An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy
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Rating: 4.0/5

Author: Theodore Dreiser

Hardcover: 896 pages

Publisher: Boni and Liveright

Publication Date: 17 December 1925

Language: English

Genre: Crime fiction

ISBN-10: 9780451531551

ISBN-13: 978-0451531551

ASIN: 0451531558

Cost: Rs. 51.45 (Kindle edition)


An American Tragedy follows the life of Clyde Griffiths from late childhood to his infamous death. Beginning his life as the impoverished son of street missionaries, young Clyde aspires to a more affluent life with luxuries, fine clothes, and a woman who'll love him. As a young man, Clyde achieves a measure of this as a bellhop for the Green-Davidson hotel in Kansas City until a car accident involving the death of a little girl forced him to flee the city.

Traveling and working under a different name, Clyde winds up in Chicago and meets his prosperous uncle, Samuel Griffiths. Samuel invites Clyde back to the city of Lycurgus, New York, to work at his collar factory. Clyde accepts, believing he will have a chance to work up social circles and become as rich and prominent as his uncle. However, he begins as a common labourer in the shrinking room before being promoted to manager of the stamping department. Going against company wishes, Clyde seduces one of his employees, Roberta Alden, a poor farm girl from nearby Biltz.

At Moon Cove on Big Bittern, Clyde finds himself unable to murder Roberta when she touches him, catching him by surprise and provoking his anger. He unintentionally lashes out at her, knocking her over and tipping the boat. He then lets Roberta drown to death, as he originally planned.

Soon, Roberta's body is discovered and Clyde is caught, put on trial, and sentenced to be executed. Clyde has a chance at escaping the death sentence through the intervention of a Reverend, Duncan McMillan, but McMillan has doubts about Clyde's innocence and allows the execution to take place.


The author questions the societal structure of America. In the midst of 19th century, a very prominent literary movement had taken place in France called ‘Naturalism’. As a literary term naturalism describes a type of literature, which tries to apply scientific principles to the study of human beings. By the end of the 19th century, this movement made it’s way in into America. Apart from Dreiser, other American representatives of this prominent literary movement are: Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris, O'Henry.

"An American Tragedy", which is considered as one of the best works of Dreiser, is developed upon the concept of the parallel technique, which has not only led to the creation of parallel events, but also of parallel characters: Clyde-Russell; Clyde- Gilbert; Roberta-Esta; Sondra-Hortense, the poor family Griffiths- the rich family Griffiths etc.

The author wanted to share his philosophical view about life and death, love and hate as well as the desire for wealth and power. Therefore there has been used different symbols in the novel "An American Tragedy" to uplift the emotion of the novel; some of which include: winter, black, crows, the lake, the hotel ‘Green Davidson', camera and Aladdin’s lamp.

Finally, through a daunting combination of bright and dark colours, Dreiser has showed us the differences that then existed between the different classes of the society in America of the 20th century.

In the words of  Paul Giles - “An American Tragedy is concerned more with the investigation of the increasingly fractious relationship between individual subjectivity and collective consciousness than with the representation of a documentary truth. According to him, Dreiser’s novel represents a more stylized meditation between alternative versions of truth and different categories of representations.”


  • In the 1940s, the novel inspired an episode of the award-winning old time Radio comedy Our Miss Brooks, an episode known as "Weekend at Crystal Lake," or "An American Tragedy". The episode revolved around the characters' misinterpreting the intentions of biology teacher Philip Boyton.
  • The 1951 Paramount Pictures film A Place in the sun , directed by George Stevens is based on the Novel.
  • In Cuba, the novel has been adapted and broadcast by Radio Progreso national broadcasting twice: in 1977 and 2001.
  • Critics and commentators have compared elements of Woody Allen 's film, Match Point to the central part of the Novel.

Milestones of the Book:

  • In 2005, the book was placed on TIME Magazine’s list of top 100 Novels written in English since 1923.

About the Author:

Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871. After a poor and difficult childhood, Dreiser broke into newspaper work in Chicago in 1892. A successful career as a magazine writer in New York during the late 1890s was followed by his first novel, Sister Carrie (1900). When this work made little impact, Dreiser published no fiction until Jennie Gerhardt in 1911. There then followed a decade and a half of major work in a number of literary forms, which was capped in 1925 by An American Tragedy, a novel that brought him universal acclaim. Dreiser was increasingly preoccupied by philosophical and political issues during the last two decades of his life. He died in Los Angeles on December 28, 1945.