American Tragedy: Self-Destruction in a Self-Indulgent Society

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American Tragedy: Self-Destruction in a Self-Indulgent Society

"The boy moved restlessly from one foot to the other, keeping his eyes down . . . . [and he] appeared indeed to resent and even to suffer from the position in which he found himself" (p.9). Clyde Griffiths always wanted to be somebody---anyone but who he was. Growing up in a poor home of evangelizing, exhorting missionaries, he was not drawn to God but pushed away from Him and his family. Clyde was looking for a way to escape from his haunting reality to both a place and position in life that were more attractive. He was ashamed of his looks, his attire, his social position and his poor education. American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser is the tragic story of a man whose fate is sealed and ambitions are shaped by society's values.

Clyde, in trying to fit in with the norms of society, gets into more trouble than he could ever imagine. His trouble begins in Kansas City, where he works at a hotel and runs with some boys who are not all bad, yet are not good either. When these rowdy boys "borrow" a car and pick up their girls for some fun, they hit and kill a little girl. Rather than remain at the scene, they all run. When Clyde finds himself with nowhere to go, he roams until he runs into an old friend from Kansas City. He gets a job at another hotel where he meets his rich uncle. Uncle Samuel tells Clyde that he can come up and get a job in his factory. While working in that factory, he meets Roberta and falls very much in love. However, their love affair must be a secret because he is not, as a department head, supposed to date an employee. As time goes on their relationship becomes physical. In the midst of this physical relationship, Clyde accid...

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...ams of getting on and up, was in danger of death. . ." (p.623)! His mother has always known that he is driven to become more like the Griffiths of Lycurgus, but still never imagined that he would become a murderer with this drive.

Clyde's desire and ambitions to be something great with the help of society's twisted thinking is what brought about Clyde's demise. The selfish, self-centered thinking of this "high society," and their teaching Clyde these thoughts makes him feel like he has no choice if he wants to obtain his goals. Being corrupted by values which he accepts in order to be successful does nothing more than seal his fate and send him to the electric chair. An American Tragedy is Clyde's story about vice and greed, and the resulting catastrophe.


Dreiser, Theodore, An American Tragedy, N.Y., The World Publishing Company, 1953.

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