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American Tragedy Return to Timeline
An American Tragedy
AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, by Theodore Dreiser
Based on a thinly disguised true story, AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY is not only a biting portrait of the American dream gone sour but also a universal story about the stresses of urbanization, modernization, and alienation. Most critics considered it the seminal American novel of naturalism, the literary movement that believed an individual's life is determined by environment, heredity, and chance; survival of the fittest and natural selection govern an indifferent universe. Despite Theodore Dreiser's famously awkward style, the novel's precise details build up to an overwhelming sense of tragic inevitability, a hallmark of naturalism.The novel tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, a man of weak will and little self-awareness. He grows up poor in a family of wandering evangelists, but believes in the American dream. Clyde is lifted out of poverty when a rich uncle gives him employment in his factory. Now Clyde has the possibility of gaining his dream of wealth, success, and sensual gratification, but disaster strikes when he impregnates his girlfriend Roberta and she demands that he marry her. Now, to attain what he so desperately craves, Clyde must abandon the pieties of his religious background and abandon Roberta. Society assures him that his pursuit of riches and status are admirable, so breaking both moral and civil law seems a small price to pay.

Since this is a naturalistic novel, Clyde's fate is predetermined by his heredity and environment. Neither tragic nor heroic, Clyde's significance lies in the fact that he symbolizes humanity's smallness as well as our potential greatness. Thus, AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY functions as a parable of the American experience among the lower class in the early part of the 20th century.

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The American Novel