American Tragedy: Self-Destruction in a Self-Indulgent Society
"The boy moved restlessly from one foot to the other, keeping his eyes down . . . . [and he] appeared indeed to resent and even to suffer from the position in which he found himself" (p.9). Clyde Griffiths always wanted to be somebody---anyone but who he was. Growing up in a poor home of evangelizing, exhorting missionaries, he was not drawn to God but pushed away from Him and his family. Clyde was looking for a way to escape from his haunting reality to both a place and position in life that were more attractive. He was ashamed of his looks, his attire, his social position and his poor education. American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser is the tragic story of a man whose fate is sealed and ambitions are shaped by society's values.
Clyde, in trying to fit in with the norms of society, gets into more trouble than he could ever imagine. His trouble begins in Kansas City, where he works at a hotel and runs with some boys who are not all bad, yet are not good either. When these rowdy boys "borrow" a car and pick up their girls for some fun, they hit and kill a little girl. Rather than remain at the scene, they all run. When Clyde finds himself with nowhere to go, he roams until he runs into an old friend from Kansas City. He gets a job at another hotel where he meets his rich uncle. Uncle Samuel tells Clyde that he can come up and get a job in his factory. While working in that factory, he meets Roberta and falls very much in love. However, their love affair must be a secret because he is not, as a department head, supposed to date an employee. As time goes on their relationship becomes physical. In the midst of this physical relationship, Clyde accidentally falls for another girl, Sondra. Unfortunately this does not occur before he gets Roberta pregnant. After Clyde tries unsuccessfully to get her out of this predicament, she insists that he marry her or she will be shamed. Yet if he marries her he will be shamed and loose this new love. Giving it much thought and being tortured by this situation, he then plots to kill her. Getting her up onto a lake where he is going to upset the boat and have her drown, he gets scared. Although he decides not to kill her after all, the boat gets upset anyway. Not a good swimmer, Roberta calls out to him for help; when he does not answer her call, she drowns. Finally, Clyde is tried, convicted and executed for her murder.
At the onset of events, Clyde is already ultimately headed for trouble. Not completely understanding girls or much of anything else, he lets himself get into these situations without giving it much thought at all. At least he does not not follow the little voice that is giving it thought. While working in Kansas City he is invited to go out with the boys, knowing full well that their nighttime activities include drinking and visiting houses of prostitution. Although he turns down their invitations at first,...