Hello dear readers. Apologies for my absence. It has been a very busy few weeks. I did in fact finally finish reading An American Tragedy a while ago, but this is the first time that I’ve had the chance to sit down and update this blog.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Here are some titbits and highlights from this large novel:

First published: 1925

Length: my edition runs to a whopping 856 pages

Meaning of the title: I guess that Dreiser is subverting the well-known notion of “the American Dream”. Broadly speaking, the American Dream can be said to represent opportunity for all and the possibility of each man reaching ever greater levels of success, riches and happiness. So, even in the very title, Dreiser appears to be questioning this notion. The novel is also a tragedy in the true sense of the word, as Clyde’s downfall is brought about by his own innate weaknesses.

Opening lines:

Dusk – of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants – such walls as in time may linger in a mere fable.

Setting: Kansas City, Chicago, and Lycurgus – a fictitious small town in New York

Origins: Dreiser apparently based the book on an infamous criminal case. As in the novel, the real case featured an overturned boat and the body of young woman found in a lake in Upstate New York. The man convicted of killing her also denied murder.

What’s to like? For me, the plot is the best thing about this novel. It is compelling and it does make for a good read. However, see the next point…

What’s not to like? Whilst the plot itself is gripping, the writing style sometimes leaves a little to be desired.  It is very heavy-handed in places, so much so that you nearly always know a long time in advance what is coming next. And, strangely, this makes the experience of reading the tragedy more not less painful. There is also some highly questionable punctuation, including dashes seemingly in every other paragraph. In fact, to my mind, the text cries out for some editorial attention.

Key quotes: I’ve picked out a few choice excerpts that give a flavour of the tale.

Early in the novel we find Clyde reflecting on his current situation and comparing his life with the lives of others:

His life should not be like this. Other boys did not have to do as he did.

Next is one of the many passages that highlight the conflicting desires that rage within the young Clyde. On the one hand he is desperately trying to better himself and to fit in with those he views as his social superiors, yet on the other hand he cannot seem to escape certain desires and behaviours that run counter to his social ambitions:

… he had sought to be as retiring and cautious as possible. For – after that and while connected with the club, he had been taken with the fancy of trying to live up to the ideals with which the seemingly stern face of that institution had inspired him – conservatism – hard work – saving one’s money – looking neat and gentlemanly. It was such an Eveless paradise, that.

Towards the end of the novel there is a powerful scene wherein a local priest gets to the heart of the matter when reciting a gospel passage to Clyde:

What matter it if a man gaineth the whole world and loseth his own soul?

In summary: a good yarn that I would recommend, although I suspect that its length and slightly dry style will put some people off trying this novel.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.