Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser|
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FREE PLOT NOTES FOR AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BY THEODORE DREISER
The trial becomes further politicized when the local Democrats decide to place
Belknap against Mason. The stakes for the lawyers, then, are less about
the trial and about the elections taking place in the background of the
story. As the defense attorney, Belknap is not concerned with Clyde's
actual innocence but whether or not his story can sway a jury. That he
finds Clyde's version of events problematic to recount to a jury shows
the weakness of many things: his case, Clyde's actual innocence, and Clyde's
moral character. As it turns out, the weakness in Clyde's moral character
will work to the defense's advantage when they decide to argue that Clyde
had behaved out of "moral cowardice".
Compared to the other men involved in Clyde's case, Reuben Jephson is younger,
shrewder, and even more calculating. Told that he'd take a role in Clyde's
defense, Jephson goes over the evidence and consults with Belknap, who
isn't positive that Clyde is guilty. Belknap reveals that Clyde is still
in love with Sondra Finchley and posits that the pressure Roberta Alden
gave to marry him may have caused him to snap. Belknap understands that
kind of situation, as it was something he faced himself when he was younger.
The next day, the two lawyers visit Clyde and Jephson asks a series of
questions intent on garnering Clyde more sympathy with a jury: if Roberta
was seeing other men, if she wrote him any cruel or mean letters, if there's
any history of insanity in Clyde's family. Both lawyers make clear to
Clyde that the evidence - including the two false registered names, the
two hats and the bag - work against their case and that they must rehabilitate
Clyde's image with these obstacles in mind. Regarding the grey suit dumped
in the lake by the Cranston summer home, Jephson decides to fish it out
and have it sent to the cleaners. As Clyde now maintains that the boat
was tipped over when his hat blew away, the marks on Roberta's face can
be blamed on the attempts to bring up her body or even carry it into town.
Clyde is impressed with Jephson and feels more secure with his lawyers
present than when he is alone.
As the admittedly weak moral compass for the book, Clyde is upset by Jephson’s
scheming but also sees value in its potential to free him.
Belknap and Jephson plan a defense for Clyde based on the idea of temporary
insanity, that Clyde suffered a "brain storm" which caused him
to act irrationally when the couple were on the lake. Concerned over the
jury's sympathies - especially with the letters by Roberta now a matter
of public record - Jephson hatches a story to make Clyde more likeable.
According to this version of events, Clyde's time with Roberta made him
relent, fall in love with her again, and intend to marry her after all
- and in doing so, give up Sondra Finchley. It was a fatal accident when
Clyde hits Roberta in the face and the boat tips over. Clyde gets hit
by the boat as well as Roberta and, being a moral coward, saves himself
but can't save Roberta. Distraught and afraid of suspicion, he goes to
the woman he loves who's still alive, Sondra. Belknap and Jephson congratulate
each other on this plausible chain of events but worry about whether or
not Clyde can carry this off in front of a jury. Belknap is having someone
dredge for the camera.
Notice how the story of his hat blowing away is brought up in the previous chapter and set aside by the lawyers in this one. Besides being easily disproved - the weather was remarkably calm on the day of Roberta's murder - it was a lie that was held only for as long as it could protect Clyde. The search for the camera - already in Mason's possession and being held back as a surprise in the prosecution's favor - shows how underhanded this trial will become.
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Mescallado, Ray. "TheBestNotes on An American Tragedy".
. 09 May 2017