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Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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FREE BOOK SUMMARY FOR AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BY THEODORE DREISER

BOOK THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Summary

One hundred twenty-seven witnesses are called to testify for the prosecution, carrying the case into November. When Titus Alden testifies, it’s regarding Roberta’s move to Lycurgus and the bag she owned which was later found at Gun Lodge, giving Mason a chance to show Roberta’s personal effects and thus win jury sympathy. Belknap’s objections lead to a dispute when Belknap also jokes about the political maneuverings implicit in the trial, something Justice Oberwaltzer expressly forbids afterwards. From there, Grace Marr, the Newtons, the Gilpins, Whiggam, Ligget, and Mrs. Peyton all testify as to what they knew. C.B. Wilcox and his daughter Ethel, neighbors of the Aldens in Biltz, testify to phone calls between Roberta and a person they now believe to be Clyde. Other people also testify regarding the mail between Roberta and Clyde, Roberta’s travels in Utica, and the hotel in Utica where the couple stayed before heading to Big Bittern.

Notes

The cumulative effect of these witnesses is a reflection of Dreiser’s philosophy about society being a complex matrix of relationships. Clyde foolishly believed he could be seen by no one if he was discreet. As a point of fact, everyone around him and Roberta noticed something and it took the tragedy of Roberta’s death to piece together the exact circumstances.


CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Summary

More testimony is given against Clyde by people in Utica who saw Clyde and Roberta. Mason counts on the camera to assure Clyde’s conviction and calls on several people who connect Clyde with the camera found at the murder scene, including Joseph Frazer, who sold Clyde the camera. Doctors who examined Roberta’s body testify and show photos of her damaged face. Mrs. Rutger Donahue, the woman who heard Roberta’s cry, gives her testimony and is backed up by Thomas Barrett, an Adirondack guide present in the area on that day. Mason then reads all of Roberta’s letters to Clyde, invoking the jury’s sympathy and even crying as he reads. Mason ends the prosecution’s case with the letters, and court ends for the day. Clyde goes back to his jail cell, reviled by the public and holding no hope for himself.


Notes

Again, the thoroughness of Mason's prosecution reflects the thoroughness of Dreiser's narrative, even giving Dreiser a chance to fill in some parts that were glossed over, such as the time spent in Utica before the fatal trip.


CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Summary

The next morning, the press praises Mason’s defense. Clyde is discouraged, but his attorneys prepare their case. Belknap gives the opening statement, taking issue with some of Mason’s statements and assumptions, including the notion that Clyde promised to marry Roberta. He contends that Clyde Griffiths is a mental and moral coward - which is how the situation with Roberta and her pregnancy occurred, how she died by accident at Big Bittern, and why he ran to Sharon after Roberta’s death. The courthouse grows excited when Belknap promises an actual eyewitness at Roberta Alden’s death, prompting Justice Oberwaltzer to call for order. There is further excitement when Clyde takes the stand. Jephson asks to take over for Belknap and, under his careful instructions, Clyde begins to recount the story of his life.

Notes

The press implicitly affirms Clyde's guilt by praising Mason's defense, showing how the media can help influence the outcome of events where they repute to be impartial.


CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Summary

Clyde continues his testimony, covering the car accident in Kansas City and fleeing the city afterwards, which Jephson uses as proof of Clyde’s cowardice. Jephson then helps Clyde discuss his relationship with Roberta Alden and his long-term intentions for Roberta before Miss X entered his life. However, Clyde contends, he never promised to marry Roberta. Clyde then continues about meeting Miss X, falling in love with her, and Roberta becoming pregnant. He testifies about trying to help Roberta but no longer loving her as he once did, offering to help her until she gave birth but promising nothing beyond that. Reasonable excuses are given for every major point of suspicion brought up by the prosecution. Clyde narrates that he never promised to Roberta he would marry her, but that he would have abided by whatever decision she made after he told her of his feelings for her and for Miss X.

On the lake, he had a change of heart towards Roberta after seeing her in such distress over the pregnancy. Leaving his bag at the shore while they took some pictures in the boat, Roberta stood up to embrace him and hit herself against the camera, overturning the boat in the process. The boat had floated away from them a good distance and Roberta was flailing around, making it dangerous for him to approach her. She drowned, he swam ashore to save himself and, seeing how bad the situation looked, decided to flee to Sharon, where his friends were. In short, he had no intention to kill her - which was a lie - and that she died through an unexpected turn of events - which was something of a truth.

Notes

It's worth comparing the events as Clyde recounts here to the way Dreiser describes them in Book Two. Notice how truthful assertions are woven together with less truthful ones, and how it ends with a rather significant lie (Clyde had no intention to kill Roberta) wrapped in a significant truth (Clyde did not intend for Roberta to die the way she did). The key of the trial, then, becomes: which would hold greater sway, the significant lie or the significant truth?

 

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