Book Review: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Oh boy, my first book review! I’d like to think of myself as a pretty avid reader, although I don’t generally write about my impressions of the books I read unless people ask me for specific suggestions. Talar normally handles the book reviews here! But in the spirit of finishing a book I’ve been slogging through for literally months, I’ve decided I should share my opinion with the interwebz as well. (This won’t be as eloquent as Talar’s reviews, because I iz not one with da words, but bear with me. Maybe it will be interesting.)

Rating: 2/5

I spent my summer in Breckenridge, Colorado playing for an orchestra as part of a two-month long summer program. Being in the mountains was absolutely inspiring, but with all day rehearsals and frequent thunderstorms nearly every afternoon, I had a decent amount of free time on my hands. I wound up scouring a local used bookstore for something, anything, to read that would keep me occupied for at least a month, since I didn’t want to (a.) spend all my money on books and (b.) cart all of them home at the end of the summer. Fortunately slow and plodding is generally my thing anyway, so when I saw Dreisers behemoth of a novel in the middle of a shelf I was immediately drawn to it.

The description on the back of the book states that it is about the ills of the American Dream, and how pursuit of it can lead men to their undoing. As someone who has spent a lot of time abroad debating various people about the validity of this very topic, and whether it still exists or not, I found this really intriguing, and I snatched it up.

The book is based on a true story about a man named Clyde Griffiths, of poor and religious origins who follows his more base desires and family connections to a town called Lycurgus in upstate New York. There, he gets a job at his uncle’s factory and begins an illicit relationship with one of the factory girls. He pressures her to have sex with him, gets her pregnant, fails to get her an abortion, refuses to marry her (because at this point he is in love with another more socially-connected girl), and eventually drowns her on a remote lake near the Adirondacks. He’s caught in the end, and is executed.

If Clyde sounds absolutely unsympathetic, that’s because he is. And herein lies my first beef with An American Tragedy: I absolutely despised the main character. A wonderful ex-English teacher of mine made a very insightful comment about this fact, which is that perhaps, like in Wuthering Heights, we aren’t actually meant to like Clyde. The point is not to sympathize with him, but to look at him as a case study.

Yet however much this may be true, the fact remains that for most of us, it’s extremely hard to remain invested in a book that is centered around a character that you loathe.

In fact, not only is Clyde a very unsympathetic character, but his character has no progression from the beginning to the end of the novel. He is motivated by material wealth and social status at the beginning of the novel, and remains so, confessing the true motive of the murder to a priest just before he is executed, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because he selfishly hopes that somehow God will spare him the death sentence if he does.

This was probably the only time I was ever really rooting for Clyde; isn’t it a waste of a life to kill someone just as soon as they begin to come to terms with the enormity of their crime? Dreiser doesn’t make a judgement on this, and we are left to debate it in our minds.

In many ways Clyde resembles Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, but is far less arrogant. While Raskolnikov spends his days in painful thought about how he is not the great man he thought he would become after his act of murder, Clyde just simply hopes he won’t be caught.

…Which leads me to my second beef. While Doestoevsky’s great novel lets the murder happen quickly, and devotes the rest of the novel to giving the reader a window into Raskolnikov’s tortured mind, Dreiser plods around the plot, reserving the most interesting part of the story, Clyde’s true guilt, its cause, and its effect on him, for the last 100 pages of the novel (out of 850).

The author of my edition’s introduction, Richard Lingeman, puts it better than I ever could:

A word about Dreiser’s style: it is slow, ponderous, almost archaic at times, and sprinkled with solecisms. The first part of the novel, describing Clyde’s childhood and young manhood, would benefit from cutting. Dreiser will make a point and then repeat it twice over- often in the next sentences.

Again, some astute and persuasive people could probably prove that this writing style has a particular benefit, but for me, once I know Clyde’s motivations, I don’t need to be reminded another 4,000 times.

So by this point you’re probably wondering why I even bothered to finish a book I clearly sort of despised. Again, I’ll quote Lingeman:

The novel accumulates power like a tidal wave, and the reader is slowly sucked into the tale’s emotional vortex.

I’ve read multiple reviews that describe Dresier’s novel as such, and I do very much agree with them. While I hated that the experience was such a slog, the analysis of Clyde’s guilt, his eventual confession, and his true and futile fear of death eventually leave the reader with something to truly ponder. And while Clyde himself might be despicable, several other characters, including Roberta (the girl Clyde murders) and Clyde’s mother, are much easier to relate to and care for.

Overall, the sum is much greater than the parts with this novel. I’m conflicted about how to rate it, or whether I would even recommend it to others. I disliked the experience of reading it, but it was clearly compelling enough for me to finish, and I haven’t quite stopped thinking about it since I finally put it down. There is a huge payoff in the last 50 pages or so, but the real tragedy in An American Tragedy is that you have to slog through the previous 800 pages to get to it.

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