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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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FREE STUDY GUIDE FOR AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BY THEODORE DREISER

BOOK THREE

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Summary

Belknap and Jephson fight against Mason's request for a special term of the Supreme Court, arguing that it's Republican politics pushing the trial forward and that they need more time to properly prepare Clyde's case. Mason wins, the special term is arranged with Justice Frederick Oberwaltzer presiding, and the Special Grand Jury for Clyde is set for August 5. At that point Clyde is indicted and his attorneys seek a change of venue. Oberwaltzer is a Democrat but also an impartial judge, who doesn't grant the request and keeps the date of the trial's start at October 15. Preparing for the trial, Mason rallies the different threads of evidence for his case, including Clyde's search for a doctor to perform an abortion (testimony from Orrin Short and Dr. Glenn), the haberdasher who sold Clyde a second straw hat in Utica, and the girl who saw him on the Cygnus the morning after the murder. Further, a woman from Bedford claims to have gone camping with her husband at Big Bittern the same weekend as the murder and heard a woman crying for help on July 8 around six o’clock.

Mason keeps the camera as surprise evidence for the trial. Darrah Brookhart make known to Clyde’s attorneys that Samuel Griffiths wishes for Clyde’s immediate family to stay away from the trial, given the social gap between the two families. Clyde understood and accepted the reluctance of his uncle's family and hoped that his parents, who were often ignorant of worldly matters, did not read the newspapers. In Denver, however, Esta - who gave birth to a son, Russell, and has since married - reads of Clyde in the papers and immediately tells Elvira, her and Clyde's mother. Elvira takes in this information, upset by her sob being accused of murder, and decides not to tell Asa. She consults the Bible for wisdom and considers what to say to Clyde in a telegram she plans to send to him in Bridgeburg.

Notes

Oberwaltzer is portrayed as a truly impartial judge, as he works against his own political party's interest in a major pre-trial ruling. As for the case against Clyde, Dreiser's carefully detailed narrative in earlier Books is woven together and tightened for the sake of the trial: what seemed to be a meandering refusal to face the reality of Roberta's situation has now become a sinister plot leading inevitably to murder. It's a distillation not only of the plot, but of Dreiser's seeming pessimism about ambition and moral weakness.


CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Summary

Elvira Griffiths sends her telegram to Belknap and Jephson, who pass it along to Clyde and advise him on a proper response: that financial assistance is not necessary and no one from the family need come to the trial. However, news of the telegram quickly spreads and the Griffiths family in Denver is made a new focus of this newsworthy trial. Elvira speaks with the press about her missionary work, of Clyde’s disadvantages as a poor child, of his going to Lycurgus to seek the help of rich relatives. All this pained Clyde as it was revealed in the papers, since this was information he did not want Sondra to know. Still, his admiration for her mother - her will, her religious devotion - strengthens at this point, as he looks to the trial and dreads the possibility of dying on the electric chair. Jephson has advised him to say nothing of consequence to the stream of visitors curious to speak to Clyde, an alleged murderer. While this gives him some courage, he also worries about Sondra and the fact that she has not contacted him since his arrest. He wishes to escape, to somehow break free from the jail and run.


Notes

Clyde's two worlds clash in a painful way for him, as his mother speaks to the press and reveals how poor and disadvantaged he was - a fact he never wanted Sondra or others in Lycurgus high society to know.


CHAPTER NINETEEN

Summary

October 15, the trial begins as scheduled. Jephson speaks to Clyde, convincing him to believe he is innocent and act as an innocent person would. He also adds that the story they will tell the jury may not be true, but it serves the higher truth of Clyde’s innocent better than the actual events can. Thus, Clyde and his defense head across the street from the jail to the county court. Jury selection begins with Simeon Dinsmore and Dudley Sheerline, making plain to the defense the difficulty of finding impartial jury members for their case. Clyde maintains his positive demeanor, as instructed by his lawyers, but is curious about the people in the courtroom: he wonders if his former friends from Lycurgus high society is present, then is alarmed upon seeing Roberta’s sister Emily and her mother. He sees Tracy Trumbull; the Gilpins, who housed Roberta in their home; Mr. and Mrs. Newton, who had done the same before the Gilpins; and Coroner Heit. The court session ends and Clyde returns to his cell. Sondra is nowhere to be seen and, as agreed by both the defense and prosecution (and expressly wished by the Finchleys and Samuel Griffiths), will not even be named during the trial.

Notes

The defense agrees to keep Sondra's name out of the case - and thus, outside of the media's attention. It's interesting that Jephson, at least, didn't suggest using her name as leverage in the trial: this indicates perhaps a belief in certain rules he observes in strategizing (if this is a game, Sondra is off-limits) or perhaps an understanding of the long-term consequences if the upper class of the area are discomfited.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Summary

Jury selection takes five days, then opening statements are made by both sides. Mason paints a vivid, detailed portrait of Clyde Griffiths as a dissolute wanderer who takes advantage of innocent Roberta Alden, then falls for another unnamed woman of greater wealth. Mason then goes into the plan Clyde assembled to murder Roberta, then surprises the defense lawyers and Clyde by mentioning the letter Roberta had written and which was found in the coat she left at Gun Lodge in Big Bittern. Mason then mentions an eye witness who saw the murder take place - while there was no such witness, he offered this to see the defense’s alarmed reaction. Clyde is seized by hopelessness, Belknap wonders if he was wrong to believe the boy innocent. Jephson questions the veracity of Mason’s claim and expresses his doubts to the other two... even as he ponders the possibility of getting Clyde twenty years of prison instead of the death penalty.

Notes

Jephson is driven less by what he believes than what he can get away with. As a result, he also seems strikingly pragmatic, as extended jail time is something he considers worth shooting for, and not just full acquittal.

 

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