Saturday, May 19, 2001

An American Tragedy

I finished An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser. This was the most ambitious book I've read this year, because it is literature, and it was quite long (814 pages in my Signet Classic edition).

I was grateful for the lengthy afterword by Irving Howe, a literary critic. He put the novel into perspective for me.

The plot is simple: young boy with passive morals falls for the allure of the luxurious life, which leads to murder. But this simple sentence gives no justice to the depth and detail of this somber novel. Howe writes that the novel continues Dreiser's form of 'naturalism', which basically means lots and lots of prose. At times, it was almost like listening to someone drone.

Howe also points out that Dreiser really exposed you to the inner machinations of the main character, the unforgettable Clyde Griffiths. It was almost claustrophobic, how close I got to Clyde.

Howe states that a theme in the novel was the tragedy of trying to break free from one's social strata. Clyde is a poor boy/man, due to his upbringing as a child of poor wandering missionary parents. Clyde is exposed to riches when he works at a hotel as a bell boy. Clyde craves the good life 'insanely', but he cannot obtain this life because doesn't have the education or the fortitude. Through fortune, he obtains a position in his rich uncle's factory, and his troubles start. He sees the good life of his uncle, and cousins, and he starts reaching for it, by obtaining the favors of a rich woman. Unfortunately, his earlier relations with a factory girl causes a conflict in his pursuit of this rich woman, and the novel descends into the consequences of Clyde's 'solution' to this conflict.

A harrowing book. Would I recommend it? Yes. But give yourself time.

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