Summary and Analysis Book I: Chapters 1-5

The first five chapters of An American Tragedy depict Clyde Griffiths’ fundamentalist upbringing and describe his early jobs. From the beginning, Clyde is uneasy with his situation. Restless and dreamy, he resents his parents’ religious work in the mission house and on the city streets. He rebels against his family’s poverty, and he dreams of escape and material things. Increasingly, he broods on the freedom that his runaway sister gained. Moving from one job to another, Clyde feels lost until he procures a job as a bellhop in a large Kansas City hotel. A new life, a life Clyde has always dreamed about, seems finally possible.

Dreiser bases the conflict between Clyde’s paganism and his parents’ Puritanism on certain theories of Jacques Loeb (1859-1924), an American physiologist. In Chapter 3, for instance, the omniscient narrator elaborates on the idea that materialism or physical matter is the only reality. In this physio-chemical or mechanistic world, physical laws underlie all activity or flux. The individual is trapped in behavior determined by the reaction of his chemistry with outside chemistry. Thus, as a “chemical machine,” Esta Griffiths is attracted to another “chemical machine,” the magnetic, handsome traveling actor. On this “chemic witchery” or “chemism,” declares the narrator, “all the morality or immorality of the world is based.” Later, Mrs. Griffiths wonders why the many years of moral instruction and religious training failed her daughter. The answer, according to Dreiser, is that human beings are at the mercy of their biological and environmental determinism — that is, human acts are determined by antecedent causes. As a result of determinism’s implying absolute causality, these laws of social Darwinism often tend to make one pessimistic.

Since the characters in this novel do not understand these laws, they view the world as one of accident and chance. Throughout the novel, there is a continual interplay of accident and inevitability, of chance and causality. By “chance,” Clyde gets a job at the prestigious Hotel Green-Davidson; Dreiser then employs irony, using images of “dusk” and “walls,” to evoke feelings of doom and futility; the “walls,” however, appear to Clyde as comprising a dream city, making him feel the possibility of freedom. But it is soon clear that Clyde is unable to compete with the material forces of a deterministic world, a world which is gloomy, loveless, animalistic, fatalistic, and often sordid. In a jungle of predators and prey, Clyde is neither superman nor beast. This, then, is Dreiser’s vision of man — a helpless creature in a fierce world whose events are determined by uncontrollable forces.

One of the most important insights in this first section is Mr. and Mrs. Griffiths’ inability to understand their son’s desires. Ignorantly, they permit Clyde to work in the flamboyant hotel; they are completely unaware of its influence on their son. On the other hand, Elvira Griffiths, although naive, does react to her daughter’s troubles with greater decision than her husband does; Asa Griffiths is a man of meager sensitivity and intelligence. Asa’s foil, or opposite, is his brother — Samuel Griffiths of Lycurgus, New York. Appropriately, Clyde’s rich uncle is first presented to the reader through Clyde’s vivid, simplistic daydreams — daydreams which usually include some kind of spectacular liberation. Temperamentally akin to his sister, Esta, Clyde yearns for earthly, not heavenly, love. The motion-picture theater and, next door, the drugstore where he works form a glamorous world — a combination of make-believe romance and real ice cream. Clyde, like his parents, is naive. He is ignorant of his sister’s sexual victimization, yet he envisions pagan seductions of his own. His imaginative flights reveal a repressed, unsatisfied life — until he becomes a bellboy. The Hotel Green-Davidson holds promises for Clyde; he has great expectations of independence, expensive clothes, worldly friends, and good times.

Dreiser’s method of literary realism, we soon realize, lies in his massive documentation of “things.” He spends considerable time and space making inventories of his characters’ physical environment. With much factual detail, the narrator delineates the combination mission-home. He even cites, rather cumbersomely, a number of unframed wall mottoes, and he describes in detail Clyde’s job-hunting and, later, the furnishings of the luxurious Hotel Green-Davidson.

In order to unify this massive, sprawling novel, Dreiser often inserts foreshadowing. Early scenes often anticipate or form variations on later ones. Dreiser’s technique, it should be pointed out, is akin to his theory of natural law and material limitations. The language and situations, for example, of Chapter 1 correspond to the “Souvenir” section in the novel’s last chapter. The mottoes in the dreary Kansas City mission point not only to Clyde’s transgressions, but they duplicate the mottoes in the dreary San Francisco mission; in addition, the evils-of-drink mottoes foreshadow one of Clyde’s early transgressions. Other elements point to later developments: Clyde’s daydreaming about obtaining help from his rich uncle, Elvira Griffiths’ talents for organizing and speaking, and Clyde’s desire to drive around with pretty girls. As Esta responds to the traveling actor, so later will Roberta Alden respond to the role-playing Clyde. As Mrs. Griffiths protects her daughter here, so later she will try to protect her son. Clyde’s work as a newsboy anticipates his later notoriety in the newspapers. His work in a department store basement presages his first duty in the shrinking room of his uncle’s shirt and collar factory. His work in a drugstore is a kind of prelude to his later inquiries about an abortion for Roberta. Clyde’s secret theater-going is an early foundation for his increasing deception and yearning. An oasis in Clyde’s evangelical desert, the sparkling drugstore atmosphere is a small-scale version of the Hotel Green-Davidson, which, in turn, foreshadows the glamour of Lycurgus society. And as the drugstore manager tries to maintain his status by keeping Clyde ignorant, so later will Clyde’s cousin, Gilbert Griffiths, do something similar. While retaining his job at the drugstore, Clyde prospects for a better one; later he is reluctant to give up Roberta Alden before securing Sondra Finchley. His standing in front of the Green-Davidson at night, enchanted by its food, lights, cars, and music, prefigures his gazing in awe at the mansions of the Lycurgus wealthy. And as no flirting or fraternizing with the guests is a Green-Davidson rule, so later will this rule apply to Clyde and the factory girls.