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 some of the hotel's female guests and with prostitutes.
Enjoying his new lifestyle, Clyde becomes infatuated with Hortense Briggs, who inveigles Clyde into buying her an expensive jacket. When Clyde learns Hortense desires his colleague Sparser, not himself, as a lover, he becomes jealous. Hortense repeatedly tells Clyde that she loves him while getting him to buy her the jacket (for which they are overcharged by a stereotypically greedy Jewish shopkeeper).
Clyde's life changes dramatically when Sparser, driving Clyde, Hortense and other friends back from a secluded rendezvous in the country in a stolen car, hits a little girl and kills her. Fleeing from the police at high speed, Sparser crashes the car. Everyone but Sparser and his partner flee the scene of the crime. Clyde leaves Kansas City, fearing prosecution as an accessory to Sparser's crimes. This pattern of personal irresponsibility and panicked decision-making in Clyde's life recurs in the story, culminating in the central tragedy of the novel.
While working as a bellboy at an exclusive club in Chicago, he meets his wealthy uncle Samuel Griffiths, the owner of a shirt-collar factory in the fictional city of Lycurgus, New York. Samuel, feeling guilt for neglecting his poor relations, offers to help Clyde if he will come to Lycurgus. When Clyde accepts the offer, his uncle gives Clyde a menial job at the factory, in which Clyde makes a very good showing. After that, Samuel Griffiths gives his nephew Clyde a minor supervisory job at the collar factory's offices.
Samuel Griffiths' son Gilbert, Clyde's immediate supervisor, makes it clear to Clyde that as a Griffiths, he should not consort with the working people of Lycurgus, and specifically not with the women under his supervision. As Clyde has no close friends in Lycurgus, he becomes lonely. Emotionally vulnerable, Clyde is drawn to Roberta Alden, a poor and innocent farm girl working in his office, who falls in love with him. Clyde secretly courts Roberta, ultimately persuading her to have sex with him rather than lose him, and makes her pregnant.
At the same time this is happening, elegant young socialite Sondra Finchley, daughter of another Lycurgus factory owner, takes an interest in Clyde despite his cousin Gilbert's efforts to keep them apart. Clyde's engaging manner makes him popular among the young smart set of Lycurgus, he and Sondra become close, and he courts her as well as Roberta. Roberta expects Clyde to marry her to avert the shame of an unwed pregnancy, but Clyde now dreams instead of marrying Sondra.
Having failed to procure an abortion for Roberta, Clyde doesn't give her more than desultory help with living expenses while his relationship with Sondra matures. When Roberta threatens to reveal her relationship with Clyde unless he marries her, he reluctantly plans to murder her by drowning while they go boating, having read a local newspaper report of a similar boating accident.
Clyde takes Roberta out in a canoe on Big Moose Lake in upstate New York and rows to a secluded bay. As he speaks to her regarding the end of their relationship, Roberta moves towards him, and he unintentionally strikes her in the face with a camera, stunning her and accidentally capsizing the boat. Roberta, unable to swim, drowns while Clyde, unwilling to save her, swims to shore. The narrative implies that the blow was accidental, but the trail of circumstantial evidence left by the panicky and guilt-ridden Clyde points to murder.
The local authorities are eager to convict Clyde, to the point of manufacturing additional evidence against him, although he repeatedly incriminates himself with his confused and contradictory testimony. Clyde has a sensational trial before an unsympathetic and prejudiced jury of mostly religious conservative farmers. Despite a vigorous (and untruthful) defense by two lawyers hired by his uncle, Clyde is convicted, sentenced to death, and after an appeal is executed by electric chair. The jailhouse scenes and correspondence between Clyde and his mother are exemplars of pathos in modern literature.
Dreiser based the book on a notorious criminal case. On July 11, 1906, resort owners found an overturned boat and the body of 20-year-old Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Chester Gillette was put on trial and convicted of killing Brown, though he claimed that her death was a suicide. Gillette was executed by electric chair on March 30, 1908. The murder trial drew international attention when Brown's love letters to Gillette were read in court. Dreiser saved newspaper clippings about the case for several years before writing his novel, during which he studied the case closely. He based Clyde Griffiths on Chester Gillette, deliberately giving him the same initials.
The novel is a tragedy in the strict sense, Clyde's destruction being the consequence of his innate weaknesses: moral and physical cowardice, lack of scruple and self-discipline, muddled intellect and unfocused ambition; additionally, the effect of his ingratiating (Dreiser uses the word "soft") social manner places temptation in his way which he cannot resist.
This novel is full of symbolism, ranging from Clyde's grotesque description of the high gloomy walls of the factory as an opportunity for success, symbolizing how it is all a mirage, to the description of girls as "electrifying" to foreshadow Clyde's destination to the electric chair; Dreiser transforms everyday mundane objects to symbols.
Dreiser sustains readers' interest in the lengthy novel (over 800 pages) by the accumulation of detail and by continually varying the "emotional distance" of his writing from Clyde and other characters, from detailed examination of their thoughts and motivations to dispassionate reportage.
The novel has been adapted several times into other forms and the storyline has been used, not always unattributed, as the basis for other works:A first stage adaptation written by Patrick Kearney for Broadway premiered at the Longacre Theatre in New York on October 11, 1926.
Sergei Eisenstein prepared a screenplay in the late 1920s which he hoped to have produced by Paramount or by Charlie Chaplin during Eisenstein's stay in Hollywood in 1930.
In April 1929 Dreiser agreed that German director Erwin Piscator should produce a stage version of An American Tragedy. Piscator's stage adaptation supposedly premiered in Vienna in April 1932 and made its US debut in April 1935 at the Hedgerow Theatre, Rose Valley. The play was produced as well by Lee Strasberg at the Group Theatre in March 1936 and again in a revised version by the Hedgerow Theatre in September 2010 (where the original adaptation was wrongly credited to Piscator's wife Maria Ley).
Dreiser strongly disapproved of a 1931 film version directed by Josef von Sternberg and also released by Paramount.
In the 1940s the novel inspired an episode of the award-winning old-time radio comedy Our Miss Brooks, an episode known as "Weekend at Crystal Lake" and sometimes known as "An American Tragedy." The episode revolved around the characters' misinterpreting the intentions of biology teacher Philip Boyton (played by Jeff Chandler), Connie Brooks's (Eve Arden) high school colleague and love interest. The characters fear that Boynton plans to kill Miss Brooks during a leisurely weekend at their boss's lakeside retreat. The episode was broadcast twice, on September 19, 1948, and — with very minor changes — on August 21, 1949. The episode was also repeated in 1955, at a time when the show was a hit on both radio and television.
The 1951 Paramount Pictures film A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters is strongly based on the novel.
Further television or film adaptations of An American Tragedy have been produced in Brazil (Um Lugar ao Sol, TV series, 1959, director: Dionísio Azevedo), Italy ("it:Una tragedia americana", Rai 1, 1962, regista: Anton Giulio Majano), Czechoslovakia (Americká tragédia, TV series, 1976, director: Stanislav Párnicky), Philippines (Nakaw na pag-ibig, film, 1980, director: Lino Brocka), USSR (Американская трагедия, 4 parts, Lithuanian Film Studio, 1981, director: Marijonas Giedrys) and Japan (Hi no ataru basho, TV series, 1982, director: Masami Ryuji).
It was transformed into an opera by composer Tobias Picker. It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera starring Nathan Gunn in New York on December 2, 2005.
Critics and commentators have compared elements of Woody Allen's film, Match Point (2005) to the central plot of the novel.
The novel has also been adapted into a musical of the same title by three-time Tony Award winning composer and lyricist Charles Strouse. It had its premiere at Muhlenberg College, located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, United States on March 24, 2010.
In 2005, the book was placed on Time Magazine's list of the top 100 novels written in English since 1923.