An American Tragedy: Theme Analysis

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Social Forces versus Individual Will

Dreiser saw life as determined solely by forces beyond the control of the individual, mainly heredity and environment, but also chance and the mysterious, unknowable workings of fate. Individuals do not have free will; they are merely small creatures struggling against whatever fate the inscrutable forces of life have conjured up for them. This is the key theme of the novel. It is stated early on as applying to Asa Griffiths, Clyde’s father: he is “the product of an environment and a religious  theory,” (Bk. One. ch. II, p. 11), and he himself is too weak and unintelligent to rise above these determining forces in his life. In a sense, his life was written for him before he started to live it. It is the same with the Alden family. The father, Titus, is defined by the family history that preceded him. He is an entirely “determined” individual, with no power to alter his lot in life. Roberta, too, was raised in poverty, and although she is blessed with intelligence and refinement and dreams of a better life, her attempts to better herself are unsuccessful. So it is with Clyde. He is born into poverty, and the qualities he inherits from his parents (especially a lack of practicality from his father, not fully counterbalanced by a certain resilience and strength from his mother) do not equip him for success. Clyde is an outsider in a 1920s American society that is becoming increasingly complex and industrialized—a society that grinds its wheels indifferent to the fates of individuals who fail to find their place in it. In Clyde’s favor is the strength of his desire and his will to achieve what he wants. These qualities enable him to climb a few rungs up on the ladder that leads to the attainment of the American Dream, but he will never climb higher. He will never get to the top because he is a participant in an unequal struggle. There are too many forces ranged against him. Whenever he is really tested he is found wanting. For example, when the crisis of Roberta’s pregnancy hits him, he is clueless about what to do: “In this crisis he was as interesting an illustration of the enormous handicaps imposed by ignorance, youth, poverty and fear as one could have found” (Bk. Two, ch. XXXV, p. 443).

An American Tragedy is therefore a long repudiation of the American idealization of the individual and of the falsity of the American Dream, the idea that anyone can rise to the top through hard work and application. Clyde does all he can, and he fails. He is like a man pushing a boulder uphill. One false move and the boulder will crush him. This feeling that he is a man facing insuperable obstacles makes Clyde at times a sympathetic figure, as Dreiser intended him to be. Dreiser presents him as an individual who has no freedom to change his life; his belief that he does is merely an illusion.

Materialism and a Superficial Society

The society that is presented in An American Tragedy is relentlessly materialistic. The only qualities that are admired are material wealth, prosperity, and social status as measured by power and possessions. The pursuit and the enjoyment of wealth is everything. This is the society into which Clyde Griffiths is born. Since he rejects the religious values of his parents, the only thing that interests him is the acquisition of money and the social status he thinks this will bring him. This is how he defines success. His materialistic value system is obvious from the moment he steps into the luxury of the Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City. He thinks of the hotel as possessing a “glorious atmosphere” (Bk. One, ch. 5, p. 41), and he is in awe of it, thrilled to be admitted to this “grand world” (Bk. One, ch. 5, p. 35). Because he grew up in poverty and has had little education, he does not question the idea that life is all about acquiring money and spending it. For his undeveloped mind, it appears that “the chief business of life for any one with a little money or social position was to attend a theater, a ball-game in season, or to dance, motor, entertain friends at dinner, or to travel to New York, Europe, Chicago, California” (Bk. One, ch. VII, p. 51). He is so inexperienced that he has a very exaggerated idea of the relationship between material abundance and happiness; he thinks that if he can acquire money life will become one long holiday. He exaggerates the significance of what he sees around him, and this changes little during the course of the book because no one he meets contradicts it. His first girlfriend Hortense Briggs covets an expensive coat; she values material things more than love, and in fact cannot distinguish between the two. Clyde’s sister Esta runs away and gets into trouble solely because she has no money. Clyde sees her as a victim of the family’s poverty. 

When Clyde moves to Lycurgus it is no different. The class structure there is defined by money. It is material wealth that has allowed his uncle Samuel Griffiths to attain eminence, and the smart set that Clyde aspires to belong to lives only for enjoyment of the next dinner dance or trip to the lakes or whatever else their wealth can provide for them. Gilbert Griffiths sees success in business as the only thing worth striving for. No one in Clyde’s world discusses values other than material ones. No one reflects at all on any deeper aspects of life. It is a superficial, one-dimensional society that he is struggling to succeed in. When he is forced to choose between a moral obligation (to Roberta) and his desire for wealth and status (with Sondra), the result is a foregone conclusion. In choosing the latter, Clyde is only reflecting the values he sees operating all around him. 

Religion and Salvation

Dreiser presents a certain kind of Protestant Christianity in a very negative light early on in the novel. Religion then disappears as a theme for the vast majority of the novel, only to reappear in the last three chapters in a slightly more positive fashion. The representatives of the kind of religion that Dreiser clearly regards as useless are Mr. and Mrs. Griffiths. Their Christianity is presented as inadequate on every level. The family lives in poverty because Asa Griffiths is hopelessly impractical. His Christianity does not seem able to equip him with the means to live a successful life. Even though he is a preacher, Asa’s religion does not seem to give him any personal authority; he is described as “a most unimportant-looking person” (Bk. One, ch. I. p. 3). Elvira is presented as more forceful than her husband. She is fiercely sincere in her beliefs, and it is she, not Asa, who makes great efforts to come to Clyde’s aid at the time of his trial and conviction. She does appear to be strengthened by her religion, even though her prayers never seem to be answered.  However, the belief that both Griffiths have, that “God is Love,” does not seem validated by anything that happens to them during the course of the novel. Asa is not very well educated and so does not see the value of education for his son, Clyde, or for his other sons and daughters. The Griffiths’ lack of interest in their son’s education is also attributable to their religious interests, because they moved around a lot, always seeking “a larger and better religious field in which to work” (p. 12), which meant that Clyde was frequently moved from one school to another.

The Reverend Duncan Macmillan, however, is a different matter. He is an earnest, well- trained, and well-educated man who genuinely desires to help Clyde attain peace of mind. Visiting Clyde in prison, he tries to help him understand exactly what he did, come to terms it and experience the love and peace of God. Macmillan is for Dreiser a positive balance to the irrelevant Christianity represented by Asa and Elvira Griffiths. More than anyone else, Macmillan gets Clyde to examine his motives and try to understand what he did. But although Clyde at one point claims to have found the peace of God even in his dire situation, he is never entirely convinced by it. He goes to his death not really knowing whether his talk about being saved is right or not.

At the last, even Macmillan has doubts about whether he has handled the situation as well as he might. In the execution chamber he asks God for strength but is weak and has to be helped out of the chamber.  He wonders whether he will ever have mental peace again.

It is clear from the novel as a whole that in Dreiser’s view, whatever is wrong with American society cannot be cured by a return to religion. 

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