An American Tragedy
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"An American Tragedy" Summary

By Theodore Dreiser

classics | 920 pages | Published in 2022

Ambitious, but ill-educated, naïve, and immature, Clyde Griffiths is raised by poor and devoutly religious parents to help in their street missionary work. As a young adult, Clyde must, to help support his family, take menial jobs as a soda jerk, then a bellhop at a prestigious Kansas City hotel. There, his more sophisticated colleagues introduce him to bouts of social drinking and sex with prostitutes. Enjoying his new lifestyle, Clyde becomes infatuated with manipulative Hortense Briggs, who takes advantage of him. After being in a car accident in which a young girl loses her life, Clyde is forced to run away from the town in search for the new life.


Estimated read time: 6 min read

One Sentence Summary

A young man's desperate pursuit of social status leads to a tragic outcome.


"An American Tragedy" is a novel written by Theodore Dreiser in 1925. It is a classic work of American literature and explores complex themes such as ambition, fate, and the perils of the American Dream. Set in the early 20th century, the book tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, a young man from a poverty-stricken background who tries to rise above his circumstances and achieve wealth and success. However, his choices and actions lead him down a path of moral corruption and ultimately tragic consequences. Dreiser's novel offers a compelling examination of the social and psychological pressures that shape the lives of individuals in a capitalist society.

Brief Synopsis

Plot Overview

The story begins in early 20th century Kansas City, where Clyde Griffiths lives with his impoverished family. Seeking a better life, Clyde moves to the bustling city of Chicago and finds work at his uncle's factory. However, he is soon seduced by the allure of glamour and success and is drawn to the vibrant social scene of the city. Clyde's ambitions grow, and he becomes infatuated with Hortense Briggs, a flirtatious and materialistic young woman. However, their relationship ends as quickly as it begins when Clyde meets Sondra Finchley, a sophisticated and wealthy socialite.

As Clyde becomes more involved with Sondra, he desperately tries to hide his past and fabricates a new identity to fit into her world. He abandons his job at the factory and starts working at a prestigious hotel, hoping to win Sondra's affections. Despite his attempts, Clyde remains torn between his desire for success and his guilty conscience for the choices he has made.

Clyde's life takes a tragic turn when he discovers that Hortense is pregnant with his child. Fearing this revelation would ruin his chances with Sondra, he resorts to extreme measures and plots to murder Hortense. However, his plan goes awry, and Hortense drowns in a boating accident.

Clyde is subsequently arrested and stands trial for murder. The trial becomes a media sensation, and Clyde's true character is exposed for all to see. The novel culminates in a gripping courtroom drama that explores themes of justice, morality, and the corrupting influence of ambition.


The story takes place in the early 20th century in various locations, including Kansas City and Chicago. The contrasting settings reflect the dichotomy between rural poverty and urban affluence, highlighting the stark divide between the haves and the have-nots. Dreiser vividly portrays the vibrant and energetic atmosphere of Chicago during the Roaring Twenties, with its bustling streets, lavish parties, and opulent lifestyles.

Main Events

Main EventsDescriptions
Clyde moves to ChicagoClyde leaves his family in Kansas City and seeks a better life in Chicago, hoping to escape poverty and achieve success.
Clyde's infatuation with HortenseClyde becomes involved with Hortense Briggs, a young woman who represents the materialistic and shallow aspects of society.
Clyde meets Sondra FinchleyClyde encounters Sondra Finchley, a wealthy and sophisticated socialite, and becomes infatuated with her, hoping she can elevate his social standing.
Clyde's plan to murder HortenseFearing that Hortense's pregnancy will ruin his chances with Sondra, Clyde concocts a plan to murder her, ultimately leading to tragic consequences.
Clyde's trial for murderClyde is arrested and stands trial for the murder of Hortense. The trial becomes a media sensation, exposing Clyde's true character and raising questions about justice and morality.

Main Characters

Clyde GriffithsThe protagonist of the story, Clyde Griffiths is a complex character driven by ambition and a desire for wealth and success. He struggles with moral dilemmas and makes choices that ultimately lead to his downfall.
Hortense BriggsA young woman from the lower class, Hortense represents the shallow values of society. She becomes involved with Clyde and is eventually killed in a boating accident.
Sondra FinchleyA wealthy socialite, Sondra represents the aspirations and dreams of the American Dream. Clyde becomes infatuated with her and hopes to win her affection, even at the expense of others.

Themes and Insights

Ambition and the American Dream

One of the central themes of "An American Tragedy" is the pursuit of ambition and the destructive consequences it can have. Clyde's relentless ambition pushes him to make morally questionable choices as he tries to climb the social ladder. Dreiser explores the darker side of the American Dream, showing that the pursuit of success and material wealth can lead to moral decay and tragedy.

Social Class and Inequality

The novel also delves into the theme of social class and inequality. Clyde's humble beginnings and his desire for upward mobility highlight the stark divide between the rich and the poor. Dreiser, through his portrayal of diverse characters, exposes the disparities and injustices prevalent in society, questioning the fairness of the capitalist system.

Morality and Consequences

Dreiser raises profound questions about morality and the consequences of one's actions. As Clyde becomes increasingly absorbed in his pursuit of success, he becomes willing to sacrifice his own values and the lives of others. The tragic events that unfold serve as a cautionary tale, illustrating the devastating repercussions of compromising one's moral integrity.

Reader's Takeaway

"An American Tragedy" is a thought-provoking novel that explores the complexities of human nature and the pursuit of the American Dream. It serves as a cautionary tale, reminding readers of the dangers of unchecked ambition and the corrupting influence of societal pressures. Dreiser's vivid storytelling and compelling characters make for an engrossing read that forces us to reflect on our own choices and moral compass.


In "An American Tragedy," Theodore Dreiser offers a searing critique of American society in the early 20th century. Through the tragic story of Clyde Griffiths, Dreiser examines the corrosive effects of ambition, the inequalities perpetuated by the capitalist system, and the moral dilemmas faced by individuals seeking to escape their circumstances. This classic novel continues to resonate with readers today, prompting introspection and reflection on the human condition.

An American Tragedy FAQ

  1. What is the genre of 'An American Tragedy'?

    The genre of 'An American Tragedy' is a novel.

  2. Who is the author of 'An American Tragedy'?

    'An American Tragedy' is written by Theodore Dreiser.

  3. When was 'An American Tragedy' first published?

    'An American Tragedy' was first published in 1925.

  4. What is the plot of 'An American Tragedy'?

    The plot of 'An American Tragedy' revolves around the life of a young man named Clyde Griffiths, who tries to climb the social ladder but ends up committing a crime and facing the consequences.

  5. Is 'An American Tragedy' based on a true story?

    Yes, 'An American Tragedy' is loosely based on a real murder case that took place in 1906.

  6. What are the major themes in 'An American Tragedy'?

    Some of the major themes explored in 'An American Tragedy' include social class, ambition, morality, and the corrupting effects of love and desire.

  7. Are there any film adaptations of 'An American Tragedy'?

    Yes, 'An American Tragedy' has been adapted into films multiple times, most notably the 1951 film 'A Place in the Sun' starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.

  8. Is 'An American Tragedy' a difficult read?

    While 'An American Tragedy' is considered a classic, it can be quite dense and lengthy, requiring some patience and commitment from the reader.

  9. What is the significance of the title 'An American Tragedy'?

    The title 'An American Tragedy' reflects the overarching theme of the novel, which explores the dark side of the American Dream and the pursuit of success at any cost.

  10. Is 'An American Tragedy' recommended for mature readers?

    Yes, 'An American Tragedy' contains mature themes and content, and is generally recommended for mature readers due to its exploration of complex moral issues.