Dreiser’s protagonist-victim lusts after the American Dream of Success. He is disposed to the acquisition of material wealth in order to buy expensive clothes, to be chauffeured around in handsome automobiles, and to dine in luxurious restaurants. He yearns for amorous adventures, both erotic and romantic. He trusts in adventurous companions, pleasure seekers like himself who indulge in parties, brightly lit and full of music. And, finally, he deems personal freedom and independence of utmost importance, as a way to escape pain, responsibility, restraint, and family.
Throughout his short life, Clyde has seen his family’s narrow reliance on prayer and precept bring no success, only trouble. His resigned father, unlike his rich uncle, is a failure. Clyde loathes his family’s poverty and ignorance, their inability to help him and to give him the things he craves. He resents his parents’ embarrassing religious labors in dreary mission houses and on city streets. Their rootlessness has contributed to his irregular education and to his sense of feeling always an outsider.
Thwarted by his sordid environment and impelled by his emotionalism and exotic sense of romance inherited from his father, the lonely Clyde daydreams of success. Outside the mission world, his response to certain physical forms — clothes, girls, lighted residences — is strong. Into them he projects his envy, lust, and melancholy. Though eager for pleasure, yet he reasons about its adverse consequences. But since he is by nature weak, he intuits that for good or bad, powerful forces within and without overwhelm him. Defeated by temptation, he instinctively rationalizes, and his reward is a renewed sense of his own glory and worth.
Underlying Clyde’s progress from low- to middle- to high-class life is a weak, sometimes vicious, morality. From the beginning, the handsome Clyde Griffiths is characterized as nervously refined. As a bellhop he learns to ingratiate himself with different kinds of people and to adjust to the social cannibalism around him. Although outwardly respectful, he remains aloof from vulgarians both below and equal to his station. He cloaks his poor origins, secret indulgences, and suspect behavior in evasions and outright lying. His instinct to flee from obligations and accidents transforms his mental and moral cowardice into mental and “accidental” murder.
In the Death House, he turns to his mother and to Reverend McMillan, trying to find the God he never believed in. So patient and sincere is McMillan that Clyde pours out his confession and achieves a sense of relief and belief. But with no hope for a stay of execution, Clyde falls into doubt. Though McMillan promises him salvation, Number 77221 senses very little as he shuffles to the electric chair. Ironically, Clyde Griffiths seems reincarnated in the pathetic little figure of his nephew, Russell.