An American Tragedy By Theodore Dreiser Summary and Analysis Book III: Chapters 10-19

This section depicts Clyde Griffiths awaiting trial for murder. With Clyde's tripod and camera discovered, District Attorney Mason presses for action. Samuel Griffiths secures counsel for Clyde; limited by Mr. Griffiths' stipulations (but stimulated by the political situation), Clyde's lawyers plot his defense. Indicted before a special term of the Supreme Court, Clyde is denied a change of venue, and Mason finds further evidence and witnesses. Dreiser achieves the sense of matters coming full circle, back to the gloomy opening of Book I, when the Griffithses of Denver learn of Clyde's imprisonment and Elvira prepares to help Clyde.

In jail, Clyde wishes that someone knew how it all had happened. With hindsight he wishes that he had done certain things differently. Although Roberta's facial injuries were not fatal, autopsy reports indicate that the skull injury "might" have produced death; but, in fact, her water-filled lungs prove that her death was due to drowning. Another causal chain is contemplated by Samuel Griffiths. In retrospect, he sees how alone his nephew was for the first eight months in Lycurgus. But he does not condone Clyde's ungoverned carnality, and he finds it difficult to believe that anyone with Griffiths' "blood" could commit such a crime. Thus he will defend his nephew only if he is innocent. Unable to show insanity in the Griffiths family, Clyde's lawyers nevertheless spin a favorable and plausible web of cause and effect out of the same facts which the district attorney uses to spin an unfavorable and plausible web. Meanwhile, Elvira Griffiths, who instructs her grandson Russell in the fundamental verities, traces the cause of Clyde's trouble to the influence of the Green-Davidson and his bad companions there.

To the advantage of his art, Dreiser varies his world of external circumstances. Logical time and cause-effect conventions give way to techniques of simultaneity. The reader witnesses Sondra's reaction and departure to Sharon after Clyde's arrest, and then Clyde's reaction and departure to the Bridgeburg jail. The reader watches Mason develop his case against Clyde as Belknap and Jephson develop their defense for him. Through Elvira Griffiths' stream-of-consciousness (thoughts, plans, biblical quotations), religion and life fuse into a living faith. A symbolic background to the horde of courtroom details is the cold gray October setting, where leaves flying in gusts are like birds; and in the background loom newspaper headlines and the electric chair.

Newspapers not only describe — but print — excerpts from Roberta's letters. These documents result in pity for Roberta and hatred for Clyde. Local newspapers release distorted news. Influence keeps Sondra's letters out of the newspapers and out of the trial itself. Because of their religious and moral beliefs, the Griffithses of Denver exclude daily newspapers from their home and mission. It is Esta, now a suburban Denver wife, who reads the lengthy article about Clyde's indictment in the Rocky Mountam News. At his trial, Clyde fears what the newspapers will reveal.

As usual, Dreiser's irony is potent. The reactions of the Aldens and the country people contrast with those of the Griffithses and the gentry. The brainy Jephson and the elegant Belknap make effective foils. Ironic also are the implied comparisons between Asa Griffiths and the able and protective fathers of Belknap and Sondra. For the first time in her life, Sondra feels life's grimness. Prior to Clyde's trial, the law, the newspapers, and the crowd already condemn him. The rural community regards him as an outsider, a rich city youth. Finally, to find some peace and quiet, Clyde finds jail a relief. After the autopsy, Mason believes that Clyde struck Roberta with some object and then threw her into the water; Mason is convinced that the deadly object is Clyde's tripod, but later he is convinced that it is Clyde's camera. Although Mason and Heit wonder why they did not discover strands of Roberta's hair in the camera earlier, they accept this new fact as conclusive evidence of Clyde's guilt. Ironically, the public expects the wealthy uncle to defend his nephew, yet criticizes Samuel Griffiths for doing so. Griffiths chooses a Democrat, Belknap, as the ideal lawyer to oppose the Republican, Mason. Again, ironically, Belknap tells Clyde that he will find Jephson as easy to talk to "as you would to your mother." Listening to Clyde's story, Jephson concludes that the truth is too complicated, too unbelievable for a backwoods jury to believe; thus he fabricates a defense and assures Clyde that all will turn out well. Mason, however, finds Clyde's camera before Belknap is even aware that the camera exists.

Learning of Clyde's indictment, the grieving Elvira enters the mission room, where placards proclaim God's charity, wisdom, and righteousness. Although the day of jury selection is cold and windy, the rural crowd evokes a holiday spirit and festival air. Free enterprise has reprinted Roberta's letters in pamphlet form. Clyde sits in his neat gray suit, retrieved from Bear Lake, a counter to Mason's retrieval of the camera. Again, Jephson insists that he will not allow Clyde to be convicted — simply because he is not "allowed to swear to the truth."

In this section, Clyde's conviction and eventual electrocution is heavily foreshadowed. The eyes of Clyde's defense lawyer are like a powerful "electric ray." In the county jail, Clyde ponders his incredible defense, convinced that the state will electrocute him. In spite of her prayers and actions, Elvira Griffiths soon perceives the strong possibility of her son's electrocution. Meanwhile, Clyde daydreams of various possibilities. At Fourth Lake, Sondra broods about the termination of her girlish fancies. Belknap early imagines Clyde's bewitchment by a rich girl. A victim of a "brainstorm," according to Jephson, Clyde was taken out of himself and made into a different person by the monied class. Yet, despite everything, Clyde has nightmares of the electric chair. He dreams, futilely, of escaping.

Though loyal to Sondra, Clyde has mixed feelings about his attorneys. He is torn between his lawyer's lies and what he knows (or thinks he knows) to be true. Sondra is torn between loyalty to Clyde and loyalty to her position in society. She detests Clyde's crime, yet suffers heartache for him. She hates his past, yet remembers his enthusiasm for her. She wants to see him or send word, yet fears the social reprisals.

From the beginning, some people see Clyde as a weakling. Very early Mason tries to bully him. After four hours of questioning, Samuel Griffiths' attorney views Clyde as possessing a criminality of the most feeble and blundering incapacity. Clyde feels especially worthless when his lawyers discuss his defense as if he were not even in their presence. Belknap commands Clyde not to cry any more — a public confession of guilt. A weak witness, Clyde falls into confusion and fear when the Alden family enters the courtroom.

This section, preparing the way for Clyde's protracted trial, is gorged with deception. Since Clyde lies about his straw hat, Mason sees that he must devise shrewder traps. Before Clyde has legal counsel, Mason compels Clyde to retrace his steps. On Mason's orders, a deputy ingratiates himself to Clyde, suggesting that to cooperate with Mason is to survive. Still, Clyde denies having a tripod or a camera at the site of the accident. Convinced of Clyde's cold-blooded murder, Burton Burleigh commits a crime himself by tampering with evidence — by twining a few hairs from Roberta's corpse inside the lid of Clyde's camera. Assured of her father's sympathy, Sondra confesses her secret relationship with Clyde. Mason conceals the camera and hairs until the trial, which (in view of the political situation) he seeks as soon as possible. Smillie, a Griffiths Company vice president, visits Clyde in jail and detects his lying, but pretends to agree so as not to embarrass him; but Clyde, in turn, detects Smillie's pose. Ironically, Samuel Griffiths wants no chicanery or trickery in the trial. But so weak is Clyde's story that his lawyers concoct another, modified to look less cruel and legally murderous, one designed to gain public sympathy. Also, they fake other reasons for Clyde's false confession to Mason. Unable to deny Clyde's two sham registrations and two hats, they play hocus-pocus with Clyde's gray suit (which he wears at the trial). Clyde is in awe of their trickery on his behalf, how they describe his "change of heart." Jephson's defense is that (1) Clyde never plotted murder because he is a moral and physical coward; that (2) Roberta as well as Clyde planned the trip; that (3) Clyde intended to tell Roberta about Sondra; and that (4) he intended to pay Roberta's expenses and then leave town. But after seeing Roberta again and spending two nights with her, Clyde experienced a change of heart: that is, (5) if Roberta still wanted to marry him after he told her about Sondra, Clyde would agree to marry Roberta; that (6) Roberta was indeed willing to marry Clyde; that (7) she jumped up happily, (8) the boat upset, and (9) Clyde struck her accidentally with the camera; that (10) by the time Clyde, a bit dazed himself, could save her, she had drowned; and that (11) because of the suspicious circumstances and his true love for Sondra, he (a moral coward) fled to Sondra and her society. The Kansas City accident and Clyde's clandestine affair with Roberta belie other testimony of Clyde's good character. Ironically, Elvira Griffiths (who pretends that Esta's illegitimate son is an adopted orphan in order for Esta to deceive her husband) says that Clyde must not ask her to lie; yet Clyde can tell neither his mother nor his lawyers the truth. Thus to obtain justice (they tell Clyde) they are creating a "fiction" of reality, a translation of the incredible truth into the believable — the improbable into the probable.

Clyde's genuine incarceration, however, reflects on him and on others in striking ways. Despite their disgust for Clyde's crime, his jailers take pride in a Griffiths being in their jail. Meanwhile, the Lycurgus Griffithses think of moving to another city. Recalling Clyde's strange behavior at the lakes, Sondra wants to repossess her letters. Under the name of Wilson, the Finchleys retreat for six weeks to the Maine coast and the Cranstons retreat to the Thousand Islands; those not sufficiently incriminated remain to gossip at Twelfth Lake. While Jephson tries to inoculate Clyde with his shrewdness and courage, Belknap tells Clyde to reflect innocence and to attend Sunday jail services.

Though his sympathetic lawyers are not leaving him stranded, Clyde senses that others are deserting him, or at least qualifying their aid. His uncle makes it clear as to what extent he will help Clyde. That Clyde does not wish to betray Sondra, who forsakes him, amazes his lawyers. Although the lawyers look for someone from Clyde's family to come forward and champion him, the fee-paying Samuel Griffiths does not want the western Griffithses exploited by the press. Clyde's consuming desire is to bolt from jail, to run for his life. More out of curiosity than loyalty, two of Clyde's former society friends appear at the trial; in vain, however, Clyde searches the throng for Sondra.

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