Clyde’s factory girlfriend believes in life and love. Like Clyde, she desires a better life and better marriage prospects, but she has no grand illusions about marrying into wealth and luxury. She believes in the efficacy of her efforts and in the value of continuing her education. Morality is important to her, but the power of eros overwhelms her. Before her death, she settles for the facade of respectability.
Like Elvira, Roberta is the daughter of a poor farmer. Her family’s poverty forces her to work in a nearby factory. Although her looks, charm, and morals are superior to those of her rural community, the suitable young men there identify her as a “factory type.” Her knowledge of men and of birth control are very limited.
Her shyness stems, in large part, from feelings of inferiority, a legacy of her early factory days. She is attracted not only to Clyde’s charm and position, but to his physical attributes. Her response to nature is sensuous and serene when she picks water lilies and when she trails a hand in the lake. Passionately loving Clyde, she afterwards feels guilty but continues the affair. Despair turns to hope after Clyde agrees to marry her.
Breaking the social taboo by chatting with the foreign girls at the factory, Roberta also breaks a factory taboo by meeting with her supervisor. She not only meets Clyde secretly, but violates her sexual code. For Clyde’s sake (and to not disgrace her family) she seeks an abortion and, failing that, contemplates suicide. Behind her is a trail of evasion and deception. In a last effort to save herself and her family’s respectability, she threatens Clyde into a temporary marriage, knowing that he is indifferent to her.
Roberta’s corpse is the object of the district attorney’s powerful sympathies. From her head, Burton Burleigh ghoulishly snatches a few hairs with which to incriminate Clyde. At the trial, Mason thrusts upon Clyde a long light brown lock of his “dead love’s hair.” Newspapermen, pamphleteers, and the prosecuting attorney exploit Roberta’s pathetic letters. And, through Mason, the court hears her speak, as if from the grave.