A Novel by Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
.......Clyde is one of four children of Asa and Elvira Griffiths, who preach and sing the Gospel on the streets of Kansas City, Missouri, receiving donations along the way. The other children are Julia and Frank, both younger than Clyde, and Hester (nicknamed Esta), a few years older. The Griffiths family had previously fished for souls in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago.
.......In Kansas City, they live on one floor in a run-down building on Bickel Street. Their home doubles as the Bethel Independent Mission, where they hold church meetings Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Whenever Clyde’s parents go out on the streets to do God’s work, he and his three siblings must accompany them and take part. But Clyde is a reluctant participant. What boy wants to wear shabby clothes while singing hymns on a street corner?
.......He takes odd jobs now and then, but what he really wants is a steady job that will put nice clothes on his back and give him pocket change. After he turns 16, Clyde makes his move, taking a job as assistant to a soda-water clerk at Klinkle’s Drugstore at 7th and Brooklyn. He makes $12 a week.
.......Meanwhile, his sister Esta runs away with an actor, and his parents begin talking of moving again, this time to Denver. These developments cause Clyde to look inside himself and establish goals. He decides that he will not be going to Denver. He also decides that he wants a more prestigious, higher-paying job. Eventually, he finds work as a bellhop at the Green-Davidson Hotel, one of Kansas City’s finest. The position is a major step forward for him. For one thing, he is told, he will average $4 to $6 a day in tips—or up to $42 a week. In addition, he will receive free room and board and an additional $15 a month in regular pay. Finally, he will get to wear a snappy uniform. He could not have asked for more.
.......Clyde makes several friends on the job, and they show him what they think real living is all about—fine food, wine and whiskey, women. He even visits a brothel. Eventually, Clyde meets a pretty working-glass girl named Hortense Briggs, who works in a Kansas City store. When he asks her out, she pretends to have dates with other fellows. Nevertheless, she agrees to see him on occasion, accepting little gifts from him even though she does not care about him.
.......During this time, Esta returns to Kansas City—pregnant but unmarried—after her boyfriend deserts her in Pittsburgh. She lives in a furnished room, apart from the family, and Mrs. Griffiths gives her money and food. Although Clyde reviles the man for his sister’s predicament, he believes his sister shares in the blame. After all, he thinks, she should have taken the time to find out what kind of person he was before running off with him.
.......As for Hortense, she doesn’t really care about Clyde. However, she tolerates him for the gifts he gives her and the compliments he bestows on her.
.......One afternoon late in January, Clyde and three of his bellhop friends—Oscar Hegglund, Davis Higby, and Thomas Ratterer—take their girlfriends to a country inn at Excelsior Springs in a Packard limousine driven by Hegglund’s friend Willard Sparser, the son of an employee of a wealthy citizen, Mr. Kimbark, who is on a trip in Asia. When Kimbark is not around, Sparser sometimes takes the limousine, without permission, on joyrides. Sparser also brings along a girlfriend.
.......At the inn, called the Wigwam, the couples drink and dance—Hortense with Sparser, to Clyde’s dismay. Her behavior leads him to believe she is just a flirt who cares little for him. However, noticing later that he is upset, she tells him she was just having a little fun. When she promises to kiss him “when the others aren’t looking," Clyde accepts her explanation. In truth, Hortense cares not for Clyde but for the gifts he buys her.
.......When they return to Kansas City late in the afternoon, Sparser swings the limousine close to the curb to make a turn. A little girl of about nine is crossing the street. There is no time for Sparser to swerve to avoid her, and the car strikes and drags her along the street before Sparser can stop the car. People on the sidewalk rush to the scene. Inside the car, everyone is appalled, exclaiming, “Oh, God! He hit a little girl; "Oh, gee, he's killed a kid!" "Oh, mercy!" "Oh, Lord!" "Oh, heavens, what'll we do now?"
.......Panicking, Sparser speeds away while people at the accident scene shout, “Stop that car!" A policeman near the scene commandeers a passing car and, jumping on the running board, gives chase. Sparser, however, outruns his pursuer and eventually reaches an outlying district where there are few houses and the streets are all but empty. However, at a construction site, he caroms off a pile of paving stones and crashes into a pile of lumber set aside for building a house. Sparser and his girlfriend, Laura Sipe, are knocked unconscious. The others, reeling from bruises and cuts, struggle to free themselves. While several of them try to help Sparser and Sipe, Hortense runs off toward the city, thinking only of herself. Then one of the other girls says, “Oh, dear, we ought all of us to get away from here. Oh, it's all so terrible."
.......A resident of the district, attracted to the scene, comes across a field and informs everyone that his wife has called an ambulance. Realizing that police would be coming, too, they all run off, leaving Sparser and Sipe in the car.
.......The setting shifts to the home of Samuel Griffiths in Lycurgus, N.Y. Samuel, who has just returned from a trip to Chicago, is the older brother of Clyde’s father, Asa, whom Samuel has not seen in 30 years. Samuel is wealthy, having made a fortune developing the Griffiths Collar and Shirt Company. At the dinner table, he tells his wife, Elizabeth, and three children—Gilbert, Bella, and Myra—that he ran into his nephew (Clyde) at Chicago’s Union League Hotel.
......."He's quite good-looking," Samuel says,"and well-mannered, too—about your own age, I should say, Gil, and looks a lot like you—very much so—same eyes and mouth and chin."
.......How did Clyde wind up at that hotel? The narrator explains, as follows:
.......After the car crash in Kansas City, he left town. In St. Louis, he read a newspaper account about the death of the little girl and the arrest of Sparser and Sipe, who were hospitalized and placed under police guard. When police questioned Sparser, he revealed the names and addresses of all his passengers. Consequently, for the next three years, Clyde became something of a fugitive, living for a while in St. Louis, Peoria, and Milwaukee. He supported himself by taking menial jobs—one in a restaurant, another in a shoe store, another in a grocery, and so on—and calling himself “Harry Tenet." Eventually, he ended up on Chicago.
.......There, he drove a delivery wagon and took a room on the West Side. After writing to his mother, she wrote back, saying the family was in Denver. While making a delivery to the Union League Hotel, he ran into Ratterer, who was employed there. Ratterer said his sister had informed him that Sparser did a year in prison but that no one knew what happened to Higby and Hegglund. Hortense Briggs went to New York with a man who worked in a cigar store.
.......Clyde eventually got a job at Chicago’s Great Northern Hotel. Three months later, he accepted a position at the Union League, a superior hotel, after Ratterer spoke up for him. It was at the Union League that Clyde encountered his uncle, Samuel Griffiths, who offered him a job back in Lycurgus at the Griffiths Collar and Shirt Company, Inc., after noticing that Clyde seemed to have a pleasant demeanor and that he resembled his son, Gilbert, a company executive.
.......The narrator then returns to the present.
.......Clyde accepts his uncle's offer, moves east, and goes to work in the six-story factory while living in a boardinghouse. Gilbert assigns him to a job in the “shrinking room."
.......Clyde soon discovers that his new job is no automatic entree into the world of the upper crust. Although Samuel Griffiths generally treats him fairly, Gilbert and other family members regard him as a social inferior and are not inclined to welcome him to their circle. The common folk of Lycurgus treat Clyde cordially, but they do not invite him to their affairs. He is, after all, a Griffiths, and probably has many opportunities to socialize. Or so they think. Ironically, when an acquaintance of his at the boardinghouse befriends him, Griffiths thinks the fellow beneath him and generally ignores him. Consequently, through his own doing and that of his relatives, Clyde feels isolated, lonely.
.......Then events take a turn for the better. First, Samuel Griffiths invites him to his sumptuous home for dinner with his family and guests, including a young woman named Sondra Finchley. She is everything Clyde ever dreamed of in a woman: “as smart and vain and sweet a girl as Clyde had ever laid his eyes upon," the narrator says."To Clyde's eyes she was the most adorable feminine thing he had seen in all his days." Sondra notices that Clyde resembles Gilbert closely but is more handsome.
.......In the days following dinner, Clyde yearns to become part of the world of the Griffiths. Meanwhile, Samuel Griffiths promotes Clyde over the objections of Gilbert and raises his salary from $15 to $25 a week. (The elder Griffiths thinks it would be bad for business—and his public image—if a Griffiths continues to perform menial labor.) Clyde is to take charge of the “stamping department" on the fifth floor, where about 25 young women prepare directions for how collars are to be finished. Clyde is ecstatic. He has his own desk and wears a suit, and managers of other departments begin to pay attention to him. Believing he cannot continue to live in a mere boardinghouse, he gets better accommodations in a nicer section of town. However, his relatives begin to ignore him again. Nevertheless, he continues to covet what they have and the way they live and attempts to educate himself on the finer points of their lifestyle.
.......With Miss Finchley out of reach—at least temporarily—he begins seeing another attractive woman, Roberta Alden, a farmer's daughter who works in his department at the factory. Gilbert Griffiths had forbidden Clyde to mingle socially with any of the factory girls, but Clyde and Roberta meet secretly and eventually become intimate. All goes well, and Clyde—in answer to her prodding—vows never to leave her.
.......Then he encounters Sondra Finchley again. It is evening, and he is out walking when a limousine pulls up with her in the back seat. She has mistaken Clyde for Gilbert and offers him a ride. After realizing her mistake, she does not mind at all, for she finds Clyde more likable than Gilbert. After inviting him to various social events, she is quite taken with him and falls in love with him—and he with her and her social status.
.......Clyde, of course, forgets all about Roberta—almost. Rather than breaking off with her all at once, he goes out with her occasionally in order to cut his ties with her gradually. But a twist of fate takes him by surprise: She is pregnant. The news devastates Clyde, for he and Sondra had become very close. She has allowed him to kiss her, and she has bought him gifts: neckties, a gold pencil, a box of handkerchiefs. "His future in connection with her," the narrator says, "was of greater and greater promise . . . . "[E]ven marriage, assuming that her family might not prove too inimical and that her infatuation and diplomacy endured, might not be beyond the bounds of possibility."
.......After persuading Roberta to abort the child, Clyde travels to Schenectady, N.Y., where know no one knows him, and buys a box of pills from an unscrupulous clerk. Somewhat relieved, he returns and gives them to Roberta. Meanwhile, he carries on his relationship with Sondra. However, when he meets her at a social event, he remains preoccupied with Roberta "in spite of Sondra at the piano throwing him a welcoming smile over her shoulder as he entered. . . . ."
.......When he checks on Roberta in the following days, she tells him the pills are not working even though she has taken excessive dosages of them, which make her sick and pale. Clyde returns to Schenectady, and the dealer who sold him the pills tells him it takes time for the pills to work. He gives Clyde a second prescription of the same pills. After they fail to work, he takes Roberta to Gloversville, where a certain physician is said to administer abortions. However, despite Roberta's pleadings, he refuses to abort the child. Roberta is now set on having the baby and makes Clyde promise to marry her. It appears he has no way out—until he sees a newspaper headline:
.......When they set off from shore, he takes along his camera under the pretense that he plans to snap pictures of her. About 500 feet from the shore, however, he experiences "a sudden palsy of the will—of courage—of hate or rage sufficient," the narrator says. He is unable to act, unable to go through with his plan. As he sits there, it is if he is in a trance. Concerned, Roberta asks why he looks so strange, then leans over to him to take his hand. Angry with himself for his failure to proceed, angry with Roberta for her power over him, he reacts to her movement toward him, "flinging out at her" with the camera in his hand. He does not mean to harm her; he wants only to prevent her from holding his hand. But the camera strikes her in the face, throwing her back. The boat rocks and she falls in. Clyde lets her drown.
.......There is a coroner's inquest, as well as an autopsy and, of course, a police investigation. Eventually, evidence indicates that Roberta's death was no accident, and police charge Clyde with first-degree murder. Because the suspect in the case is a Griffiths, a scandal follows and newspapers around the country publish stories about the case. In Denver, Esta, now married and living apart from her family, reads an account of Clyde's indictment in the Rocky Mountain News. Following is a paragraph from that account:
.......Meanwhile, back in New York State, lawyers and government officials involved in the murder case become embroiled in rivalries and machinations. After all, such a case could make or break reputations. Sondra Finchley's reputation, however is protected: During all the proceedings, including the trial, she is referred to as "Miss X."
.......In the trial, a jury finds Clyde guilty after a holdout juror, Samuel Upham, votes to convict Clyde when other jurors threaten him. Newspapers throughout the country report the verdict. Judge Frederick Oberwaltzer then sentences Clyde to death in the electric chair at a prison in Auburn, N.Y., where he is placed in solitary confinement until the day of execution. Mrs. Elvira Griffiths, who has come to her son's aid even though her husband is ill, attempts to persuade the governor to commute the sentence to life in prison, telling him that her son has made peace with God through a minister. Her voice breaks as she pleas he case. Then she cries. The governor is touched, but he refuses to grant her request. Consequently, Clyde goes to the electric chair, saying, "Good-by, all" to everyone witnessing his death.
.......Meanwhile, the members of the Lycurgus Griffiths family have moved to another town to escape the scandal of it all. The other Griffiths family—the roving evangelists—are on the streets of San Francisco, doing what they were doing when Clyde was a little boy. The only difference is that Clyde has been replaced by Esta's son Russell.
.......What will happen to him? Will he become another Clyde?
The time is the first quarter of the 20th Century. The action takes place in Kansas City, Mo.; Excelsior Springs, Mo.; Chicago, Ill.; the fictional town of Lycurgus, N.Y.; San Francisco, Calif., and various other locales in New York State, including Schenectady, Utica, Albany, Gloversville, Auburn, N.Y. (site of prison where Clyde goes to the electric chair), and the resort regions in the countryside. The novel also mentions locales which the characters have lived in, passed through, or received communication from, including Grand Rapids, Mich.; St. Louis, Mo.; Peoria, Ill.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Detroit, Mich.; Cleveland, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Bedford, Pa.; Denver, Col.; Jersey City, N.J.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Tonowanda, N.Y.; and New Orleans, La.
Clyde Griffiths: Son
of poor Protestant evangelists who move from city to city to preach the
Gospel. Clyde grows up despising his lot in life and desiring money, fashionable
clothes, pretty women, recognition, and admission to the social circles
of the high and mighty. The novel traces his movements as he seeks his
dreams—and ends up in a nightmare. Dreiser describes him as having "a well-cut
nose, high white forehead, wavy, glossy, black hair, eyes that were black
and rather melancholy at times."
An American Tragedy is a novel of naturalism presenting the story of a man struggling against social, economic, and environmental forces—as well as forces within himself—that slowly drown him in a tide of misfortune. It was published in 1925 and became Dreiser’s most successful novel.
Naturalism, an extreme form of realism, developed in France in the 19th Century. It was inspired in part by the scientific determinism of Charles Darwin, an Englishman, and the economic determinism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both Germans. Four Frenchmen—Hippolyte Taine, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, and Emile Zola—applied the principles of scientific and economic determinism to literature to create literary naturalism. According to its followers, literary naturalism has the following basic tenets:
(3) A literary work should present life exactly as it is, without preachment, judgment, or embellishment. In this respect, naturalism is akin to realism. However, naturalism goes further than realism in that it presents a more detailed picture of everyday life. Whereas the realist writer omits insignificant details when depicting a particular scene, a naturalist writer generally includes them. He wants the scene to be as “natural" as possible. The naturalist writer also attempts to be painstakingly objective and detached. Rather than manipulating characters as if they were puppets, the naturalist writer prefers to observe the characters as if they were animals in the wild and then report on their activity. Finally, naturalism attempts to present dialogue as spoken in everyday life (as pointed out in Number 1, above. Rather than putting “unnatural" wording in the mouth of a character, the naturalist writer attempts to reproduce the speech patterns of people in a particular time and place.
Source: Real-Life Murder Case
Dreiser based his novel on details surrounding a sensational 1906 murder case in which Chester Gillette, who was born in Montana in 1883, was found guilty of murdering his pregnant girlfriend, Grace Brown, at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains resort region of eastern New York. Gillette was the son of parents who traveled from place to place as part of their duties with the Salvation Army. After striking out on his own, Gillette worked a number of jobs before accepting a position as a railroad brakeman in Chicago. In that city, he met with an uncle, Noah Gillette, who operated the Gillette Skirt Factory in Cortland, N.Y. When his uncle offered him a job, Chester accepted the offer and moved east to work in the factory. There he met Miss Brown, another employee of the factory, and they began to see each other in secret. After she became pregnant, she and Gillette traveled to Big Moose Lake and went out in a rowboat. Miss Brown's body was found the following day. Police used circumstantial evidence to arrest and jail Chester Gillette. After he was tried and found guilty, he was committed to a prison in Auburn, N.Y., where he was eventually executed in an electric chair.
Trial Transcripts: People vs Gillette
Transcripts of the Gillette murder trial are freely available on the Internet. To review the transcripts, click on the following:The Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York.
Dreiser presents the story in omniscient, third-person point of view.
Dreiser divides the novel into three books. Book One centers on Clyde Griffiths as a member of the impoverished Asa Griffiths family. Book Two centers on Clyde as relative and employee of the wealthy Samuel Griffiths family. Book Three centers on Clyde's imprisonment and trial and its effect on him, his mother, and the rest of the Griffiths family (both branches). The novel begins in the Midwest (Kansas), shifts to the East (Lycurgus, N.Y.), and ends in West (San Francisco). The final chapter, called "Souvenir," begins with the same five words as the first chapter—"Dusk, of a summer night"—and presents a scene like the one in the first chapter: the Asa Griffiths family walking along a street, preparing to sing and spread the Gospel. One may conclude from this structural scheme that the themes of the novel, such as the pursuit of materialism, apply to the entire country and that the outcome of the novel will repeat itself from one generation of Americans to the next, as the final chapter suggests when it echoes the first chapter—this time with Hester's illegitimate son, Russell, standing in for Clyde.
Dreiser tells an intriguing story that keeps the reader turning pages to see what happens next. He is strong in plotting and character development, as well as in the exposition of his theme. However, Dreiser's prose is pedestrian most of the time, like journalese—full of cliches and uninspired imagery. Moreover, the playful baby talk Sondra Finchley uses when speaking or writing to Clyde seems a bit contrived: "How is my pheet phing [sweet thing]? . . . Is he working hard in the baddie old factory? Sonda wisses [wishes] he was here wiss [with] her instead" (Book Two, Chapter 42). Readers will remember Dreiser most for his intriguing stories—including An American Tragedy, his best work—not for the way he wrote them.
One Man’s Losing Struggle Against Forces That Shape Human Destiny
According to Theodore Dreiser and other writers of naturalism, the destiny of a human being results from hereditary, environmental, economic, social, and fatalistic forces that act upon him. Clyde Griffiths attempts to break free of these forces but fails. In Clyde’s case, these forces include, specifically, mental and physical traits that he inherited at birth, the surroundings in which he grew up, the financial status and lower-class background of his family, and happenstance (the automobile accident, for example).
The Impossible Dream
Americans grow up with the idea that anyone—regardless of his or her family's background—can achieve success. A popular song, "The Impossible Dream" (composed for the 1965 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion), celebrates this idea. Dreiser, however, demonstrated in his 1925 novel that for many Americans the dream of social, financial, or another form of success never comes true. Too many forces work against them: economic conditions, prejudice, lack of the right educational or employment opportunities, caprice. Thoreau observed in the nineteenth century, "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Clyde Griffiths was quietly desperate and failed to achieve his dream. People like Clyde Griffiths continue to struggle in today's society.
The novel contains several climactic events. However, the main climax—the turning point at which the conflict takes an irreversible turn for the worse—occurs when Roberta falls from the boat and Clyde allows her to drown. This event sets in motion a long denouement in which police arrest, charge, and jail Clyde, ending his dreams of success and prosperity. Clyde brings shame not only on himself but also on the other Griffiths, and he ultimately goes to the electric chair. Mini-climaxes in the novel include the fatal limousine accident in Book One and the execution of Clyde.
How the Author Mimics Playwrights
Dreiser imitates playwrights in one respect: He begins each of the three books in the novel, as well as "Souvenir" at the end, with incomplete sentences that resemble the stage directions appearing in plays. Perhaps he was attempting to give the novel a sense of immediacy, as if the drama in the novel were being acted out at the very time that readers were paging through the book. Following are the openings of the three books, each without a single complete sentence:
.......Dusk—of a summer night.
.......And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants—such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.
.......And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six,—a man of about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair
protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant-looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is
customarily used by street preachers and singers. And with him a woman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid of frame and vigorous, very plain in face and dress, and yet not homely, leading with one hand a small boy of seven and in the other carrying a Bible and several hymn books.
.......The home of Samuel Griffiths in Lycurgus, New York, a city of some twenty-five thousand inhabitants midway between Utica and Albany. Near the dinner hour and by degrees the family assembling for its customary meal.
.......Cataraqui County extending from the northernmost line of the village known as Three Mile Bay on the south to the Canadian border, on the north a distance of fifty miles. And from Senaschet and Indian Lakes on the east to the Rock and Scarf Rivers on the west—a width of thirty miles. Its greater portion covered by uninhabited forests and lakes, yet dotted here and there with such villages and hamlets as Koontz, Grass Lake, North Wallace, Brown Lake, with Bridgeburg, the county seat, numbering no less than two thousand souls of the fifteen thousand in the entire county. And the central square of the town occupied by the old and yet not ungraceful county courthouse, a cupola with a clock and some pigeons surmounting it, the four principal business streets of the small town facing it.
.......Dusk, of a summer night.
.......And the tall walls of the commercial heart of the city of San Francisco—tall and gray in the evening shade.
.......And up a broad street from the south of Market—now comparatively hushed after the din of the day, a little band of five—a man of about sixty, short, stout, yet cadaverous as to the flesh of his face—and more especially about the pale, dim eyes—and with bushy white hair protruding from under a worn, round felt hat—a most unimportant and exhausted looking person, who carried a small, portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers. And by his side, a woman not more than five years his junior—taller, not so broad, but solid of frame and vigorous—with snow white hair and wearing an unrelieved costume of black—dress, bonnet, shoes. And her face broader and more characterful than her husband's, but more definitely seamed with lines of misery and suffering. At her side, again, carrying a Bible and several hymn books—a boy of not more than seven or eight—very round-eyed and alert, who, because of some sympathetic understanding between him and his elderly companion, seemed to desire to walk close to her—a brisk and smart stepping—although none-too-well dressed boy. With these three, again, but walking independently behind, a faded and unattractive woman of twenty-seven or eight and another woman of about fifty—apparently, because of their close resemblance, mother and daughter.
cold and bright stars. A lone depot assistant who on inquiry directed her to the Bridgeburg Central House—straight up the street which now faced her, then two blocks to her left after she reached the second street. The sleepy night clerk of the Central House
providing her instantly with a room and, once he knew who she was, directing her to the county jail. But she deciding after due
rumination that now was not the hour.
Twenty-five Biblical admonitions line the walls of the Griffiths mission in Kansas City. The last three mentioned by author Dreiser appear to foreshadow the downfall of Clyde:
For there shall be no reward to the evil man. Proverbs 24:20.
Look, then, not upon the wine when it is red: It biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder. Proverbs 23:31,32.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
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