An American Tragedy By Theodore Dreiser Summary and Analysis Book III: Chapters 27-34

This section documents Clyde's confinement in the state penitentiary and his execution. Through her newspaper articles and public appearances, Elvira Griffiths fights for appeal money. Meanwhile, Asa becomes ill in Denver; in a burst of sympathy, Clyde's lawyers advise Elvira to return home while they appeal Clyde's case. From Denver, Elvira pleads with the Reverend Duncan McMillan to save Clyde's soul. All appeals fail. Clyde dies in the electric chair. Asa and Elvira Griffiths, with their grandson, Russell, carry on their religious work.

The end is a natural and inevitable consequence of all that has happened. Like Clyde, the other prisoners have (according to Dreiser) responded to some "chemistry" of their natures or circumstances. Death here is ushered in by men crying, praying, losing their minds, yet the terrifying process continues. Vividly, Dreiser describes Clyde's mind as he realizes that he himself waits in a cell where others have waited before him and will wait after him. Thinking how differently his life now would be had he listened to his mother's teachings, Clyde knows how difficult it would be to overcome his impulses and desires. Even after confessing his guilt, Clyde rebels against his judges, for no one — not even his mother — has experienced his particular suffering. Locked within himself and in an iron, mechanical system, Clyde dreams of his end — and so it is: guards push him through a little door, the door quickly closes, and there is no return.

In this final powerful climax, Dreiser uses all of his art and craft as a novelist. After the trial, Elvira Griffiths's tractarian faith contrasts with the journalists' skepticism and her brother-in-law's detachment. Clyde's colorful journey over hills and fields contrasts with his confinement behind penitentiary walls. Dreiser details the Dantesque Death House — its white narrow hard walls, iron bars, harsh incandescent light, its horrible food, its lack of privacy, and its groans and screams of despair. For all its sordid detail, the Death House is also a moral setting, with the narrator acting as pathologist for a diseased social system. In exposé style, he indicts society's Death House as a place of unnecessary and unauthorized cruelty, of stupid and destructive torture, a place where a criminal suffers a thousand deaths before the one to which he is sentenced. The narrator sketches Clyde's mates on murderer's row — most of them coarse, stupid, or sinister. Dreiser reveals how Clyde now sees the horned beast of his jungle nightmares as the flashing electric chair. In an effective shift of focus, the unswayed governor looks out on the death image of a snowy February landscape. The traumatic aftermath of Clyde's electrocution comes to the reader not through the narrator's typical blunt slicing of chronology, but through the horrified recreation of the death scene in the delicate mind of the Reverend Duncan McMillan.

Until the end, Dreiser's novel has documentary appeal, in itself and in its use of documents. Unlike Clyde, Elvira Griffiths, as a crusading mother and correspondent, gets a good press, but in time Clyde's notoriety wanes. Nicholson, the condemned ex-lawyer, advises Clyde that in the event of another trial only a digest of the facts in Roberta's letters (not the emotional letters themselves) should be admitted as evidence. Sondra's unsigned typewritten note is alien to her early inanities. After destroying his own letters, the refined Nicholson leaves Clyde his copies of Robinson Crusoe and The Arabian Nights — titles symbolic of Clyde's being a solitary dreamer and a beached fantast. However, the central document in Clyde's life becomes the Holy Bible, from which McMillan quotes freely. Clyde's letter of Christian victory seems almost as hollow and mechanical as Elvira's last reply from the governor's office.

Dreiser's pattern of irony pushes toward his circular conclusion. To escape publicity, the suffering Griffithses of Denver move, but their address is revealed by the van company. In aiding Elvira, the reporters and newspapers also exploit her, as Samuel Griffiths expected. He himself is sorry that, out of sentiment, he ever involved himself with Clyde. Like the western Griffithses, so now the eastern Griffithses, reflecting notoriety, move because of their status and their children. Ironically, Elvira thinks that the newspapers (the source for Clyde's murderous plot) might help save him. Clyde, who aspired to wear fashionable clothes (and did to some extent), is in a cell across from a sinister Oriental, dressed like himself. In addition, Nicholson's cool factualism is an ironic contrast to the fervent imagination of the Reverend McMillan, whose sympathy for Roberta and her family embraces Clyde and his family. And whereas Nicholson would appeal to the secular, McMillan would appeal to the divine. Pondering his case, Clyde wonders if his false form of defense is in itself sufficiently mitigating to warrant an appeal. Furthermore, if he is now truly contrite, fit for life and action, the state's killing him compounds crime with crime. Out of his need for sympathy, yearning, and deliverance, Clyde confides more in McMillan than in his mother; from McMillan's manner, Elvira fears that Clyde is guilty. Although Clyde declares his Christian conversion, true to his own nature he seems to backslide onto the island of himself, where (like Robinson Crusoe) he must try to construct his own consolation. In the end, Clyde is only numb and bewildered. After Clyde's execution, the tormented McMillan begins to doubt the quality of his own mercy and wisdom; by extension, has he, in fact, merely stood by, watching Clyde drown?

Clyde's electrocution — so early hinted at — is oppressively anticipated in this section. The anonymous voice asking a guard if there is any word from Albany is Clyde's last hope. The narrational reference to sundry clergymen who visit amenable prisoners on "murderer's row" prefigures the appearance of the Reverend Duncan McMillan. Clyde's electrocution itself simply repeats for the last time all the other executions of his nightmares.

Thus, in the end, nightmare and reality, coming ever closer, finally fuse. Until this time, Clyde's imagination has been habitually at odds with causal action. Even in the Death House, Clyde is drawn more to life-as-it-might-be than to life-as-it-is. He reads light romantic novels which picture ideal worlds. Though still smouldering, Clyde sees the fever of his former life as a form of insanity, and as he reads Sondra's unsigned note in the dusk, the last trace of his vain, impossible dream vanishes. After the court's denial, the Reverend McMillan assures Clyde that only the next world, not this one, is important. Clyde fails to make his mother understand his dream of success — the American Dream which Dreiser depicts as vulgar and as tragic because of its often deadly consequences. Despite McMillan's assurance of Paradise, when Clyde shuffles toward the final door he sees only the dreaded chair of his nightmares.

Until these last moments, Dreiser documents Clyde's internal torments. Clyde both dreads and desires to see his mother. Wincing to learn that she will hear his sentence, he knows, too, that his future depends on her efforts alone. Clyde's dubious manner in jail chills Elvira. Divided now herself, she prays for belief in her son. Wanting to repent, Clyde nevertheless feels it expedient to wait until the court of appeal reaches a decision. When Clyde confesses to McMillan, he realizes his own complicated emotions in the boat — pity, shame, anger, hate, and fear. Puzzled, McMillan tries to follow Clyde's agonized thoughts. Seeking exactitude, splitting hairs, struggling to translate recollected emotions, Clyde pits (as is his habit) one idea against another. But when Clyde admits to thinking that if Roberta drowned he would be free to wed Sondra, McMillan declares: "In your heart was murder then." Although he overtly agrees with McMillan, Clyde is still bewildered by McMillan's seeming power to make clear the ambiguity of reality.

In the Death House, Clyde experiences the extremes of feeling superior and inferior, yet even here he is courteous and tactful. The "Chinaman" across his cell horrifies him and he wonders if the brute murderers here will cause him trouble. An outsider (even here), Clyde is full of self-pity, for no one sympathizes with his wretchedness. He becomes sick when he listens to the hungry inmates eat — like animals, growling and scraping. Their insanity terrifies him. But numb and dumb, unable to think or even cry after witnessing his first ritual of death, he shivers and shakes. And unlike Nicholson on his own day of death, Clyde is sick and feverish.

But even in jail he strains to deceive his mother. Telling her about his not intending to strike Roberta, he lies nervously about his intention to let the girl drown. To give his mother some comfort, he conceals how bad is the Death House; and he never tells her all that he has confessed to McMillan. Believing that Clyde is guilty before God, McMillan, as Clyde's spiritual advisor, will not lie for him — for by forsaking Clyde here, he saves him for the hereafter.

In the shadow of death, Clyde realizes that his mother, at least, did not desert him. In turn, Elvira believes that in her need, God will not forsake her. But she cannot abandon her husband to aid Clyde alone.

Clyde wonders how different his life might have been had his lust for women and wealth been less fierce; he wonders if religious persons have inferior passions or superior courage. As one who has heard many confessions, Elvira knows the many moods of consent and the methods of allurement, the temptations which her son did not resist. Although McMillan does not see adultery as tantamount to murder, his own sexuality is repressed or sublimated. Even the governor (says the narrator) has never felt Clyde's fevers and fires.

To be sure, the stress of impending death dislocates Clyde's former love of fine clothes. No longer are his mother's shabby brown coat and ridiculous brown hat so disturbing. In contrast to his once expensive suits and hats, Number 77221 now wears a striped uniform and a hideous cap. No mirror in his cell reflects this indignity. In his final hour, Clyde is furnished felt slippers, gray socks, black trousers, and — irony of ironies — a white shirt without a collar.

Throughout An American Tragedy, Dreiser has dramatized the failure of religion to guide Clyde over the hazardous terrain of modern American life. Nowhere is this failure more dramatized than in this section. The narrator's picture of Elvira praying in her dreary mission is that of a biblical figure as an alien in a six-thousand-year-old world. As Elvira prays for help, she thinks of the newspapers and thanks God for this enlightenment. Even some skeptics are moved by her earnestness, faith, and love. The pragmatic Jephson thinks that the religious element which was ready to condemn Clyde might now aid his mother-and Elvira views this as the voice and hand of God. Fighting fiendish doubts about Clyde and about God's desertion, she reaffirms her faith and encourages Clyde to read specific pages from the Bible. Ironically, the prevailing attitude among the professed Christians is that the shabbiness of the unordained Elvira Griffiths reflects on established sects, that her evangelism has directed her attention away from her growing son, and that a church is no place to debate her son's case. The narrator depicts Christian futility further in Pasquale's insanity: crawling around his cell, he mumbles prayers, taps his forehead on the floor, kisses it, and licks the feet of a brass Christ. Out of fear or contrition, others fall on their knees. After Pasquale's electrocution, Clyde's only reaction is: "God! God! God! God!" Assuring the warden that he has come for the sake of Clyde's mother and Clyde's soul, McMillan prays immediately. Out of his isolation, out of a past, present, and future too painful to contemplate, Clyde yields himself to McMillan's friendship and interest. After his lengthy confession, Clyde broods on its effect on McMillan, while McMillan sees Clyde as filled with God's spirit. Elvira accepts McMillan's word of Clyde's salvation. But still clutching at contrition, Clyde wonders how one can do without sun, rain, work, love, energy, and desire. In short, Clyde does not want to die, and he cannot understand why McMillan did not lie to save him. Clyde prays to God to let him live but is dubious about the quality of his newfound peace. After Clyde's death, doubts assail McMillan; but, strong in her faith, Elvira Griffiths prays for the soul of her son and tries to visualize him in the arms of his Maker.

With slight variations, the "Souvenir" section repeats the novel's opening section, showing the continuing nature of the social tragedy. A shabby band of five — Asa, Elvira, Russell, and a mother and daughter-preach and sing in the streets of San Francisco. Through the dense metallic world, a determined Elvira leads her Bible-and-hymnal-carrying grandson, the object of pedestrian sympathy. The narrator paints the same pathetic tract-counting (sixteen fewer taken than in the parallel opening scene), the dreary mission, and the ironic mottoes. Elvira Griffiths' fighting faith in God's love and justice seems beyond comprehension, beyond this tragic life. But for Clyde's sake, she gives Russell (who resembles his dead uncle) a dime for drugstore ice cream. As the four believers disappear behind the yellow door, Dreiser's somber narrator notes that the characters "disappeared."

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

At the end of the novel, Elvira (Clyde's mother) give her grandson a dime for ice cream because she




Quiz