An American Tragedy Summary & Study Guide

This Study Guide consists of approximately 47 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of An American Tragedy.
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An American Tragedy Summary & Study Guide Description

An American Tragedy Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.

A driven but immature young man by the name of Clyde Griffiths hopes to escape from the world of poverty and devout religion established by his parents, who are street missionaries in Kansas City, Missouri. One of four children, Clyde’s entire family has moved from place to place promoting the Gospel for years. At the age of sixteen, Clyde makes a move toward improving his financial situation by obtaining employment as an assistant soda-water clerk at a drugstore that pays him twelve dollars a week.

When his sister Esta runs off with an actor and the prospect of moving to Denver arises from his parents, Clyde decides to remain in Kansas City and find a better job so he can support himself. He begins working at the classy Green-Davidson Hotel as a bellhop making close to four times the salary he made as a clerk. He soon finds himself in more sophisticated company and starts to indulge in a partying lifestyle. One of his main pursuits becomes trying to gain the attention of the flirtatious Hortense Briggs, a girl who is more than willing to accept his gifts and adoration with little desire toward reciprocity.

Things take a turn for the worse when Clyde and his friends decide to take joyride in a stolen car and end up killing a child. Clyde flees the city and eventually, after taking menial jobs in other cities, makes his way to Lycurgus, New York, where he tries to reestablish himself at the factory of his wealthy, long-lost uncle Samuel Griffiths. Clyde achieves a measure of success in the company, but for the most part, he stands outside of the social circle. Clyde becomes involved with an innocent girl who works for him at the factory named Roberta Alden. The penniless girl remains, however, a side-conquest to his true desire of obtaining Sondra Finchley, the elegant daughter of one of his uncle’s wealthy associates. But just as things begin to work in Clyde’s favor with Sondra, Roberta reveals she is pregnant with his child.

Although Roberta initially agrees to have an abortion, the two are unsuccessful in their attempts, first through pills and then by being denied an abortion due to the reluctance of a physician. Roberta eventually welcomes the idea of having the baby and insists Clyde marry her. Clyde continues to court Sondra and seems to be on the verge of obtaining her hand when Roberta threatens to expose their relationship.

Inspired by a newspaper headline about a couple killed during a canoeing mishap, Clyde contemplates murdering Roberta and making it look like an accident. At first, he is horrified by the thought but soon comes to the conclusion he has no other options. He takes Roberta on a canoe ride in upstate New York. His indecision about going through with his plan begins to manifest physically. Roberta, concerned, reaches over to touch Clyde. Reacting to her advancement, Clyde lifts the camera that he is carrying and hits her in the face. The blow leads to Roberta being thrown back. The boat capsizes and both are cast into the water. Unable to swim, Roberta is left by Clyde to drown.

An investigation into the incident points towards Clyde’s involvement, and he is charged with first-degree murder. The news spreads quickly around the country because of the involvement of the Griffiths name and the clout it holds in New York. The trial, with many reputations on the line, stirs up competitive social and political factions. Clyde is convicted and sentenced by the judge to be executed by electric chair. After the verdict, he is removed to prison to await his sentence.

Having heard the news of her son’s conviction through her daughter Esta and a local news article, Clyde’s mother Elvira heads to New York to plead for the life of her son and a commuted sentence, but her request is denied. Clyde is executed. The New York Griffiths are then forced to relocate in order to avoid the lingering scandal. Clyde’s parents, now in San Francisco, continue to minister on the streets with nearly four-year-old Russell, the illegitimate son of Esta, taking Clyde’s place.

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