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Written by Timothy Sexton
Clyde Griffiths represents the ambition to fulfill the promise held out as a temptation by the lure of the American Dream that if one is only willing to work hard enough, success will come and the reward will be great. Temptation is the most judicious word choice here because Clyde was raised in poverty as the child of religious fanatics who turned their obsession into the calling of the evangelical. The overarching theme of An American Tragedy is dependent upon the backstory of Clyde with its suggestion that the tragic fate awaiting him and one particular person who comes into his orbit might well have been avoided solely on the basis of his having been reared within an economic milieu more likely to facilitate upward social mobility and capitalist success. Clyde’s relations include Uncle Sam who operations within just such a sphere as the owner of factory where Clyde eventually finds work in his effort to escape the oppressive atmosphere provided by his street preaching family. That job represents the ability to move upward, but the novel charts that progress by revealing that the American Dream can always be impeded by the forces of class division.
Clyde’s uncle is most assuredly not from the same limb of the family tree as his mother and mother. As a successful businessman who moves about among the wealthiest people in his company town where so many work at his factory, Samuel could very well expected to be portrayed as the stereotypical evil industrialist. Instead, Clyde’s Uncle shows genuine affection and empathy for his disenfranchised nephew. And, as a firm believer in the concept of hard work as the path to the American Dream, Samuel offers Clyde an entry level job in the factory, but primarily as a means of learning the business from the bottom up.
Gilbert, on the other hand, represents the potential for Yankee-style capitalism-informed primogeniture to create a robber baron tycoon. Gilbert is Sam’s son and Clyde’s cousin and even if he weren’t already simply jealous of the attention the better looking Clyde receives, he would still be the kind of guy that you just naturally learn to dislike. He is snobbish and just as devoted to his religion of the purity of the separation of classes as Clyde’s mother and father are to their religious beliefs.
If only Clyde has arrived in town with a sharp looking suit and a diploma from an Ivy League business school, the whole tragic set of circumstances involving Roberta could have been easily avoided. Instead, Clyde shows up looking like the rather dispossessed son of religious fanatics who has been spending some serious time sowing some serious oats. He does look, to put it simply, as if he belongs within the same circle that Samuel’s family regularly moves in. And so he gets the job at the low end of the factory. And so he meets factory girl Robert Alden. And so it goes until she winds up pregnant by which time Clyde proves he is worthy of moving in the same circles as the wealthier side of the Griffiths. Not to mention the Finchley family.
Sondra comes from a rich family and represents that other part of the American Dream: marrying an equal once you have made it as a success. For Clyde, Roberta comes to represent an idea that permeates the psych0logical makeup of the working class: having to settle. Sondra, on the other hand, represents of the exact opposite: not having to settle for anything but the best. Alas, Roberta is not the kind to settle, either, and Clyde represents by far the best she could ever hope to get. Thus is set in motion the third act of this tragedy as it moves inexorably to its socially-engineered climax.
Between the time Clyde makes the decision to reject going into the family business of evangelical service and the time he shows up at Uncle Sam’s door, he spends some time Kansas City learning the wicked ways of the world mom and dad spend so much time warning others about. While working at a K.C. hotel, Clyde falls under the influence of fellow bellhop Thomas Ratterer who introduces him to a brave new world of cheap liquor, fast women and rowdy party boys.
One of those rowdy party boys is Willard Sparser. One night while in pursuit of cheap women after consuming fast liquor, Willard steals a car which transports Clyde and a few other rowdy boys to a party. On the way back from that party in the full throes of alcohol-induced oblivion, they wreck the car after running over a small girl. This event causes Clyde to flee from the long arm of the law by heading up to Chicago where very shortly his path will cross with that of Uncle Samuel who will extend that tempting off a job should Clyde’s travels ever bring him east to New York. .
Orville Mason is the final major player in the odyssey of Clyde’s journey that reveals that personal fate is not one in which destiny is controlled by the decisions one makes because the decisions one makes through life are guided by a far more authoritative dynamism: economics. Mason has ambitions of his own particular version of the American Dream: rising from the depths of poverty become elected to the state judiciary. Only one obstacle stands in his way: the kind of trial-of-the-century crime capable of making him a hero to the little guy for standing up against the power of the privileged elite. Fortunately for him Orville, Clyde’s little outing on the lake with Roberta comes along and much of the circumstantial evidence points directly toward Clyde as a cold-blooded murderer. If only Mason could discover some irrefutable physical evidence.
Fortunately, Mason has Burton Burleigh working for him as an assistant DA. Burleigh is not above planting some of Roberta Alden’s hair—post-mortem—into the camera that Clyde brought with him when the two went out for a moonlight trip on the lake. The very same character that Mason has all along been accusing Clyde of using to knock Roberta unconscious before leaving her to drown at the bottom of that lake.
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Various aspects of the time period can be attributed to the trouble faced in the novel. In the early 1900s there was no birth control, and young women were shunned for having children out of wedlock. Gillette was also courting a socialite, from...