Michael J. Cummings...©
up poor in the early 20th Century, 12-year-old Clyde Griffiths hopes someday
to break free of his family and climb into the upper circles of American
society. He wants to be somebody.
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,
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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."
did Clyde wind up at that hotel? The narrator explains, as follows:
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.
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.
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
narrator then returns to the present.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
. . . ."
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
ACCIDENTAL DOUBLE TRAGEDY
AT PASS LAKE—UPTURNED CANOE AND FLOATING HATS REVEAL PROBABLE LOSS OF TWO
LIVES AT RESORT NEAR PITTSFIELD—UNIDENTIFIED BODY OF GIRL RECOVERED—THAT
OF COMPANION STILL MISSING
thought of committing murder horrifies him at first. But the more he thinks
about killing Roberta, the more he convinces himself that he has no alternative.
If she has the baby, he would be disgraced, ruined. Marrying Sondra would
be out of the question. One day, July 8, he goes off with her to a resort
area in upper New York State. Roberta thinks they are eloping. After they
arrive, he takes her out in a boat, on Lake Bittern, to do the deed. It
won't be difficult, for Roberta cannot swim.
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.
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:
Young Griffiths, who is
only twenty-two years of age, and up to the day of his arrest a respected
member of Lycurgus smart society, is alleged to have stunned and then drowned
his working-girl sweetheart, whom he had wronged and then planned to desert
in favor of a richer girl. The lawyers in this case have been retained
by his wealthy uncle of Lycurgus, who has hitherto remained aloof. But
apart from this, it is locally asserted, no relative has come forward to
aid in his defense.
Esta immediately goes to her
parents' residence, the Star of Hope mission on Bildwell Street, and shows
the article to her mother. Julia and Frank, the youngest children in the
Asa Griffiths family, are not at home. Julia, now 19, and Frank, 17, both
have jobs that they hope will one day enable them to escape "the drab world
in which they found themselves," the narrator says. However, another Griffiths
child is at home—Russell, Esta's illegitimate son, not yet four years old.
Asa and Elvira Griffiths, pretending that he was an orphan, had adopted
him in Kansas City after Esta returned from Pittsburgh, pregnant and abandoned.
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."
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.
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.
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,
Environmental, Sociological, Psychological, and Economic Forces Working
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."
Asa Griffiths: Clyde's
father. In the Bible, Asa was a king of Judah who condemned idolatry.
Clyde's mother, the daughter of a farmer.
Hester (Esta) Griffiths:
Clyde's older sister. She runs off with an actor and becomes pregnant,
then returns to the family.
Julia, Frank Griffiths:
Clyde's younger siblings.
Clyde's wealthy uncle. After running into Clyde in Chicago, he takes a
liking to him and gives Clyde a job in his factory in eastern New York.
Wife of Samuel Griffiths.
Son of Samuel Griffiths and cousin of Clyde. He despises Clyde and attempts
to turn his father, Samuel, against Clyde. Hortense Briggs: Self-centered
girlfriend of Clyde in Kansas City. She goes out with him because he buys
her gifts and gives her attention.
Roberta Alden: Daughter
of a farmer in Blitz, N.Y., and worker in the factory of Samuel Griffiths.
Clyde dates and impregnates her even though he does not love her.
Bella, Myra Griffiths:
Daughters of Samuel Griffiths.
Beautiful, upper-class young woman who is a friend of the Samuel Griffiths
family. She becomes involved with Clyde.
Thomas Ratterer, Oscar
Hegglund, Davis Higby, Paul Shiel: Bellhops, friends of Clyde.
Friend of Hegglund. Sparser drives a limousine that kills a little girl
while Clyde and other bellhops, as well as their girlfriends are in the
Judge presiding at the murder trial.
Samuel Upham: Juror
who has doubts about Clyde's guilt but votes to convict him after other
jurors threaten him.
Judge, Attorneys, Coroner,
and Others in the Criminal-Justice System
Various Businessmen and
Clerks of Hotels, Drugstores, Shops, and Department Stores
of Work and Year of Publication
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.
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:
(1) Heredity and environment
are the major forces that shape human beings. In other words, like lower
animals, humans respond mainly to inborn instincts and environmental influences
that determine their behavior. In the following passage from Book One,
Chapter 1, of An American Tragedy, Dreiser says Asa Griffiths, the
father of protagonist Clyde Griffiths, is a mere "organism" shaped by his
Naturalist writers generally
achieve only limited success in adhering to Tenet 4. The main problem is
that it is next to impossible for a writer to remain objective and detached,
like a scientist in a laboratory. After all, a scientist analyzes existing
natural objects and phenomena. A naturalist writer, on the other hand,
analyzes characters he created; they may be based on real people, but they
themselves are not real. Thus, in bringing his characters to life, the
naturalist writer brings a part of himself—a subjective part—to his portraits.
To begin with, Asa Griffiths,
the father, was one of those poorly integrated and correlated organisms,
the product of an environment and a religious theory, but with no guiding
or mental insight of his own, yet sensitive and therefore highly emotional
and without any practical sense whatsoever.
Oscar Hegglund, a bellhop friend
of Clyde Griffiths at a Chicago hotel, reflects his environment through
his speech, a crude patois shaped by his upbringing in Jersey City, N.J.
In the following passage, he gives instructions to Clyde:
Den all you gotta do is
to turn on de lights in de batroom and closet, if dere is one, so dey'll
know where dey are, see. An' den raise de curtains in de day time
or lower 'em at night, an' see if dere's towels in de room, so you can
tell de maid if dere ain't, and den if dey don't give you no tip, you gotta
go, only most times, unless you draw a stiff, all you gotta do is hang
back a little—make a stall, see—fumble wit de door-key or try de transom,
see. Den, if dey're any good, dey'll hand you a tip. (Book One, Chapter
(2) Human beings have no free
will, or very little of it, because heredity and environment are so powerful
in determining the course of human action.
(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
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
Transcripts of the Gillette
murder trial are freely available on the Internet. To review the transcripts,
click on the following:
Additional legal information
on the case is available from 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.
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.
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:
Dreiser also uses this technique
at the beginning of some of the chapters in the book, such as Chapter 28
of Book Three:
a summer night.
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.
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.
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.
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.
of a summer night.
the tall walls of the commercial heart of the city of San Francisco—tall
and gray in the evening shade.
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.
Bridgeburg and a slow train
that set down a tired, distrait woman at its depot after midnight on the
eighth of December. Bitter
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
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 the day of the Lord
is near. Obadiah 15.
After obtaining his job as a
bellhop and falling under the influence of his merrymaking co-workers,
Clyde drinks Rhine wine. Moreover, he goes with them to a brothel and engages
the services of a young lady.
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.
Study Questions and Essay
To what extent is Clyde Griffiths
the victim of environmental, social, and economic forces? To what extent
is he the victim of choices he makes with his own free will?
In an informative essay, compare
and contrast the real-life Gillette murder trial with the fictional trial
of Clyde Griffiths.
In an argumentative essay, defend
either of the following viewpoints: (1) Clyde is a victim of forces beyond
his control; (2) Clyde is a victim of his own bad judgment.
Is there a character in the
novel whom you admire?
Why does the novel continue
to be relevant in modern American society—or any other modern society?
In an essay, compare and contrast
Hortense Briggs and Sondra Finchley?
Do you believe Russell, the
son of Hester (Esta) Griffiths, will become another Clyde?
Project Gutenberg in Australia
posts the Complete
Text for Australian visitors only, pointing out that the
novel may remain under copyright protection elsewhere.