The American Dream Essay, Research Paper
An American Tragedy is an intriguing, frighteningly realistic journey into the mind of a murderer. It is a biography of its era. And, it is also historical fiction. But what makes this novel a classic? While society has changed dramatically since 1925, Dreiser’s novel, which shows the futility of “The American Dream” and the tragedies that trying to live it can cause, accurately summarizes social mores of this and any time period.
Before Theodore Dreiser was born, his father, a devout German immigrant, lost everything when his large wool mill burned down (kirjasto.sci.fi 1). After a beam hit his head, Dreiser’s father was subject to dramatic mood swings; this brain damage caused him to became an evangelist (Survey of American Literature 571). Theodore Dreiser, the twelfth of 13 children, was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1871. By this time, his parents were poor, nomadic preachers. Their nomadic lifestyle meant that Dreiser did not have any companions outside his family. While travelling, his mother taught him to avoid degrading and destructive experiences (Hart 236). Certain that his parents were failures because of their strong morals and their constant preaching, he rebelled. Dreiser had no friends, money, social status, or sex life, which he craved. For most Americans, these were collectively “The American Dream.” For Dreiser and his most famous character, Clyde Griffiths, living the American Dream — the evasive pinnacle of success — became an obsession.
That obsession led 13-year old Dreiser to Indiana University, which he flunked out of. Instead of preaching, he instantly abandoned his unsuccessful family for the promise of riches and women in industrial Chicago. After living in abject poverty for years (Parker 203), he worked as a journalist for both Chicago Globe and St. Louis’s Globe-Democrat, which gave him a glimpse of high society. There, he married Sara White. Within months, the two separated permanently, and Dreiser became a nomad. While wandering, he studied the writings of Balzac, Darwin, Freud, Hawthorne, Huxley (wwnorton.com 1), Poe, and Spenser, from which he created two philosophical theories: social Darwinism governs society (Parker 203), and man’s greatest appetite is sexual (kirjasto.sci.fi 1). Dreiser followed his philosophy; he typically had several affairs at once.
In New York, Dreiser started Sister Carrie, a brilliant naturalistic piece. The book was sold only 500 copies; it was so “scandalous” that its owned publishers censored its printing in 1900 (Bucco 5). Dreiser was nearly suicidal (kirjasto.sci.fi). However, the novel’s 1907 reissue was a best seller. (When the book was banned from Massachusetts, its publisher sold a copy to the police chief; Dreiser rode the national scandal and made tens of thousands of dollars.)
After publishing Sister Carrie, Dreiser resigned from New York’s music journal, Every Week. He then worked for an eclectic group of magazines, including three women’s magazines, until 1910, when his in-office love affair went public. During the next six years, he gained recognition for his writing and published Jennie Gerhardt and the “Trilogy of Desire” (Bucco 6), stories based on transportation mogul Charles T. Jerkes’s life. The series won him numerous acclaims.
After eight abysmal novels, Dreiser published his best selling novel An American Tragedy. The novel, later adapted to Broadway and the screen, netted him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Soon, he turned to the glittering promises of communism to escape his feelings of inadequacy. When his wife died, he married his cousin, Helen Richardson, his “companion” of five years. He died in Hollywood, California on December 28, 1948.
Since his death, Dreiser’s critics have diminished his writing; his plot structure is imperfect, his style sometimes dreadful. For more than 75 years, critics have cited his greatest butcheries, “uncertainty and fear that now transformation-wise played over his countenance” (Dreiser 448) and “coward-wise” (453). They also note his annoying tendency to fragment complete sentences by adding the “-ing” suffix. Most critics fail to realize that his style adds realism to and makes consistent his naturalist theme. As Bucco of Cliffs Notes wisely said, “…Dreiser is one of the world’s best worst writers[.] He is an impurist with nothing but genius” (8).
Dreiser’s eccentric writing method may explain his strange plot structure and nonstandard style. Each day, he wrote 3,000 words during a six-hour hypnotic session, then walked to his local library to verify details. (He never edited his work, however.) At night, he held open discussions and poetry sessions in his home; during this time, he wrote critiques of local authors’ work for free. His visitors became characters in his novels. Dreiser, said H.L. Mencken, remembered everything: “When he described a street in Chicago [or] New York it was always a street that he knew as intimately as the policeman on the beat, and he never omitted any detail that had stuck in his mind…” (8). Every meal he ate, every conversation he heard, every useless fact, became part of the rich texture of his novels. To add detail to Book Three of An American Tragedy, he visited Sing-Sing prison’s death row and the courthouse where Gillette was tried, and even discussed the psychology of murder with renowned psychiatrist Dr. Jacques Lobe. However, his most effective method of immersion was writing from his own experiences. Similarities between Dreiser and his most famous character, Clyde Griffiths, are shocking. Both spent their adolescent lives searching for the American Dream, had in-office love affairs with underlings, struggled to gain footing in the elusive high society, and lost everything because of their greed.
An American Tragedy was based on the infamous Chester Gillette case. Chester abandoned his missionary parents and wandered, working anywhere he could, until he met Grace Brown. They had an affair. When she became pregnant, she moved into her parents’ house. After she begged him to marry her, he took her on a “honeymoon” to the Adirondacks, where he planned to murder her. He caught before he began; he left her trunk and hat — valuable evidence in public places. After registering under an obvious alias, they went boating, and he drowned her. He fled and stayed at the Arrowhead Hotel until his arrest three days later. During his trial, Chester said his girlfriend had committed suicide to escape public humiliation. The DA proved that he hit her with a tennis racket (which numerous people saw him carry). Chester was found guilty of first degree murder and electrocuted (newpisgah.keene.edu 1). Gillette’s trial and An American Tragedy have surprising similarities. Chester’s attorneys, girls, rich uncle, and settings were identical to Clyde’s, albeit with minor name changes (www.albany.edu 1). Both Clyde and Chester had poor parents, fell in love with a garment-factory employees and a good-looking upper-class girls, botched their girlfriends’ drownings, and were electrocuted. So, while Dreiser’s theme was not original, his flair for using details to create involving, vivid novels is unparalleled.
Dresser’s most famous character is Clyde Griffiths. Clyde, the main character in An American Tragedy, is an attractive, morally weak, stupid 20-year old in the 1920s. His parents, a source of constant humiliation, are destitute preachers who force him to sing gospel hymns. Clyde knows that he has poor clothes, little education, and a blacklisted family, and is determined not to live his life in squalor, as his parents have. To do this, he must reject their beliefs and morals, which are certain to make him a failure. He begins his downward spiral while working in a malt shop. When girls are not attracted to him, Clyde, longing for companionship, decides he must buy better clothes. To buy better clothes, he finds work at the prestigious Greene-Davidson Hotel. (Only, Clyde’s na?ve mother, Elvira is unsure of whether the Hotel is a safe atmosphere.) Exposed to wealth and high society, he becomes corrupted.
Clyde’s hopes are shattered after a run-in with the law. He flees to Kansas and works odd jobs until he is hired into the regarded Union League Club. At the Union League, he meets his rich uncle, who gives him a job in his collar factory. Clyde moves to Lycurgus and, because of his last name, good looks, and charm, he soon enters the upper echelons of Lycurgus?s society. Less than two years later, he is abandoned by that society. He dies in the electric chair with little respect and no possessions.
Until his last months, Clyde has no morals. He wastes 20 years chasing windmills. Then, in jail, with less than one year to live, he is forced to give up his chase. When the caring, friendly Reverend McMillan befriends Clyde, both of them discover God. Confession, Clyde feels, will save his soul. (Ironically, it takes his life.) He instantly has morals; when he reads the Bible and prays, he accepts and copes with his failure and guilt.
From an early age, Clyde is a social and economic outcast. He blames his parents for his failure and vows not to live his life with them. After working in a malt shop for several months, Clyde finds a job at the Greene-Davidson Hotel. There, he makes more than $40 a week there, not including room and board. Finally, he is able to dress well, enter a higher social class, meet females, and escape his family. His plans are never realized: his friend runs over a little girl during a joyride in a stolen Packard.
Clyde flees to Kansas, but he is too poor to live immorally until he works at the Union League Club, where he meets his rich uncle, Sam Griffiths. Sam employs Clyde in his shirt factory, and Clyde quickly succumbs to sexual temptation. In months, his lower-class girlfriend is pregnant. This does not phase Clyde, who is now a prominent member of Lycurgus. He falls in love with a beautiful, respected, rich girl, and rejects his old girlfriend, who he promised to love forever.
His pregnant girlfriend is in despair; she will be fired for her relations with Clyde, and society will reject her for not being married. Her only way out is to threaten to expose his libido to everyone unless he marries her. Clyde is intelligent enough to realize that if she reveals his secret, he will never have his beautiful girlfriend. So, he plans his pregnant girlfriend’s murder. Under the guise of a honeymoon, he takes her to a deserted lake and drowns her. His crime backfires; it is so poorly planned that police have a warrant for his arrest less than one day later. He is arrested, tried, and sentenced to electrocution.
Truly unconscious, Clyde does not contemplates his crime or his guilt for more than a year. With the help of a benevolent pastor, he finds God. Clyde accepts his guilt and fate, and is reconciled. Finally, he thinks about someone other than himself. He prays that other people will understand his follies and save themselves, and for a time he believes they will. But he is too late: his “friends” are ruined, and he is going to die. Less than one week later, he is electrocuted, ending his moral conflict. His moral conflict continues: he is reincarnated into Russell, and the novel abruptly restart. Clyde’s reincarnation proves Dresser’s contention that all humans are seeking the same empty promises.
Constantly at odds with is environment, it appears that Clyde must adapt. For example, when he moves to Kansas, he seems mellower and more meditative. In reality, however, he just does not have the opportunity to screw up his life. Clyde is a stock character until his last days; he is greed. Regardless of the consequences, he wants more — more money, more social contacts, more sex, and more happiness (the one thing he will never have). His pursuit of the American Dream quickly becomes machinelike.
In a typical novel, there would have to be a dramatic change for a little choir boy to become a murderer. Not this novel. For Clyde, each section of life further weakens his morals. During his early romances, he only courts girls for kisses and uses his money to drink and dress stylishly. Later, he uses influence, looks, and charm, to seduce Roberta. He uses these same qualities to make Sondra love him. Seeing an easy way out of his dilemma, he kills Roberta. That does not even seem to be a problem for him — his morals are so lacking that murder is only step above below him.
At the end of the novel, Clyde is born again. When Pastor McMillan visits, Clyde — for the first time ever, and despite the possibility that the pastor might ruin his chance to be freed from jail — confesses his crime. He begins to read scriptures and thinks that he is similar to fellow seekers of the Elusive American Dream. He regrets that he could have saved himself many times, but is now beyond help. He wishes he had followed his mother and father, who are happy and loving. Once Clyde trusts God, he dies.
Long before Clyde was a character, he was Dreiser’s vehicle to enter the mind of the killer, whom he was unable to but wanted to understand (Lundquist 87). Every section of the novel details Clyde’s meaningless life and shows his progressive moral downfall. In the beginning, Clyde did not have money, sex, or a social life. Throughout his life, he struggled to obtain these things, this purchasable happiness and false sincerity that money could buy or rent. On the road to murder, he begged for a job at the Greene-Davidson Hotel; he used his salary to solicit prostitutes, clothe himself fashionably, and date Hortense. Two years before his death, Clyde still did not realize that his life was useless and horrible, a sham.
Each of Clyde’s traits (lust, envy, melancholy) is a feature of his uncontrollably weak, vicious morality. He never breaks out of the vicious cycle of pain and pleasure (with more pain than pleasure). When he works at the Greene-Davidson Hotel, he is unfortunate enough to catch a glimpse of “high society.” Transfixed, he creates a religion, and women, money, and clothes, are his gods. While wandering, he happens to meet his rich uncle. This uncle gives him a job with daunting social, financial, and sexual possibilities. Clyde seduces Roberta (a kind, pretty, poor girl), obsesses about Sondra (a beautiful rich girl who expresses her deepest thoughts in baby talk), then kills Roberta (who threatens to take away his position in society). Clyde shows no remorse — for months, he does not think he murdered Roberta.
Clyde has no thoughts: everything he does is instinctual. Society taught him that material success and material possessions were everything and he, because of his weak morals, instantly agreed. Whenever Clyde was entranced by a girl, he courted her without thinking whether relations would damage his reputation. He never considered how much his whims would hurt his girl. In Kansas City, when he and his friends crushed a little girl while joy riding in a stolen car, they did not care about the child?s condition; their only instinct is to run from the police. More disturbingly, Clyde did not even think he had committed a crime when he killed Roberta — he killed her because that the easiest way out of his dilemma, the easiest way to in society’s good grace. When she drowned, he fled from his obligations instinctively, then “[transformed] his mental and moral cowardice into … “accidental” murder.” That, to him, was instinct. Clyde was more an embodiment of the naturalist movement than a real person.
An American Tragedy is the definitive guidebook to the futility of pursuing The American Dream. In its 874 pages of small print, not one character lives the dream that they all sought. Uncle Griffiths really is not a tycoon; only Clyde’s biased narration leads us to this inaccurate conclusion. Sondra is not the most intelligent girl in the world; she speaks baby talk when deep in thought. She is not particularly beautiful; Clyde is attracted to any good-looking woman. She is not super-elite, either; she may have a butler and a lake side mansion, but Clyde’s and Dreiser’s tendencies to exaggerate — Clyde for vanity, Dreiser to reinforce his naturalist theme — have blown her out of proportion.
Clyde’s women — Hortense, Sondra, Roberta, Rita, and many others — are nothing more than pleasure seekers who want more from life. Hortense, as her name suggests, uses boys for money; she hopes one of them will deliver her from poverty. She is doomed. If Clyde had not chased Hortense, the girl in Kansas would not be dead. Sondra wants to stay socially active, but Clyde’s infamy forces her and other elite socialites to move elsewhere. She has no goals and loves on a whim, so she will turn out no better than Clyde’s other girls. Roberta is a pathetic, emotional creature who only wants love and happiness. When Clyde does not marry her, she threatens to expose him. Clyde kills her so he can have sex with Sondra. Rita, a bad girl in Lycurgus, only wants sex. Ironically, she is one of the two content characters in the novel.
The poster child for the futility of the American Dream is Clyde Griffiths. During his short life, he wants only wealth, social status, and sex (together, the American Dream). He wins his way into Chicago and Lycurgus’ high societies, is ruined by wealth, and is abandoned. In each city, he has several romantic interludes, which give him a sense of mission and fulfillment for a moment. But, after each affair, he sinks deeper into despair, which corrodes his abrasive morals. Soon, there is nothing Clyde will not do for money, social status, and sex — he will even kill for it. Each character’s emphasis on material success is the cause of tragedy.
Strangely, Clyde’s parents remain surprisingly happy. Their secret is religion. Whether it is an opiate (for Clyde), a loose set of guidelines (for Uncle Griffiths), or a binding pact (for Elvira Griffiths), religion gives meaning to otherwise meaningless and chaotic lives. For Clyde, religion provides a sense of unity and wholeness, and helps him realize that he is wrong and ask for forgiveness. Uncle Griffiths’s religion is a set of moral guidelines which all humans should follow — love and justice. (E.g. Despite his qualms, Uncle Griffiths does not pay for Clyde’s retrial, because he knows Clyde is guilty. While his policies are sound, Uncle Griffiths fails. As he said, “mixing business and family is folly;” he trusted Clyde, and Clyde ruined him.
Elvira is seemingly the most content, both with her failures and her successes, because she bound a pact with God. She finds solace in the Bible; no matter what may go wrong, she will always have help and understanding. When the novel ends, every main character but her is dead or a failure. She, however, changes peoples’ lives — even Clyde’s and the skeptical DA Mason’s. While she may be na?ve, whenever others fall to temptation, Elvira follows her morals. Despite her son’s electrocution and her daughter’s illegitimate child, Elvira is not ruined by the American Dream, and all because of religion.
A novel’s mode is its style (E.g. satirical, romantic, psychological, naturalistic, science fiction, mystery, adventure). While An American Tragedy contains many psychological insights, its dominant mode is naturalistic. A naturalistic novel is “realistic fiction taken one step further, in which the author pessimistically portrays squalor, violence, sordidness, and characters who have little control over their own destinies” (1). Naturalist writers Crane, Morris, London, and Dresser all even believed that man is “a helpless pawn of his heredity and his environment, a creature caught in a web of causation and chance” (Bucco 7). Despite their occasional successes, all characters in An American Tragedy are failures; they live fragile, futile lives, and never become successful.
For example, Sondra is the American Dream, but wealth, good looks, and a high social status do not guarantee her success or happiness — her lover is electrocuted, and she is forced to move away. Hortense, Roberta, Ratter, and Rita are doomed from birth — their poverty will prevent their success. Clyde, however, is the peak of naturalism. He spends a lifetime searching for happiness. On occasion, he feels whole, but he quickly feels empty again. His stupidity and weak morals, however, guarantee his failure.
At the end of An American Tragedy, Clyde discovers that life would have been better had he followed his parents’ moral and religious guidelines. However, he realizes that religion will not save his earthly life, nor will his death change the outcome of anyone else’s miserable life; people ignore Clyde’s failure and suffering, and continue chasing the American Dream. Destiny and social status, he reasons, will bar nearly everyone from living the Dream. An American Tragedy is a classic — its moral is timeless.
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For MLA formatting, I would like to thank Richard Finnegan, whose excellent Academic Citation Style Guide helped me immensely.
Finnegan, Richard. Academic Citation Style Guide v1.0. Computer Software. 2000. Available for download at softseek.com