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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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FREE PLOT NOTES FOR AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BY THEODORE DREISER

BOOK THREE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Summary

The next morning, Smillie reports back to Samuel and Gilbert Griffiths. Gilbert is furious at the crime and deception, while Samuel is more meditative, considering Clyde's treatment since arriving in Lycurgus. Where Gilbert is all too ready to condemn his cousin, Samuel holds back judgment. Samuel tells Smillie to convey his information to Darrah Brookhart and a plan will be discussed from there. If Clyde is innocent, Samuel will finance the legal defense; if Clyde is guilty, not a single cent will be used. Mr. Catchuman from Brookhart's office is sent to Bridgeburg to make a final assessment of Clyde's innocence and to acquire the services of a local lawyer for Clyde who will keep the Samuel Griffiths family's visibility low in the newspapers.

Notes

Samuel is more temperate and less judgmental than son Gilbert, seeing fault in how Clyde had been treated by his family. However, he's also reticent in acting - he did little to make Clyde's situation better and refuses to give Clyde full support despite implicitly acknowledging the role he played in his nephew's downfall. In effect, malice and spite may be quicker to judge than good intentions, but it's also quicker to act than good intentions, reflecting an inherent weakness in the human spirit.


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Summary

Catchuman's interview with Clyde proves frustrating, as Clyde lies badly about the camera and thus convinces Catchuman that he is guilty. Instructed to find a local attorney for Clyde, Catchuman asks Ira Kellogg, a prominent local Democrat who's furious at all the attention that Republican District Attorney Mason is garnering for his party. Thus, Kellogg directs Catchuman to Alvin Belknap of Belknap & Jephson, who is the Democrat nominee for the same judgeship that Mason is pursuing. It turns out Belknap had a similar situation as Clyde's when he was younger - one girl pregnant while he wished to marry another - but his father helped him out of the situation so that it ended happily. Discussing the matter with Catchuman and Kellogg, Belknap agrees and is given by Catchuman a retainer on behalf of Samuel Griffiths. Belknap introduces himself that night to Clyde, winning the young man's trust.

The next day Clyde tells Belknap his story, from leaving Kansas City to the events at Big Bittern. Belknap is not encouraged by the unlikeliness of the situation, but gives some advice to Clyde: be cheerful, attend Sundays services, and act like an innocent man. In this manner, he may be perceived as innocent, which is part of the battle. He also assures Clyde that his partner, Mr. Jephson, will see Clyde soon. For his part, Belknap is unsure if Clyde is innocent and worried about the evidence. He decides that Clyde's story cannot be told as Clyde recounted it to him, it must be made more palatable to a jury.


Notes

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".


CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Summary

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.

Notes

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.


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Summary

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.

Notes

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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