american tragedy

An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy (1925) is a novel by the American writer Theodore Dreiser. The book is the story of a young man, Clyde Griffiths, whose troubles with women and the law take him from his religious upbringing in Kansas City to the fictional town of Lycurgus, New York. Among Clyde's love interests are the materialistic Hortense Briggs, the charming farmer's daughter Roberta Alden, and the aristocratic Sondra Finchley. The book is naturalistic in style, dealing with subjects such as religion, capital punishment, and abortion.

The novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.

Plot summary

Raised by poor and devoutly religious parents, who force him to participate in their street missionary work, the ambitious but naïve and immature Clyde is anxious to achieve better things. His troubles begin when he takes a job as a bellboy at a local hotel. The boys he meets are much more sophisticated than he, and they introduce Clyde to the world of alcohol and prostitution. Clyde enjoys his new lifestyle and does everything in his power to win the affections of the flirtatious Hortense Briggs. But Clyde's life is forever changed when a stolen car he is traveling in kills a young child. Clyde flees Kansas City, and after a brief stay in Chicago, he reestablishes himself as a foreman at the collar factory of his wealthy long-lost uncle in Lycurgus, New York, who meets Clyde through a stroke of fortune. The uncle does his best to help Clyde and advances him to a position of relative importance within his collar factory.

Although Clyde vows not to consort with women in the way that caused his Kansas City downfall, he is swiftly attracted to Roberta Alden, a poor and very innocent farm girl working under him at the factory. While Clyde initially enjoys the secretive relationship and virtually coerces Roberta into sex, his ambition forces him to realize that he could never marry her. He dreams of the elegant Sondra Finchley, the daughter of a wealthy Lycurgus man and a family friend of his uncle's. As developments between him and Sondra begin to look promising, Roberta discovers that she is pregnant.

Having unsuccessfully attempted to procure an abortion for Roberta, who expects him to marry her, Clyde procrastinates while his relationship with Sondra continues to mature. When he realizes that he has a genuine chance to marry Sondra, and after Roberta threatens to reveal their relationship unless he marries her, Clyde hatches a plan to murder Roberta in a fashion that would seem accidental.

Clyde takes Roberta for a canoe ride on Big Bittern Lake in upstate New York, and rows into a remote portion of the lake. As he speaks to her regarding the end of their relationship, Roberta moves towards him, and he strikes Roberta in the face with his camera, stunning her and capsizing the boat. Unable to swim, Roberta drowns while Clyde, who is unwilling to save her, swims to shore. The narrative is deliberately unclear as to whether he acted with malice and intent to murder or if his striking her was merely instinct. The trail of circumstantial evidence points to murder, and the local authorities are only too eager to convict Clyde. Following a sensational trial before an unsympathetic audience, despite a vigorous defense by two lawyers hired by his uncle, Clyde is found guilty and sentenced to death. The jailhouse scenes and the correspondence between Clyde and his mother stand out as exemplars of pathos in modern literature.


Dreiser based the book on a notorious criminal case. On July 11, 1906, resort owners found an overturned boat and the body of 20-year-old Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in upstate New York. Chester Gillette was put on trial and convicted of killing Brown, though he claimed it was an accident. Gillette was executed by electric chair in 1908. The murder trial drew international attention when Brown's love letters to Gillette were read in court. Dreiser saved newspaper clippings about the case for several years before writing his novel. Clyde Griffiths was based on Chester Gillette, right down to the same initials.

In popular culture

An American Tragedy has been adapted into opera, at the hands of composer Tobias Picker. It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera starring Nathan Gunn in New York on December 2, 2005. The well-known Paramount Pictures film A Place in the Sun (1951) is also based on An American Tragedy. Dreiser strongly disapproved of a 1931 film version directed by Josef von Sternberg and also released by Paramount. Sergei Eisenstein prepared a screenplay in the late 1920s which he hoped to have produced by Paramount or by Charlie Chaplin during Eisenstein's stay in Hollywood in 1930. Many critics and commentators have also compared elements of Woody Allen's film, Match Point (2005) to the central plot of An American Tragedy.

The novel inspired an episode of the award-winning old-time radio show Our Miss Brooks, an episode known as "Weekend at Crystal Lake" and sometimes known as "An American Tragedy". The episode revolved around the characters' misinterpreting the intentions of biology teacher Philip Boyton (played by Jeff Chandler), Connie Brooks's (Eve Arden) high school colleague and love interest. The characters fear that Boynton plans to kill Miss Brooks during a leisurely weekend at their boss's lakeside retreat. The episode was broadcast twice, on September 19, 1948, and — with very minor changes — on August 21, 1949. The episode was also repeated in 1955, at a time the show was a hit on both radio and television.


Further reading

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