An American Tragedy

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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 Clyde ’s upbringing.  For example, Clyde ’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, Clyde ’s upbringing affects his entire life.

            Clyde ’s childhood deprivation contributes to his lifelong desire for wealth and social status.  Clyde ’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 deprivation Clyde “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).  Clearly, Clyde ’s deprivation creates an appetite for material possessions.  This materialism persists throughout Clyde ’s life.  At his first job at the Green-Davidson hotel, Clyde 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 Wykeagy Avenue , 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 success.  Although, Clyde 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).  Thus, Clyde 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 diligence, Clyde tries to achieve material success by finding social connections to boost him into it.  For instance, at the Union League, Clyde 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.

            Clyde ’s upbringing also leaves him unable to resist sinful temptations.   Even if they did not consciously do so, Clyde ’s parents completely shelter Clyde 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).  Because Clyde has no contact with lures, he can not know how to resist it.  When Clyde and his friends go on their sin-filled blow-outs, Clyde 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 Clyde .  This distaste stems from when his evangelical parents would drag Clyde on their street-preaching trips.  Clyde resents it.  A passerby remarks, “[ Clyde ] 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, Clyde 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 Clyde , Clyde “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 that follows Clyde throughout life, even if he does not follow it.  For example, at his friend’s blow-outs, Clyde was “included to think and hesitate” (60) about drinking, and he views their brothel as “pagan” (71).  When Clyde 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 Clyde is on death row.  At this point, Clyde 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.

            Clyde ’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 leaves Clyde without a strong moral backbone, a backbone lacking the ability to resist temptation.  His rejection of his parents’ religious teachings further crutches Clyde .  When looking at his upbringing, the reader can see that Clyde ’s tragic end was almost fated from birth.


This page was last updated on 10/10/05.

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