David Sarkies's Reviews > An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
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Mar 19, 15

bookshelves: tragedy
Recommended to David by: I saw it in a second-hand bookshop
Recommended for: Nobody really
Read in May, 2006, read count: 1

The tragedy of the American Dream
26 December 2011

I'm sort of in two minds about this book myself. While it is a tragedy in the traditional sense, it does not really stand up to the great tragedies of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the Greeks. The story is about the downfall of the main character, who is a tragic hero in all senses of the word, but it does not have the intricate and complicated plot that the tragedies of Hamlet and King Lear have, nor is the character of Clyde torn and haunted in the same way as Macbeth and Dr Faustus. Further, while in a sense we do see Clyde being driven by forces to an extent beyond his control, he downfall is not marked out by fate in the same way as King Oedipus.

The story involve the child of a missionary couple in 1920s America. While America of that era can be reflected in America of other eras, the 1920s do stand out much more than say the other periods of prosperity such as the 50s or even then 90s and early 2000s. In a way the 20s was seen as a time when America was still on the rise, and the opportunities were still open to almost everyone. The ethic of getting a job on the ground floor and then rising through the ranks was seen as being available to anybody. While this was also true in the 50s and the 90s, the fifties seem to reflect a time when America was at its peak, and opportunities were open to all, while by the 90s many of these doors had decisively slammed shut.

Another aspect of the 20s, which is reflected in this novel, is the aspect of how people are driven by their desire to succeed, but behind this drive there is still a strong sense of morality. This was still there in the 50s, but had decisively vanished by the 90s. What we have in An American Tragedy is young Clyde getting his first job as a bellhop, but while working at the hotel, he falls in with the other bellhops, and the desire to succeed is balanced out by the desire to have fun, and through this he falls into alcohol and prostitution (both of which were illegal in the United States at this time). Unfortunately tragedy strikes (and though he is not the instigator of this tragedy, he is complicit in it in that he is a passenger in the stolen vehicle, and flees shortly afterwards) and thus his desire to rise to the top is cut short by this misdemeanor.

Clyde, however, gets a second chance. This is another theme that is supposed to reflect the difference between the United States and the old world of Europe, and that is the possibility for a second chance. Once again, this has vanished by the 90s, with not so much the rise in the crime rate, but rather once one becomes such a statistic (at least at street level) ones opportunity to participate in society is brought to an end. As people suggest, soon the population of the United States is either going to be in prison, or working for the prison system. With the rise of computers and information systems, it is much easier to keep track of people, and their records, than it was back in the 20s, or even in the 50s. It should not be surprising that the rise in the crime rate is not only reflective of population growth, but also of systems of collecting and storing information.

However, I should come to the main part of the story, and that is the events in Lycurgus. Clyde arrives at this small, upstate New York town where a distant uncle owns and operates a factory. Clyde is given a job in the factory, and even raised to a senior position, however once again we see him torn between his desire to live the high life and his inner lusts. Inevitably he gives into his lust and forms a relationship with one of his employees, something that is forbidden in the factory. This becomes even more complicated when it turns out that the woman that he is sleeping with becomes pregnant. Now, ironically, most of the upper echelons of society would easily be able to get out of this situation, but Clyde is not there yet (even though he is associating with his Uncle's friends) and decides to take the easy way out: kill her. Unfortunately, the easy way out is not necessarily the best way out and he is caught and executed.

Simply put, Clyde is the harbinger of his fate. His lusts get the better of him and when he finds himself in the mess he takes the easy way out. Despite all this, looking over the characters of this book, and the events, it does not draw me in as the great tragedies do. It is one of those painful and annoying books where you see where the main character is heading, but unlike a true tragic hero, you do not sympathise with him. In the same way that we see Macbeth, we see Clyde as being somebody fully responsible for his actions and deserving of the consequences. However, because we have been drawn into Clydes' life, we do not want to see anything bad happen to him, we want to see him succeed, however this is not going to happen. Is it a warning? Possibly, but in another sense many of us read as a form of escapism, to for a time be something that we are not, but one thing we do not want to be is a failure, which in the end is what Clyde becomes. I guess the other irritating thing is that many of the upper echelon behave like Clyde, but get away with it. It is only because Clyde doesn't have the connections, and can easily be cut lose, that he meets the fate that he does. At least, in the end, acknowledges his sin and seeks forgiveness.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Ali (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ali "Clyde is not there yet (even though he is associating with his Uncle's friends) and decides to take the easy way out: kill her". Oh my gosh! I feel like you missed the whole point of the book! He didn't just cold bloodedly decide to kill her! the idea occurs to him, and he rejects it. Then he thinks "....Maybe? " so he sets everything up for a potential 'accident' but the important thing is that at the last minute he can't go through with it. It actually IS an accident.. . he doesn't save her though because that would be absurd. Dreiser really captures the psychology of people... The way our ideas and the circumstances in which they come to fruition are so very complex. He somehow creates characters as complex and inexplicable as human beings. Sister Carrie portrays how a person can change so much from who they once were as well.
I loved this book, but I read it when I was still a teenager and didn't write reviews... I cried for the last 50 pages though and it remains one of those important novels that shaped my future reading.


David Sarkies It has been a while since I had read this book, though what I did get out of it was the nature of the American Dream and it's psychological effect upon people. Now that you mention it, it does come back to me how he was torn with regards to her, however there was always that knowledge at the back of his head that he was never actually supposed to be in a relationship in the first place. However, you are correct - I doubt a truly well rounded character could easily kill another person, and simply not saving her after an accident is much more believable.


message 3: by Ali (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ali Also, "tragedy" is a technical term when applied to a play, & not when applied to a novel so you can't compare it Hamlet or any other play(I know im being picky but I really loved this novel).
Have you read any of Dreiser's other books?


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