrated himself not only as an excellent psychologist, having disclosed the inner feelings of a criminal sentenced to death, but also as an outstanding documentalist who told about the American society arrangement: its top (wealthy manufacturers and their children who do not understand any shortness) and its social bottom (the poor preachers’ family, young bellhops, factory workers), its political constituent (active development of Clyde’s case by district attorney Mason hoping to obtain the position of a judge), as well as a judicial constituent (a detailed trail description), its working side of life (descriptions of duties of various professions), as well as the entertaining one (dancing, country picnics, attending church meetings).