An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser is a gripping novel that tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, who is being raised by his devoutly religious missionary parents. They are poor and he is poorly educated due to their vagabond lifestyle. The narrative continues to focus on Clyde as he gets his first job outside the family mission as a bellhop in a swanky Kansas City hotel. There we meet the cast of characters who will drive the first part of the book and who will influence Clyde greatly in his formative years.
After an incident that is fully detailed in the course of his Kansas City escapades, Clyde moves to Chicago and meets his father’s brother, the wealthy Samuel Griffiths, who invites Clyde to work in his shirt collar factory, but does not invite him into the wealthier social circles to which Samuel belongs. Here Clyde enters into a forbidden relationship with innocent farm girl Roberta, and into a forbidden relationship (for entirely different reasons) with popular socialite Sondra.
It’s difficult to sketch out all the plot points without spoiling some of the essentials, but suffice it to say the book was absolutely riveting, even with its hefty 800-plus-page count. Reading the novel is basically watching someone’s life unfold, and observing the consequences of actions and decisions continually made throughout that lifetime. Clyde is a social climber, so many of his decisions are based on the whims of what he thinks he’ll gain by each choice set before him. It’s actually an excellent tome on peer pressure, not only with his decisions, but also with others’ choices, and reasoning for those choices, as well.
One of the best parts of the novel is a masterfully written court case, which keeps the reader’s interest by varying the distance to which we participate in the events – sometimes we viewed it with actual dialogue and cross examination, sometimes we viewed it from a summary of the events, sometimes we viewed it through newspaper reports, etc. It was gripping, and was similar in tone to the movie A Few Good Men.
I loved this novel – just as I was thinking it would transfer well to film, I discovered that it has been adapted for film, television, stage, and Opera thus far. In fact, A Place in the Sun, which won six Academy Awards and the first ever Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, is based on this novel.
Onwards we go – Keep Reading! Review of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter coming soon…