An American Tragedy Summary

Theodore Dreiser

An American Tragedy

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An American Tragedy Summary

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Theodore Dreiser’snovel, An America Tragedy, opens on a 1920s summer night in Kansas City. Asa Griffiths is around fifty years old, a street evangelist, and he leads a service with his family meant to attract people walking by. His wife, Elvira, is there, along with his children, Esta, Clyde, Julia, and Frank, who range in age from fifteen down to seven. Clyde, the book’s main character, does not enjoy taking part in the service. Despite his father’s devotion, working as a street preacher barely—if ever—makes ends meet for the large family, and Clyde is embarrassed. After the service, the family returns to the Bethel Independent Mission, their home, located in a run-down area of the city.

As Clyde ages, he hears stories about his rich uncle Samuel Griffiths, making Clyde keenly aware of both his own poverty and his insufficient education. Esta runs away. At age sixteen, Clyde takes a job as a soda jerk in a drug store. He likes being able to earn money, but even more importantly, the job allows him to meet girls who come in as customers. He also notices the well-dressed young men who talk to the girls at the drug store. Knowing he will not be able to earn enough money to buy nice clothes like that, Clyde quits his job at the drug store and takes a job as a bellhop at Hotel Green-Davidson.

Clyde takes to his work with enthusiasm, earning a higher wage and nice tips. He observes the people who seem to have all the money in the world, dreaming of joining their ranks some day. He befriends some of the other bellhops, and makes as much in one day as he could earn in a week at the soda fountain.

More and more, Clyde enjoys his newfound freedom. Though he sends money to his family to assist with their needs, he keeps more than he lets on. One night, Clyde joins the other bellhops on a trip to a fancy restaurant and then a brothel.

Though Clyde does not take advantage of all the services at the brothel, he gains in confidence. On a trip to one of the other bellhop’s homes, Clyde meets Hortense Briggs. Hortense is self-absorbed, looking for someone to spend money on her, but Clyde in enamored, nonetheless. One night they go to a fancy restaurant together, though Hortense is aloof.

Later, Clyde learns that Esta has returned from Kansas City, pregnant and abandoned by the man who promised to marry her. Though Clyde feels bad for his sister, he feels worse that his family is so poor that her situation causes a difficult economic situation.

Hortense finds an expensive coat she likes and resolves to have Clyde buy it for her. Eventually he agrees to buy her the coat on an installment plan. When his mom asks for money to help pay for Esta’s doctor, Clyde lies and says he has none.

A little while later, Clyde is out with his friends. The driver of the car, another bellhop, drives recklessly and hits a girl, killing her. Clyde and the others flee the scene.

The book skips forward three years. Clyde finally meets his rich uncle, Samuel Griffiths, who gives Clyde a low-level job in his factory. Clyde is still stinging from his failed relationship with Hortense, but falls for a poor farm girl, Roberta Alden, who works in his office and has fallen in love with him. Clyde convinces her to have sex with him, and Roberta becomes pregnant. Simultaneously, Sondra Finchley—a wealthy socialite daughter of another factory owner—has taken an interest in Clyde. Clyde courts both young women, and though Roberta expects Clyde to marry her on account of the pregnancy, Clyde dreams of marrying the rich Sondra.

Clyde tries to get Roberta to have an abortion, but fails. She insists that he marry her, threatening to reveal their relationship if he does not. Clyde then schemes to murder Roberta by drowning her in a staged boating accident. They take a canoe out onto a lake, argue, and capsize the boat. Roberta cannot swim, and she drowns. Though the actual events were accidental, Clyde makes several incriminating statements to investigating authors who, eager to convict him in the death of a young pregnant woman, go so far as to plant evidence.

Clyde’s trial gains attention and becomes a sensation. Clyde’s lawyers work hard, but he is found guilty, and after his appeals are spent, Clyde is put to death by the electric chair. While on death row awaiting the appeals process and his execution, Clyde bonds with some of the other condemned men, pondering the nature of his guilt and his relationship with religion and God.

An American Tragedy discusses the balance of spirituality and materialism, landing firmly on the important of humility and family as Clyde’s decisions lead to his destruction. Clyde’s unending pursuit of material wealth and the social status that comes from it pushes him into poor choices that result in his death and the death of two innocents.

As in classical tragedies, Clyde’s downfall is a result of his innate psychological and moral weaknesses.