The Cause of the an American Tragedy: The Effects of
Clyde's Upbringing on His Life
by Sean Lowe
Clyde Griffith, the central character in Theodore Dreiser’s An
American Tragedy, lives an atypically tragic life.
Many roots of this tragedy lie in
’s upbringing. For example,
’s views of wealth are greatly influenced by his poverty as a child.
Also, his sheltered, ultra-religious home life influences his moral and
religious thinking. In these ways,
’s upbringing affects his entire life.
’s childhood deprivation contributes to his lifelong desire for wealth and
’s upbringing is void of material possessions.
Because his father “Asa [is] unable to make much money…they were
quite without sufficient food or decent clothes, and the children could not go
to school” (14). In his
“had always told himself that if only he had a better collar, a nicer shirt,
finer shoes, a good suit, a swell overcoat like some boys had!” (19).
’s deprivation creates an appetite for material possessions.
This materialism persists throughout
’s life. At his first job at the
admires the posh richness of the tenants. When
he works at the Union League club, “his soul now yearned for [wealth]”
(167). When he moves to Lycurgus, he
“walked up and down
, looking at the fine houses there” (265), admiring and desiring the lifestyle
they represent. And finally, when he
meets, Sondra, a rich factory-owner’s daughter, he pursues her because “he
was so truly eager to a part of her world” (306).
Although his childhood leaves him wanting material success, it also
leaves him ignorant of how to achieve it. Because
Clyde’s parents “did not understand the importance or the essential
necessity for some form of practical or profession training for each and
everyone of their young ones” (13), Clyde does not have a clear path to
wants “something that would get him somewhere,” his “ peculiar parents
were in no way sufficiently equipped to advise him” (19).
He wants to rise from rags to riches, but does not know how.
Because he has lacked parental guidance on how to achieve success in life
“he lacked decidedly that…inner directing application that in so many
permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing
or things that make for their direct advancement” (169).
tries to achieve his American dream through childish, impractical means.
At the Union League club, for example, he is “certain that if he tried
now, imitated the soberer people of the world, and those only, that some day he
might succeed, if not greatly, at least much better than he had thus far”
(169). Instead of hard work and
tries to achieve material success by finding social connections to boost him
into it. For instance, at the Union
hopes “one of these very remarkable men whom he saw entering or departing
from here might take a fancy to him and offer him a connection with something
important somewhere, such as he had never had before, and that might lift him
into a world such as he had never known” (169).
He adopts the same principle in connection with Sondra.
He hopes he can simply marry her and thus inherent the wealth and social
status of her family.
’s upbringing also leaves him unable to resist sinful temptations.
Even if they did not consciously do so,
’s parents completely shelter
from the world’s sin. He does not
go to school and does not encounter corrupting temptations like alcohol and sex.
He cannot even read about such temptation, as “papers, being too
worldly, had never been admitted to his home” (18).
has no contact with lures, he can not know how to resist it.
and his friends go on their sin-filled blow-outs,
gives in to temptation. “He began
to sense the delight of personal freedom—to sniff the air of personal and
delicious romance—and he was not to be held back by any suggestion which his
mother could now make” (57). Even
though he has reservations about drinking wine and sleeping with prostitutes,
his upbringing has not prepared him to resist them.
His upbringing also leaves distaste for church and religion in
. This distaste stems from when his
evangelical parents would drag
on their street-preaching trips.
resents it. A passerby remarks,
] don’t wanta be here. He feels
outa place…He can’t understand all this stuff, anyhow” (11).
Because he is embarrassed and resentful of his parents’ religion,
thus tries to escape from church, getting a job at a soda fountain, “out of
the ten-o’clock-boy class at last” (28).
Ironically, instead of stimulating religiousness in
“secretly rebelled against nearly all the texts and maxims to which his
parents were always alluding” (60). This
youthful rebellion influence his entire life, as religion never plays a major
part in it again until he is near his execution.
His upbringing, however, does instill a sense of morality and religion
throughout life, even if he does not follow it.
For example, at his friend’s blow-outs,
was “included to think and hesitate” (60) about drinking, and he views
their brothel as “pagan” (71). When
thinks of killing Roberta, he thinks “it was wrong, wrong, terribly wrong”
(440) because he still has a trace of morality from his upbringing.
Finally, Christian values resurface while
is on death row. At this point,
turns to God for answers, writing “my one regret at this time is that I have
not given Him the preeminence in my life while I had to opportunity to work for
Him” (808). Thus, although tries
to ignore Christian values, he does not escape them.
’s upbringing has a dramatic effect on his life.
His upbringing sets him up for a life journey for material success but
does not prepare him for it. His
childhood does not teach him how to achieve success through patience, hard work,
and diligence. His upbringing also
without a strong moral backbone, a backbone lacking the ability to resist
temptation. His rejection of his
parents’ religious teachings further crutches
. When looking at his upbringing,
the reader can see that
’s tragic end was almost fated from birth.