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Written by Timothy Sexton
The American Dream
The very title of Dreiser’s novel is an ironic inversion of the concept of the American Dream. The components of that dream is rising above the economic level into which one is born and achieving a sense of identity and respect through associations with wealth and influence. Clyde Griffiths pursues the American Dream with all the vigor required by a lifetime of hearing that anyone in America can achieve anything they want if only they are willing to work hard. Clyde finds outs too late that the promise of getting what you want by working hard is mere propaganda that refuses to take into consideration the prime role that being born into the right circumstances can play.
The Consolation of Religion
Clyde’s family turned their back on material comfort and a solid middle class existence to become evangelical warriors in the Salvation Army. Clyde looks at their substandard mode of living and comes to recognize how the promise of religion fails to materialize in any way. Not only are Clyde’s parents not reaping the financial benefits promised by the American Dream, but there are also failing to reap any of the very benefits they preach to others is the end result of accepting Jesus Christ. The dream of religion is every bit a dead end for someone in Clyde’s position as the dream of material success.
The Random Universe
The forces of capitalist society present an obstruction to Clyde’s pursuit of material wealth and the status it brings, but Dreiser suggest that an even greater force exerts an even greater influence. The course of events that lead Clyde to that single moment in time on the lake that changes everything forever is punctuated by a series of random exhibitions of chance, coincidence and fate flipping a coin that—had any one of them not occurred—would have sent Clyde on a different path. Admittedly, a path that Dreiser still insists would not have led to fulfillment of the American Dream, but perhaps at least might have a path that avoided death row. An automobile accident, a chance encounter with a wealthy relative, the occasion of his meeting Sondra and many others all conspire with the more solidified dynamism of capitalism to send Clyde on his inexorable march toward a meeting with the executioner.
The effects of alienation is a prevalent throughout the novel. Even when Clyde Griffiths is surrounded by people, he always appears somewhat disconnected and out of place. In fact, Clyde seems every bit as much out of place within the Salvation Army as he does among the young roving boys seeking drink and women as he does among the upper class elite. Clyde’s alienation does not merely extend to the other characters as his discomfort is also stimulated by external environmental forces. As much as Clyde desperately wants to enjoy all the fruits of material gain and social status, his anxiety always increases whenever he finds himself within the urban architecture that personifies that status.
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