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An American Tragedy
An American Tragedy (1925) is a novel by the American writer Theodore Dreiser.
Ambitious, handsome, but ill-educated, naïve, and immature, Clyde Griffiths is raised by poor and devoutly religious parents to help in their street missionary work. As a young adult, Clyde must, to help support his family, take menial jobs as a soda jerk, then a bellhop at a prestigious Kansas City hotel. There, his more sophisticated colleagues introduce him to bouts of social drinking and sex with prostitutes.
Enjoying his new lifestyle, Clyde becomes infatuated with manipulative Hortense Briggs, who persuades Clyde to buy her expensive gifts. When Clyde learns Hortense goes out with other men, he becomes jealous. Still Clyde would rather spend money on Hortense than to help his sister who had eloped only to end up pregnant and abandoned.
Clyde's life changes dramatically when his friend Sparser, driving Clyde, Hortense, and other friends back from a secluded rendezvous in the country in his boss' car, used without permission, hits a little girl and kills her. Fleeing from the police at high speed, Sparser crashes the car. Everyone but Sparser and his partner flee the scene of the crime. Clyde leaves Kansas City, fearing prosecution as an accessory to Sparser's crimes. This pattern of personal irresponsibility and panicked decision-making in Clyde's life recurs in the story, culminating in the central tragedy of the novel.
While working as a bellboy at an exclusive club in Chicago, he meets his wealthy uncle Samuel Griffiths, the owner of a shirt-collar factory in the fictional city of Lycurgus, New York. Feeling guilt for neglecting his poor relations, offers Clyde a menial job at the factory. After that, Samuel Griffiths promotes him to a minor supervisory role.
Samuel Griffiths' son Gilbert, Clyde's immediate supervisor, warns Clyde that as a manager, he should not consort with women working under his supervision. At the same time the Griffiths pay Clyde little attention socially. As Clyde has no close friends in Lycurgus, he becomes lonely. Emotionally vulnerable, Clyde is drawn to Roberta Alden, a poor and innocent farm girl working in his shop, who falls in love with him. Clyde secretly courts Roberta, ultimately persuading her to have sex with him rather than lose him, and makes her pregnant.
Having failed to procure an abortion for Roberta, Clyde doesn't give her more than desultory help with living expenses, while his relationship with Sondra matures. When Roberta threatens to reveal her relationship with Clyde, unless he marries her, he plans to murder her by drowning while they go boating, having read a local newspaper report of a boating accident.
Clyde takes Roberta out in a canoe on Big Moose Lake in upstate New York, and rows to a secluded bay. He doesn't have the nerve to go through with the plan and freezes. Sensing something wrong, Roberta moves towards him, and he unintentionally strikes her in the face with a camera, stunning her and accidentally capsizing the boat. Roberta, unable to swim, drowns, while Clyde, unwilling to save her, swims to shore. The narrative implies that the blow was accidental, but the trail of circumstantial evidence left by the panicky and guilt-ridden Clyde points to murder.
The local authorities are eager to convict Clyde, to the point of manufacturing additional evidence against him, although he repeatedly incriminates himself with his confused and contradictory testimony. Clyde has a sensational trial before an unsympathetic and prejudiced jury of mostly religious conservative farmers. Despite a vigorous (and untruthful) defense by two lawyers hired by his uncle, Clyde is convicted, sentenced to death, and, after an appeal is denied, executed by electric chair. The jailhouse scenes and correspondence between Clyde and his mother are exemplars of pathos in modern literature.
Influences and characteristics
Dreiser based the book on a notorious criminal case. On July 11, 1906, resort owners found an overturned boat and the body of Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Chester Gillette was put on trial, and convicted of killing Brown, though he claimed that her death was a suicide. Gillette was executed by electric chair on March 30, 1908. The murder trial drew international attention when Brown's love letters to Gillette were read in court. Dreiser saved newspaper clippings about the case for several years before writing his novel, during which he studied the case closely. He based Clyde Griffiths on Chester Gillette, deliberately giving him the same initials.
The historical location of most of the central events was Cortland, NY, a city situated in Cortland County in a region replete with place-names resonant of Greco-Roman history. Townships include Homer, Solon, Virgil, Marathon, and Cincinnatus. Lycurgus, the pseudonym given to Cortland, was the legendary law-giver of ancient Sparta. Grace Brown, a farm girl from the small town of South Otselic in adjacent Chenango County, was the factory girl who was Gillette's lover. The place where Grace was killed, Big Moose Lake, an actual place in the Adirondacks, was called Big Bittern Lake in Dreiser's novel. The identity of the "rich girl" in the love triangle (Sondra Finchley in the novel) has apparently never been clearly established.
A strikingly similar murder took place in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1934, when Robert Edwards clubbed Freda McKechnie, one of his two lovers, and placed her body in a lake. The cases were so similar that the press at the time dubbed the Edwards/McKechnie murder "The American Tragedy". Edwards was eventually found guilty, and also executed by electric chair.
The novel is a tragedy in the strict sense, Clyde's destruction being the consequence of his innate weaknesses: moral and physical cowardice, lack of scruple and self-discipline, muddled intellect, and unfocused ambition; additionally, the effect of his ingratiating (Dreiser uses the word "soft") social manner places temptation in his way which he cannot resist.
This novel is full of symbolism, ranging from Clyde's grotesque description of the high gloomy walls of the factory as an opportunity for success, symbolizing how it is all a mirage, to the description of girls as "electrifying" to foreshadow Clyde's destination to the electric chair; Dreiser transforms everyday mundane objects to symbols.
Dreiser sustains readers' interest in the lengthy novel (over 800 pages) by the accumulation of detail, and by continually varying the "emotional distance" of his writing from Clyde and other characters, from detailed examination of their thoughts and motivations to dispassionate reportage.
The novel has been adapted several times into other forms, and the storyline has been used, not always unattributed, as the basis for other works:
In 2005, the book was placed on Time Magazine's list of the top 100 novels written in English since 1923.