Summary and Analysis Book III: Chapters 20-26

This section delineates the awesome course of Clyde’s trial. Mason blazons his case of Clyde Griffiths as a cold-blooded murderer. Witness after witness steps forward. The trial continues into November; Mason is elected overwhelmingly to the judgeship. The prosecution concludes with a dramatic reading of Roberta’s letters. Next, Clyde’s lawyers construct an elaborate defense, with Clyde himself as their star witness. In all, one hundred and twenty-seven witnesses appear in court. Finally, the jury decides that Clyde is guilty of murder in the first degree.

In terms of literary naturalism, Dreiser attempts to prove that the mind of a man is directly related to his self-control. In court, Mason asserts that the “mind” foreseeing and forestalling all of life’s accidents indeed is not Clyde’s. Clyde marvels at the unbreakable chain of facts made by various and unexpected witnesses so long after the events. Although Clyde fears death if he attempts to escape, he views an attempt as at least a chance for life. In making his defense, Belknap tells the court that Clyde “happens” to be here because of an incredible and misleading set of circumstances. Unseemly, Jephson assures Clyde in court that condemnation can rest only on free choice; since Clyde did not choose to be born, he has no free choice. With regard to his feelings for Miss X, he was powerless; as for Roberta, he tried to love her again — but could not.

Through his various narrative techniques, Dreiser balances psychological and objective detail. Having documented the first day of the jury selection, the narrator begins this trial section with this almost stage-like direction: “And then five entire days consumed by Mason and Belknap in selecting a jury. But at last the twelve men who were to try Clyde, sworn and seated.” The narrator stresses the hunting, the canine theme by describing Mason as “a fox hound within the last leap of its kill.” Some testimony shocks the reader as well as Clyde — for example, that the Gilpins knew more regarding Clyde and Roberta than either suspected, and that the chambermaid at Grass Lake remembered Clyde’s camera and tripod; such withheld information creates dramatic tension. The signal contrast in this section is the victory of the prosecution and the defeat of the defense. This defeat is foreshadowed. When the “electric” prosecutor avers that he will produce an eye witness to the murder, Clyde grips his chair, his head jerks back and then drops, and he seems ready to fall into a coma. As he listens to Mason’s artful summation, Clyde is convinced that this jury will convict him.

Clyde’s conviction results, for the most part, from Mason’s clever use of documents. Mason charges Clyde as a crime-plotter never writing to Roberta, only sending telephone messages. Of Roberta’s letters, Mason first reads (a bit garbled) her last, pathetic threat to Clyde; and then, on the eleventh day, near dusk, Mason slowly and softly reads all of Roberta’s letters, crying at certain points and greatly stirring the court. Like Mason, Dreiser achieves strong dramatic effects, for the reader also hears the six letters for the first time. Especially emotional are Roberta’s hints of suicide. The newspapers speculate, their sprawling headlines favoring the prosecution; Clyde, thinking of Sondra, mentally answers her questions. The travel folders found in Clyde’s bag are almost as crucial as Roberta’s letters; even as a witness, Clyde does not detect the Lycurgus House label stamped in red like the red letters of the folder. When, at last, Clyde decides to write a letter, it is only one poignant sentence: “Dear Mother — I am convicted — Clyde.” That Roberta’s letters convicted him torments Clyde.

Ironically, the jury is convinced of Clyde’s guilt even before they sit in judgment. Clyde (the moviegoer) watches Mason in his dynamic role of prosecutor as if someone had shouted: “Lights! Camera!” Mason asserts that Clyde has had more religious, social, and educational advantages than the jurists. As he well knows, Belknap ironically warns the court that it is so easy to distort any set of circumstances. What his lawyers direct him to explain to the jury, Clyde believes: that before meeting Sondra he loved Roberta enormously; ironically, neither Clyde nor the narrator acknowledges the fact that Clyde met Sondra before he knew Roberta. Based on the judge’s very specific charge, Clyde is not guilty of first-degree murder: He struck no intentional blow and the boat capsized accidentally.

Whatever justice is called for, the sensational combination of violence and sex attracts particular attention to Clyde’s case. The lawyers draw on their own experiences and temperaments. While Mason speaks sacredly of sexual union, Belknap focuses on premarital popularity, and Jephson makes innuendoes about extramarital appeal. When Mason declares that Clyde was “intimate” with Miss Alden while pursuing Miss X, the rural folk crane forward. Realizing how shabby his sexual life must appear, Clyde also feels that it is not too unusual, at least by the standards of some of Lycurgus society.

Despite Clyde’s struggling to believe in himself, his sense of inferiority overwhelms him. Committed to perjury, Clyde is a deficient witness. He twists, swallows stigmatically, and sinks in his chair. He feels weak, nervous, and false, and his nerves fail after Mason asks why he did not simply push the boat to the struggling Roberta. When Mason asserts that Clyde wanted Roberta to drown, Clyde cowers in his seat. When Mason dramatically shows him a lock of Roberta’s hair, he shrinks back. He is determined not to let Mason bully him, but he feels weak and unable to draw strength from Jephson’s eyes. In answer to his partner’s soothing contention that the uncourageous Clyde had the best possible defense, Jephson counters with his soothing belief that Clyde really did kill Roberta.

From the beginning, Dreiser illuminates the elusiveness of truth. Trapping Clyde in little lies, Mason hopes to discredit the explanation of a change of heart. (Clyde never admits to his own lawyers that he did not wish to save Roberta.) On the stand, Clyde testifies that (1) he never plotted to kill Roberta, that (2) she wanted to go to the lakes, that (3) he procured the tourist folders in Utica, that (4) he falsely registered to avoid scandal, that (5) he bought another hat because his was soiled, that (6) he had a change of heart about deserting Roberta, that (7) he carried his bag only because he had a lunch in it, that (8) Roberta jumped up with joy in the boat upon his agreeing to marry her, that (9) he tried to catch her with his camera in hand, that (10) being dazed, he called to her to catch onto the drifting boat, that (11) after Roberta drowned he thought for the first time that others might think he also had drowned, that (12) he knew nothing about his missing hat lining, that (13) he asked the hunters for directions — not distances-and that (14) he did ask the price of boat rentals on Big Bittern. In the end, Clyde swears that the drowning was an accident (indeed, it all had not been precisely as he had planned).

Belknap speaks of Clyde’s actions as a result of an intense conflict between two illicit moods. During the trial, Clyde’s courage ebbs and flows. Mason’s threat of a witness shocks Clyde into picturing the truth for himself: (1) the unintended blow, (2) the boat’s upsetting, (3) Roberta’s cries for help, (4) his passivity, (5) his swimming to shore, (6) his changing clothes, and (7) his flight. Downhearted after Mason’s dynamic presentation, Clyde is heartened by Belknap’s opening defense. To distract the jury from the charge of murder, Jephson attacks the defendant as a moral coward. Hesitating and stumbling through his memorized answers, Clyde shows himself a weakling, incapable — Jephson hopes to prove — of murder. Belknap explains that Clyde hesitated fatally but not criminally, the one time in his life when he should not have hesitated. And in his summation, Belknap refers to Clyde’s “dreamy mind.” At the trial, Clyde is both participant and spectator. Although Jephson rhetorically alludes to The Arabian Nights, Clyde’s bewitchment by beauty, love, and wealth is in the deepest sense true. His dream-love remains an unrealized ideal. After the verdict, Clyde visualizes the ghostly electric chair looming ever closer.