Follow TV Tropes


Literature / An American Tragedy

Go To
Original dust jacket

Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy was first published in 1925. A Doorstopper, this long book chronicles the downward spiral of Clyde Griffiths, a poor young man trying to escape his roots but finding himself facing hurdles on account of his class, background and education at every step of the way. He eventually ends up in a Love Triangle between the wealthy Sondra Finchley and the poor Roberta Alden. As the title states, it eventually ends in tragedy.

The story was based on a real-life incident, the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in 1906. In many ways it anticipates the "true crime" novels with its detailed realism, gritty descriptions, lack of sentimentality and emphasis on larger social forces. However, the prose style is closer to that of Émile Zola than pulp fiction.

The story had a major impact in its time and was repeatedly adapted for film and theatre. In addition to this, the story itself has inspired many a Whole-Plot Reference and Shout-Out to the infamous "boat scene".

An official film adaptation appeared in 1931, directed by Josef von Sternberg; however, Executive Meddling resulted in a film neither Sternberg or Dreiser liked. The story was adapted again (albeit with the characters' names changed) as the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Other works that echo its story include Sunrise, Match Point, and A Kiss Before Dying.

The novel entered the public domain in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand in 1996, in the EU (except Spain) and UK in 2016, and the US in 2021.note 

Since the copyright has expired and this work now falls into the Public Domain, all spoilers are unmarked as per policy. You Have Been Warned.


  • Ambiguous Situation: Roberta's death is presented this way, Clyde planned her death but hesitated at the moment but his intentions were made clear to Roberta who panicked and toppled the boat. Clyde made a half-attempt to save her and ultimately tried to escape and hide the evidence. This explanation is described by his lawyer as "moral cowardice" but not necessarily homicidal intent.
  • Amoral Attorney: The prosecutor at Clyde's trial is motivated partly out of sincere moral outrage but mostly hopes to use the publicity of a public trial and execution to advance his career.
  • Based on a True Story: It's based on the Chester Gillette-Grace Brown incident.
  • Betty and Veronica: Clyde longs for the wealthy Sondra Finchley but is sexually attracted to Roberta Alden, a girl working at the company factory at Lycurgus. When she gets pregnant, it leads him to contemplate murder.
  • Book Ends: The opening and closing passages of the novel are nearly identical.
  • Crapsack World: Turn of the century New York, especially the slums, is a rather bleak environment, but the rather cold class divisions between that and the more middle-class Lycurgus set are no less brutal.
  • Downer Ending: Clyde Griffiths' mother fails to get a stay on Clyde's execution and he dies. (Assuming that you have any sympathy for Clyde by this point in the story, that is).
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Happens to Clyde Griffiths. The prosecutor is aware that he is guilty, and manufactures additional evidence to prove it to the jury. This creates an ambiguity on the issue of whether or not Clyde Griffiths actually received justice.
  • The Fundamentalist: Clyde's parents are ardently if not fanatically religious.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: This concept is explored with all its hypocrisy. Clyde Griffiths and Roberta Alden initially decide to abort her child but find it difficult to seek a sympathetic doctor, mostly because of religious notions. Roberta, already wracked with guilt, decides to keep her baby, an action which drives Clyde to plot her murder. After her death, she's portrayed in the media as an innocent victim led astray by an evil young man, when if she had gotten an abortion she would be judged much more harshly.
  • Hate at First Sight: Or hate before first sight, in the case of Gilbert's reaction to Clyde.
    At the thought of a cousin who looked like him — possibly as attractive in every way as himself — and bearing his own name, Gilbert chilled and bristled slightly. For here in Lycurgus, up to this time, he was well and favourably known as the only son and heir presumptive to the managerial control of his father’s business, and to at least a third of the estate, if not more. And now, if by any chance it should come to light that there was a relative, a cousin of his own years and one who looked and acted like him, even — he bridled at the thought. Forthwith (a psychic reaction which he did not understand and could not very well control) he decided that he did not like him — could not like him.
  • Inter-Class Romance: Between the middle-class-at-best Clyde and the wealthy, socially-prominent Sondra.
  • It's All About Me: Every single evil deed which Clyde Griffiths does, he does out of a profound and sincere belief that his own personal happiness trumps any moral claim that any individual or group might exert upon him.
  • Murder by Inaction: How Clyde finally kills Roberta — he meant to actively drown her, but then lacked the courage to go through with murder. When she fell in by accident, he chose not to save her, knowing that she could not swim.
  • Nice Girl: Roberta — Clyde's lover and victim. She's a decent hardworking farm girl who has moved into town to work in the Griffiths factory and is making her way up in the world. The only bad thing she does from a moral point of view is to have sex with Clyde — in ultimate consequence of which, he kills her.
  • Not So Harmless: Through most of the book, Clyde simply seems to be amoral and weak. It is precisely these qualities which lead him to first impregnate and then murder Roberta Alden.
  • The One Who Made It Out: Clyde Griffiths yearns to be this for his family. He does manage to escape it for a time, but his past is always catching up with him.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Clyde ultimately prefers the rich Sondra Finchley over the poor Roberta Alden. Unusual version of this in that both girls are rather nice; it's Clyde who's an irresponsible and murderous bastard.
  • Social Climber: Clyde Griffiths is an American version of this trope.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: This is what Dreiser probably meant Clyde Griffiths to be. When you look at what he actually did, compared to his clear in-story alternatives — not so much. He, basically, murders his lover and their unborn child because he wants to trade-up to a richer model.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story