An Analysis of the Theme of Determinism in an American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Categories: Literature

Theodore Dreiser was a part of the naturalist movement. His works depicted real-life subjects in a harsh and gritty manner. Many of his novels were controversial and considered amoral. Dreiser grew up in a poor, working-class family in Terre Haute, Indiana. An American Tragedy, his most commercially successful novel, tells the story of young man searching for success and fame. An American Tragedy is told from a naturalistic and deterministic point of view. Determinism deals with an individual’s fate being determined by his environment and heredity.

This ideal is based on Charles Darwin’s views. It shows the dark side of the American dream. An American Tragedy was based on a criminal case, the Gillete-Brown murder case, the drowning of a pregnant woman in a New York lake by her boyfriend in 1906. It is a story of corruption in regards to achieving the American dream, money and status. The time frame the story is set in has a great deal to do with how Dreiser builds his story.

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The story had multiple settings but one of the main settings is New York in the 1920s. All over the country, people saw New York as the “city of dreams.” The 1920s is a time frame that was known as “the Roaring Twenties.” During this time, many people flocked to New York in hopes of attaining their individual dreams as Clyde did in the story. Many Americans became very rich because of the booming stock market. The Americans that possessed an average income even become wealthier in worldly goods by being able to acquire cars and indoor plumbing.

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During this period, morals were not important. Prostitution, bootlegging, and racketeering were a sign of the times. Dreiser portrayed the characters in the story according to what occurred, no matter what the level of immorality was. New York is associated with being fast-paced and very socially and economically inclined.

Clyde Griffiths, the protagonist of the story, has no judgments about how he achieves his American dream. Material things such as clothes meant a lot to him because they were a sign of wealth and prestige. He moves to New York in hopes of escaping his humble beginnings and starting a new life. With Clyde, everything is only a means to an end. He gets a job in a factory where he eventually gets promoted. Clyde considers his promotion to be a step up on the social and economic ladder. Dreiser centers all of the hypocrisies of the 1920s around Clyde.

Overall, An American Tragedy gives an accurate description of the people in the 1920s. Dreiser’s focus on the faults of society regarding Clyde is an excellent example of naturalism. Interestingly, Dreiser was able to intertwine deterministic views into the storyline by letting Clyde’s background ultimately determine his future. An American Tragedy has a very interesting storyline and is a great depiction of a pivotal time in history.

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An Analysis of the Theme of Determinism in an American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. (2022, May 05). Retrieved from

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