An American Tragedy: Essay Q&A

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1. Why did Dreiser call the novel An American Tragedy? In what sense is it a tragedy?

When An American Tragedy was being made into a movie in 1931, Dreiser attempted to force some changes in how the story was presented. During the correspondence in the dispute, Dreiser stated that his book “constituted a violent attack on American society and American religion.” What Dreiser disliked about American society at the time was not only its obsession with money but also the willingness of too many people to accept illusions about life instead of the truth. He originally planned to call the novel “Mirage.” Clyde’s parents are examples of this kind of attitude. Their religion does not help them in their lives, but they never question their basic assumptions. They cannot think for themselves. Neither can the Alden family, with the exception of Roberta. They lack education but are very religious, in what Dreiser regards as the worst kind of way—mere passive acceptance of received platitudes. He sees the Aldens as “excellent examples of that native type of Americanism which resists facts and reveres illusion” (Book Two, ch. XIII, p. 279). Clyde Griffiths is presented as a victim of a social system that encourages people to chase illusions, such as the aptly named American Dream. Clyde is a dreamer but in Dreiser’s eyes this is hardly his fault, and this is what makes Clyde a tragic figure. Some critics have questioned whether the dreamer Clyde is really the stuff of which tragedies are made. Weak and vacillating, he is not much of a hero. In classic tragedy, the hero, who unlike Clyde is presented as possessing free will and making free choices, is made tragic by his eventual acquisition of some self-knowledge. He learns something, gains some wisdom in spite of his fall. What is noticeable about Clyde, however, is how little he changes during the course of the novel. At the time of his execution, he has no more understanding of the forces, inner and outer,  that drove his life than when he worked at the Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City. However, it might be argued that there is something heroic and tragic in his doomed attempt to make something of his life. The tragedy lies in the fact that that the battle he fights is such an uneven one. It is as if he is facing an entire army equipped with only a slingshot.  

2. What does the trial of Clyde Griffiths reveal about the justice system?

The trial of Clyde Griffiths presents a not very pretty picture of the way the justice system works.  Even if the reader feels that Clyde was justly convicted and executed, it is hard to ignore the glaring faults on all sides of the system. To begin with, the prosecuting attorney, Orville Mason, wants to win a conviction solely to boost his sagging political fortunes. He emerges from the trial as a hero and gets what he really wants—election to a judgeship. For him, the trial is more of a political campaign than a legal proceeding. Although Mason does nothing illegal in his handling of the case, that is not true of his assistant,  Burton Burleigh, who plants incriminating evidence against Clyde. He takes two hairs from the dead Roberta and entangles them in Clyde’s camera, thus “proving” that Clyde hit Roberta with the camera. Burleigh does this because he is convinced of Clyde’s guilt and does not want him to evade justice. While it is true that Clyde did strike Roberta with the camera, this hardly justifies Burleigh’s deceit. But the subterfuge is never challenged in the courtroom; had the deception been revealed it would have resulted in a mistrial or an acquittal.  As for Clyde’s defense attorneys, they are dishonest in a rather different way. Belknap and Jephson, seeing that Clyde’s own story is too weak to convince a jury, invent another one for him, and Clyde has to abandon his own lies and learn someone else’s, a task that proves difficult for him. The attorneys for example discuss how to retrieve the suit Clyde threw away in the wood and have it cleaned and presented as if it had been Clyde who had sent it away for cleaning. Even Clyde, who is no stranger to lying, is a “a little amazed by this frank program of trickery and deception on his behalf” (Bk. Three, ch. XV, p. 695). Given this chicanery on the part of the lawyers on both sides, does Clyde get a fair trial? It seems that he does not get an impartial jury. The jury of twelve men, the omniscient narrator informs us, are all convinced of Clyde’s guilt before the trial even starts. After the case has been presented, and the jury begins it deliberations, one juror expresses doubts about Clyde’s guilt, although he only does so because he is opposed to Mason politically and admires the personality of Jephson, not because he is really convinced of Clyde’s innocence. But then the other jurors gang up on him, telling him they will expose him to the public anger sure to result if there is a hung jury. All in all, the trial not only reveals flaws in the justice system but presents a less than edifying view of human nature.

3. Why does the novel end in the way it does?

After Clyde’s execution, the novel ends with the brief scene that is eerily similar to the scene with which the novel began. In fact, the first two paragraphs and much of the third paragraph in the final scene are almost identical, apart from the change of city, to the exact words with which Dreiser opens the novel. Many other sentences are repeated verbatim from the earlier scene. It is a summer evening and a group of five people (six in the opening chapter) are out on the street, about to set up a religious service to attract the interest of passers-by. It is of course the Griffiths family, shown ten years after the novel begins, and some years after Clyde’s death. Clyde’s place in the family group has been taken by Russell, his seven- or eight-year-old nephew, the son of Esta, his sister. As used to happen to Clyde, Russell is taken along by his parents the street preachers, whether he wants to go or not. As in the first chapter, two passers-by comment that it is no life for a kid. The message is clear: after the tumult of Clyde’s story, nothing has changed. It is as if life simply repeats itself. No one learns anything. It suggests a very pessimistic conclusion to the novel. Russell will be raised in the same environment of poverty and deprivation that stacked the odds against Clyde. Will this “fresh and unsoiled and unspoiled and  uncomprehending boy” (p. 933) end up the same way?  The final sentence offers little hope for families such as the Griffiths. They go through the “unprepossessing door” of the mission house where they live and “disappear.” It is as if they count for nothing in the maelstrom of urban life that makes up American society in the 1920s. They are virtually invisible. While it is true that Mrs. Griffiths does seem concerned that she should be more liberal with Russell than she had been with Clyde, the reader will sense that in the eyes of the author Theodore Dreiser, young Russell may need more than his impoverished mother can provide for him.

4. In what respect is the novel a documentary, using material drawn from real-life events?

In a sense the entire novel has a documentary quality to it, since Dreiser wanted to show that in American society, people who come from the same socio-economic background as Clyde Griffiths did not have much of a chance in life. However, Dreiser was a journalist, trained in the reporting of facts, and he did not invent the story of Clyde solely out of his imagination. Wanting to base his novel in real-life, he studied sixteen recent murder cases before deciding to base An American Tragedy on the real-life case of Chester Gillette, which Dreiser researched in great detail. He even took the initials of his protagonist’s name from his real-life model. Like Clyde, Gillette was the son of highly religious parents but he did not share their enthusiasm for the religious life. Also like Clyde, Gillette worked in his uncle’s shirt factory in New York, and began seeing Grace Brown, an employee of the factory (the equivalent of Roberta Alden). Brown became pregnant and tried to get Gillette to marry her. She returned to her parents’ home (as did Roberta). Under pressure from Brown, Gillette took her on a weekend trip to the Adirondack mountains, where he registered under a false name, using his own initials (as did Clyde Griffiths). Then Gillette took Grace Brown out on a boat on Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County, New York, where, it was later alleged, he struck her repeatedly with a tennis racquet and threw her into the lake. Her body was soon found, and Gillette, who had failed to effectively cover his tracks, was arrested. The trial was a sensation, and Grace Brown’s letters to Gillette were read in court. Gilette was executed at Auburn Prison, New York, in 1908, despite pleas by his mother to the New York governor.

The extent to which Dreiser followed his source will be obvious from this summary. He even included small details such as the witness who heard from afar a woman’s scream at the time of the murder. The documentary quality of An American Tragedy is most apparent in Book Three. Large parts of the speeches by the lawyers are based on the speeches made by lawyers in the Gillette trial. Roberta’s letters to Clyde are based closely on the actual letters written by Grace Brown. Dreiser does make some important changes, however. In the novel Roberta is struck accidentally with a camera rather than being bludgeoned to death and thrown into the water, which creates more interest for the reader since it raises questions about the extent of Clyde’s guilt. Dreiser also omits one grisly detail from the trial, the fact that the fetus taken from the dead woman’s body at the autopsy was produced in court (although covered and kept from the sight of the jury) to prove that she had been pregnant.

Dreiser’s tendency to rely on the published accounts of the Gillette trial at such great length has often attracted negative criticism. Critics argue that he allowed his journalistic instincts to get the better of the imagination of the fiction writer.

5. Is the novel flawed because of Dreiser’s style?

An American Tragedy is often referred to as a great novel, and the fact that it is still read and studied nearly a century after it was published is testimony to its quality and the enduring fascination it has exerted over several generations of readers. However, some critics regard it as seriously flawed because of Dreiser’s verbose and often inelegant style. The novel, at well over 900 pages in most editions, is a sprawling work, and many argue that the novel would have benefited from some careful pruning by a tactful editor.  One of Dreiser’s earliest and fiercest critics was the renowned journalist H. L. Mencken, who in his review of An American Tragedy decried Dreiser’s use of the language, pointing to sentences such as “Quite everything of all this was being published in the papers each day” (which occurs in chapter XXV of Book Three, p. 836). “What is one to say of such dreadful bilge?” thundered Mencken. (His review is reprinted in The Merrill Studies in An American Tragedy, compiled by Jack Salzman, 1971, pp. 12-17.) However, the surprising thing about such a long novel and the welter of words that Dreiser’s omniscient narrator brings to every twist and turn in the minds of his characters, is that it is so compulsively readable. It may be, as Mencken pointed out, that Dreiser writes sentences that many readers might wish he had not, or he uses a long word where a shorter one would have been better, or he writes strange phrases such as, in reference to Clyde’s thoughts, “Indeed the center or mentating section of his brain at this time” (Book Two, ch. XLV, p. 532). But Dreiser was also capable of sharp dialogue, acute psychological insight, and the ability to write a scene economically to maximum emotional effect. An American Tragedy may have its stylistic faults, but it is a great work nonetheless. 

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