An American Tragedy Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s longest novel, has often been hailed as his masterpiece. It is divided into three books, the first of which foreshadows the events of the second, while the third describes Clyde’s trial. The protagonist is Clyde Griffiths, the son of street preachers who live in dire poverty. Thus, Clyde grows up longing for material things he can never attain except through his own efforts.

After a series of dead-end jobs, Clyde ventures to Lycurgus, New York, hoping for a place in his uncle’s prosperous shirt factory. Before long, he becomes supervisor of the stamping room, where he meets Roberta Alden, a hardworking, pretty, vivacious young woman whose attraction to him matches his interest in her. After a few months of casual dating, the two become lovers and Roberta gets pregnant. In the meantime, however, Clyde has met Sondra Finchley, a girl of wealth and social prestige, whose way of life represents everything of which he has ever dreamed. Infatuated with Sondra, but being pressured toward marriage by Roberta (who cannot obtain an abortion), Clyde feels himself in a trap. As in Dreiser’s previous novels, however, two incidents of fate influence his actions.

The first is a news report of a drowning, in which the woman’s body was found but not the man’s. Shortly after reading this, Clyde discovers a chain of isolated lakes north of the resort where the Finchleys have their summer home. It occurs to him that as Roberta cannot swim, an “accidental” drowning might be the way out of his predicament. Telling Roberta he will marry her, he plans a pre-wedding jaunt on one of these lonely lakes, choosing a boat that will easily overturn, When Roberta tries to draw closer to Clyde in the boat, he pushes her back, causing her to lose her balance and fall into the water. At this moment, Clyde experiences a fleeting change of heart. Reaching over to rescue Roberta, however, he upsets the boat, which hits her on the head, knocking her unconscious. Although Clyde might still have pulled Roberta from the water, a “voice” inside him says that fate has acted in his favor. Therefore, he lets her sink and heads back to Sondra.

When compared with Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, An American Tragedy seems closest to the spirit of naturalism, for Clyde appears to have no conscience. Dreiser foreshadows Clyde’s indifference to murder in book 1. Clyde and some other youths are involved in an automobile crash which...

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An American Tragedy Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

While a newspaper reporter in the 1890’s, Theodore Dreiser noticed a particular type of crime: A young man who was successful would murder his pregnant fiancée so that he might free himself from her and marry another woman who had more money and higher social standing. For years Dreiser collected these stories from the newspapers, planning someday to write a novel based on one of these crimes, because he felt that such a crime was typically American. This crime represented what was wrong with U. S. society. An American Tragedy is based on one such murder.

In 1906, Chester Gillette, a worker in his uncle’s skirt factory, drowned Grace Brown, a coworker. The crime was prompted by Grace Brown’s pregnancy, which restricted Gillette’s pursuit of a local socialite whose family was wealthy. Dreiser based Clyde Griffiths, the main character in An American Tragedy, on Chester Gillette. Clyde is born to a poor religious family, as were Dreiser and Gillette. Clyde longs for fine clothes, material goods, friends, and women. As a bellboy in various hotels, he improves his clothing and his financial status, but he always longs for more. Eventually he, like Chester, meets a wealthy uncle who offers him a position in the uncle’s factory—this position leads to further social and career opportunities. During Clyde’s advancement he develops a relationship with Roberta Alden, who becomes pregnant. While Clyde at one time promises Roberta that he will marry her, his success changes his plans. He wishes to marry Sandra Finchley, the daughter of a wealthy factory owner. When Clyde fails to find a doctor who will perform an abortion, he drowns Roberta, but he is caught, tried, and executed.

As in all of his works Dreiser realistically explores the motives of people in America. This long novel is considered Dreiser’s masterpiece. It weaves numerous perspectives and social issues into its fabric, never offering easy answers or solutions, always questioning the motives and values of characters who mean well. An American Tragedy represents the first time in American literature that a murderer is depicted with a degree of sympathy. This novel exposes the tragedies that occur when people seek wealth by quick, easy means. Dreiser’s complex and multifaceted representation of this crime moves beyond simple realism or journalism, revealing an elaborate portrait of an America that Dreiser saw as tragic.

An American Tragedy Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When Clyde Griffiths was still a child, his religious-minded parents took him and his brothers and sisters around the streets of various cities, where they prayed and sang in public. The family was always very poor, but the fundamentalist faith of the Griffithses was their hope and mainstay throughout the storms and troubles of life. Young Clyde was never religious, however, and he always felt ashamed of the life his parents were living. As soon as he was old enough to make decisions for himself, he went his own way.

At age sixteen, he gets a job as a bellboy in a Kansas City hotel. There the salary and the tips he receives astonish him. For the first time in his life he has money in his pocket, and he can dress well and enjoy himself. Then a tragedy overwhelms the family. Clyde’s sister Hester, or “Esta,” runs away, supposedly to be married. Her elopement is a great blow to their parents, but Clyde does not brood over the matter. Life is too pleasant for him; more and more, he enjoys the luxuries that his job provides. He makes friends with the other bellhops and joins them in parties that revolve around liquor and women. Clyde soon becomes familiar with drink and brothels.

One day, he discovers that his sister is back in town. The man with whom she ran away deserted her, and she is penniless and pregnant. Knowing his sister needs money, Clyde gives his mother a few dollars for her. He promises to give her more; instead, he buys an expensive coat for a girl in the hope that she will yield herself to him. One night, he and his friends go to a party in a car that does not belong to them. Coming back from their outing, they run over a little girl. In their attempt to escape, they wreck the car. Clyde flees to Chicago.

In Chicago he gets work at the Union League Club, where he eventually meets his wealthy uncle, Samuel Griffiths. The uncle, who owns a factory in Lycurgus, New York, takes a fancy to Clyde and offers him work in the factory. Clyde goes to Lycurgus. There his cousin, Gilbert, resents this cousin from the Midwest. The whole family, with the exception of his uncle, considers Clyde beneath them socially and will not accept him into their circle. Clyde is given a job at the very bottom of the business, but...

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An American Tragedy Overview

An American Tragedy is based on the actual case of Chester Gillette, who murdered his pregnant girlfriend Grace Brown at Big Moose...

(The entire section is 243 words.)

An American Tragedy Summary

Book 1 Summary

An American Tragedy opens on a summer evening in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early years of the twentieth century. Dreiser...

(The entire section is 243 words.)

Book 2 Summary

Book 2 opens three years later. Clyde is now living in Lycurgus. He fled to Chicago after the car accident and, at his job at the Union...

(The entire section is 279 words.)

Book 3 Summary

Clyde flees the scene of Roberta's death, but circumstantial evidence, including letters to Clyde from both Roberta and Sondra, leads to his...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

An American Tragedy Chapter Summaries

Book 1, Chapters 1-2 Summary

The Griffiths family, consisting of father Asa, mother Elvira, oldest daughter Esta, oldest son Clyde, and a younger boy and girl, set up their preaching post on the streets of Kansas City. Surrounded by the skyscrapers around them, the Griffiths prepare to reach out to the passersby on their way home. Esta sits at the small organ and accompanies the family as they sing hymns, hoping some people will stop and listen to their message. The entire family gives the appearance of being “unimportant,” as Clyde thinks, although the mother has some appearance of strength and commitment that her husband does not exude, no matter how he feels. Clyde, at twelve, is described as more pagan than religious and clearly does not have any...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Book 1, Chapters 3-4 Summary

Clyde Griffiths’ mood becomes darker, a feeling increased when Esta runs away. Despite her sheltered, religious upbringing, Esta was fairly sensuous; coupled with a certain weakness, this put her in a precarious position. It started when boys began to make passing comments to her, which she began to respond to. Once her trained reserve broke down, she became susceptible to the attentions of boys. Things came to a head when an actor traveling through Kansas City took notice of her. Quite rapidly, their relationship came to the point that the actor suggested that his life—and hers—could not be complete unless they got married, and quickly. He told Esta that because of the “situation” in Kansas City, it would be better if...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Book 1, Chapters 5-6 Summary

Clyde is excited about the possibilities while working at the hotel. He walks past the hotel, looking in the doorways and imagining what his life might be like, when he is not at his job at the drug store. On Monday afternoon, Clyde returns to talk to Mr. Squires, the manager of the bellhops, who explains the rules: he must be on time for each of his shifts, with alternate evenings and mornings off; he must not go off partying once he has a little money; he must be willing, civil, prompt, and courteous to everyone. Clyde readily agrees to every condition and learns that he will receive fifteen dollars a month plus board and meals, along with any tips he earns, which might be four to six dollars a day. The manager sends Clyde off to...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Book 1, Chapters 7-9 Summary

Clyde becomes more familiar with the other bellhops and they help Clyde become more familiar with the “entertainments” that are available from connections made at the hotel. Clyde is intrigued by the men who hang around the hotel expecting to earn a reputation as "a man about town." The other boys warn him of men who prey on the bellhops for homosexual relationships. Some of the boys “fall for it,” Clyde is told. Most of the bellhops are from other places and come from broken homes, sometimes with widowed mothers to take care of. All agree that Kansas City is the best place they have visited, and that Mr. Squires is the best boss. The Green-Davidson Hotel is the most luxurious one in town, and the boys feel privileged to be...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Book 1, Chapters 10-11 Summary

Clyde was prepared to dislike his first encounter with sex, having been trained since the crib to view it with disgust and shame. However, now that he is this close, he finds himself fascinated. The girls sit on the laps of some of his friends and Clyde is surprised when one of them begins to talk to him. She recognizes that he is new, telling him that he is different from the other boys. He has more class than the others, she says, and tells him that he does not need to be afraid of her. Clyde drinks a whiskey and soda and talks to the girl, avoiding eye contact with her low-cut gown. The other boys move off to the rooms upstairs with the girls. Clyde is led by his partner to her room, where she disrobes in front of a full-length...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Book 1, Chapters 12-13 Summary

Clyde buys some new accessories in anticipation of his date with Hortense. He waits at the Green-Davidson Hotel until seven o’clock, but she does not show up. He is about to leave when he sees her coming down the street. She explains that she forgot she had two dates that evening, and had to break off the other one simply because she could not reach Clyde. She asks Clyde if he isn’t glad that she disappointed such a “good-lookin’ fella” for him? Clyde tries to suppress his jealousy and buys her some violets. They eat a good dinner and have cocktails, which impresses Hortense. Clyde becomes even more captivated by her and over time, he submits to buying her ever increasingly expensive presents. But after four months, Clyde...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Book 1, Chapters 14-15 Summary

Clyde reflects on Esta’s return to Kansas City, and he begins to think more about the problem in relationships between men and women. Although he is upset at the man who got his sister pregnant and then dumped her in a distant city, he recognizes that Esta must bear at least part of the blame. She had not known the man for very long before she went off with him. He thinks about his own relationship with Hortense Briggs and his intention to go to bed with her. He sees that Hortense would not have gotten herself into the same predicament as Esta because she and her friends are too shrewd.

Hortense is still stringing Clyde along, dating other men besides him. He does not know when she will finally submit to his advances,...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Book 1, Chapters 16-17 Summary

Hortense returns to Rubenstein’s store to ask for a payment plan for the coat. The clerk explains that they accept cash only. The best Hortense can arrange is that he will accept a down payment and put the coat on layaway. Hortense tells Clyde that the coat costs one hundred twenty-five instead of one hundred fifteen dollars because she feels that now she needs a new hat to go along with the coat.

Clyde is ready to give her the last fifty dollars to get the coat out of layaway when his mother announces that she needs to speak with him. She tells him that Esta is back in town and is “in trouble.” Clyde debates whether to tell her that he already knows this, but he feels sorry for his mother and does not want to...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Book 1, Chapters 18-19 Summary

That afternoon, the group decides to go out on the frozen river nearby. As they skate across the icy surface, Hortense once again finds herself in Sparser’s company. Slipping and falling, she shows no shame when her skirts fly up above her knees. Clyde is disgusted and argues with her. Hortense resents his sense of ownership of her and is fed up with him. Clyde hints that they should break it off, but Hortense remembers that her coat has not been paid for and begins to calm down. Clyde tells her once again that he is crazy about her but does not see why she must flirt with all the boys. They make up and return to the car for the trip back to Kansas City.

The weather turns even snowier on the return, but Clyde enjoys...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 1-2 Summary

Samuel Griffiths, Asa’s successful brother, owns a shirt collar business in Lycurgus, New York. He and his family live in the nicest house in town; their social level is of the highest. Myra, the elder daughter, is not very attractive. She is unmarried and living at home at the age of twenty-six. She is intellectual rather than social, the complete opposite of her younger sister, Bella. At the moment, Bella is trying to convince her mother to build a summer home at a nearby lake where all the up-and-coming families are moving. Mrs. Griffiths, however, is suspicious of these “new” families and discourages Bella from socializing with them. Bella is unsuccessful at manipulating her mother, so she complains to her brother, Gil,...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 3-4 Summary

It has now been three years since Clyde left Kansas City. Following the accident, Clyde hopped on a boxcar and went to St. Louis, where his watch and his overcoat were stolen. He sees in the Kansas City paper that Sparser and Laura Sipe are in the hospital and under arrest. Sparser gave the police the names of all the boys in the car, along with the address of the hotel where they worked. Mr. Squires gave them the addresses of the boys’ parents. The article reports the parents’ reactions. Mrs. Griffiths just stood there, wringing her hands, sure that Clyde would show up soon and clear everything up.

Clyde makes his way to Chicago, where he finds a job as a delivery boy, far below the status of a bellhop. After...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 5-6 Summary

Clyde finds himself in Lycurgus, walking through the town on his way to the factory from the train depot. He is impressed with the evident prosperity of the business section and soon finds himself at the office of the Griffiths Collar Company. He presents himself to the secretary as Samuel Griffiths’ nephew. The secretary’s attitude immediately changes and she calls Gilbert’s office. Although Gilbert is said to be busy, Clyde is soon sent back to his office. Clyde is not impressed with Gilbert’s appearance; he sees him as inconsequential and as having attained his present position merely because of his status as the “heir-apparent.”

Gilbert is condescending but makes some effort to be amiable to this...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 7-8 Summary

Clyde is not happy about his boarding house; he feels that the residents are not of the social class with which he wants to be associated. There is one particular person, Walter Dillard, who is trying too hard to strike up a friendship with Clyde because seeing him as a way to get into the social scene. Dillard thinks that Clyde must know more people that one would think of someone living in a boarding house simply because he is related to Samuel Griffiths. Clyde has relied on the family connection to be seen as someone who is on the way up, but Dillard is becoming a sycophant. Along with this, Clyde is troubled that Dillard is making more money than he is at the moment.

Dillard tries to get Clyde to go with him to a...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 9-11 Summary

Clyde, increasingly aware of his position as a Griffiths in Lycurgus, is uneasy about his relationship with Rita. Eventually this situation is resolved when his family status increases. It is not until after a month that Samuel Griffiths asks Gilbert about Clyde’s work in the factory. From Gilbert’s response, Mr. Griffiths sees that his son is jealous of his nephew. He decides it is time for Clyde to come out to the house for dinner. He arranges it with his wife, who sends Clyde an invitation for Sunday night dinner. The main meal on Sundays is at noon, when guests are present, but Mrs. Griffiths feels it would be better for Clyde to come to a meal with just the family.

Dillard invites Clyde on a weekend excursion...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 12-13 Summary

Clyde is overwhelmed by his overnight rise in status. The sum of twenty-five dollars a week is supplemented by being part of “management,” with all its advantages. His desk by a window gives him a commanding view, as compared to the basement where he had started out. He is able to dine in the executive’s dining room as well. He learns of a country club nearby that caters to upper-level management of the surrounding businesses, but this is discouraged by Griffiths and Company because it is not desirable for their officials to mix with those of other companies. Gilbert tells Clyde that as a member of the family, he can do what he wants about this. To further his entry into society, Clyde begins attending the same church that...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 14-15 Summary

Clyde is intrigued by Roberta Alden, not just because of her beauty and her apparent admiration for him, but because he is lonely. One benefit of moving from his boarding house was to escape Dillard, Rita, and Zella, but his sole contact with people outside of work is Mrs. Peyton, his landlady. As for Roberta, she is struggling with the local taboo that a factory girl should not get involved with her supervisor. Though she and her roommate, Grace, are considered “outsiders” for having been born in another town, both of them try to become involved in the local social scene. Roberta, however, begins to fantasize about belonging to the social strata on which Clyde (she believes) dwells. The other girls at the factory discuss the...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 16-17 Summary

After that afternoon, neither Clyde nor Roberta can think of anything but the boat ride, though they are frightened at the intensity of the immediate intimacy that they had felt. They think that perhaps it would be best after all just to maintain their professional relationship. After they rowed back to land, they picked up Grace and returned to the boathouse. Both Roberta and Clyde think silently about the best way to get back to town without arousing suspicion. While Clyde is worried that Gilbert will find out about the outlawed relationship between supervisor and employee, Roberta is worried about what people will think of her moral character as one seen to be out alone with her boss, something that just is not done. Grace and...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 18-20 Summary

Both Clyde and Roberta are happy to have found each other, but Roberta does not want Clyde clinging to her. She holds back when Clyde pushes, which has a tendency to frustrate him. When Grace suggests that Clyde is attracted to her, Roberta calls the idea ridiculous, reminding her roommate that it is against company rules for a supervisor to date a worker.

Clyde wants to see more of Roberta and begs her to think of a way that they can be together. She tells him that her sister lives upstate. She explains that she might be able to pretend to visit her sister, take a trolley to nearby Fonda, where Clyde can meet her later, and then go on to her sister’s on a later train. Clyde agrees, but he wants to see her before...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 21-22 Summary

Roberta is confused about her feelings for Clyde. She is upset that he is angry with her, but she will not go against her principles of morality by having sex with him, even if it means losing him. She thinks that Clyde should be ashamed for even asking her to go to bed with him. Clyde feels that there is no other place for them to go and not be recognized. He is sure that the Griffiths would look at Roberta as beneath their station; after all, she is an employee.

Roberta anticipates seeing Clyde the next day at the factory. She hopes that she can somehow get a chance to talk to him and apologize for making him angry. She wonders if he would pressure her to go to bed with him without having any intention of marrying her...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 23-25 Summary

Clyde thinks about how much better his life in Lycurgus is compared to that in Kansas City and Chicago. He is not making nearly as much money here as in the past, but he is happier. He and Roberta continue to meet in her room without being detected, so far. He realizes that she will probably have to get a new living place soon to continue the charade. As he walks along Wykeagy Avenue, where the Griffiths live, he sees a large car pull up to one of the houses and Sondra Flinchley’s face in the car window. Seeing Clyde in the dim light, Sondra thinks he is Gilbert and offers him a ride. When he approaches, she sees that it is Clyde instead and apologizes for the error. Hurt, Clyde begins to walk away, but Sondra insists that he may...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 26-27 Summary

At dinner, Clyde is quizzed by the other guests about his background. Since the truth is unacceptable, Clyde tells them that his father runs a modest hotel in Denver. He had come to Lycurgus because his uncle wanted him to learn the collar business, though he is not sure if he wants to pursue it or to find something more promising to his future. Sondra, as well as the hostess Jill, decide that Gilbert had spread rumors about Clyde’s lower-class background out of jealousy, because obviously Clyde must be a person of some means. Sondra is relieved by this, because she is finding herself more attracted to him than she would have been to a man of lesser quality.

As the two dance, Clyde tells Sondra that he has been...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 28-29 Summary

Clyde sends Roberta a note, telling her that he will not be able to go to Fonda with her because he must attend a meeting with department heads. Her disappointment rapidly sinks to depression. She struggles through the rest of the day with an indifference and sluggishness that Clyde notices. Clyde feels bad about this, but he thinks that he can do little otherwise, with the prospect of Sondra and what she has to offer for his future. When he meets with Roberta later, he gives her the toilet set that he had bought her for Christmas. She gives him a pen set, which she says does not compare in elegance with what he gave her, causing her to become even more morose. When she asks him if he had a good time at the dinner at his uncle’s,...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 30-31 Summary

Roberta is disappointed when Clyde does not show up at her place on Christmas night. Though he had intended to keep his appointment with her, Clyde’s plans changed. Mrs. Griffiths and Gilbert saw the notice in the paper about Clyde’s attendance at the dance. Gilbert is convinced that Sondra is using Clyde to get back at him for his own treatment of her in the past. Mrs. Griffiths resents his suggestion that she lets Bella run with the crowd that has taken Clyde in; she cannot see what the fuss is all about. He suggests that they should invite him for Christmas dinner, having failed to invite him to the lake during the summer as Mr. Griffiths had wanted. Mrs. Griffiths, and to some extent Gilbert, resolve to make the best of the...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 32-33 Summary

Clyde continues to advance in the social circles, often independent of Sondra. Sondra meanwhile is unsure how far to let her relationship with Clyde go, since she knows her parents would not countenance marriage with someone who comes from a background of poverty. One evening, as Clyde takes Sondra back to her house, she invites him in for hot chocolate. He is overwhelmed as he sits gazing at her white satin evening gown. He observes his surroundings and imagines what it must be like to live like this: no need for work, servants meeting his every need, social events crowding his calendar. Clyde expresses his passion to her, promising that he would do anything that she wanted. However, she does not really want to be the master, so...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 34-35 Summary

Clyde is in a quandary about where to turn for help. He has no friends of whom he might ask for information on ending a pregnancy. He decides that it is better if he goes to a doctor or druggist outside of Lycurgus, since anyone in town would be sure to recognize his resemblance to Gilbert. He boards the trolley to Schenectady, hoping to reach there before the pharmacies close. When he arrives, he goes to the nearest druggist, but loses courage when he sees that the middle-aged man would be unlikely to provide him with information. He leaves and goes to the next one but cannot bring himself to ask. He steels himself and returns to one of the pharmacies, relating the story that he is a young married man whose wife is pregnant, and...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 36-37 Summary

Over a week goes by, and Roberta has not heard from Clyde about finding a doctor to perform an abortion. Clyde is unsure where to turn but thinks that Orrin Short, a clerk at a local clothing store, might be able to help. Pretending to look at ties, he tells Short a story that one of the workers at the factory had turned to him for help to find a doctor that could end an unwanted pregnancy. Short is taken aback that so classy a gentleman would ask him such a question. He admits that he is new in Lycurgus himself and knows no one local. However, in his hometown of Gloversville, Short knew of a doctor who might help. He gives Clyde the name and directions, for which Clyde is extremely thankful. After Clyde leaves, Short wonders why...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 38-39 Summary

Both Roberta and Clyde are shocked over Dr. Glenn’s refusal to perform the abortion. They cling to his suggestion that perhaps Roberta just missed one period and that there is no real reason to worry until she misses a second month. When the second month passes, they return to Dr. Glenn’s, but he again refuses. Clyde has written to his Kansas City friend, Ratterer, for advice, but the only thing that Ratterer can tell him is that abortion is “safe” up through the third month. Around town, he hints at the situation, hoping for some inside information, but all he hears is that it is illegal and no doctor will do it.

Roberta begins to blame Clyde, first for pressuring her to have sex and then for not finding a...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 40-41 Summary

Roberta sees Clyde talking to Arabella Stark, one of his society friends, and finds her symbolic of the freedom of responsibility that has so enthralled Clyde. She sees herself as offering him nothing and understands the depths of his rejection of her. She also sees Clyde’s behavior as utterly wrong, having ignored her for some time now. She is overcome by the sadness of their lost love.

Clyde, on the other hand, is off for a weekend at the lake with a group of his friends. They become lost on the road and Clyde is deputized to go up to a farm house to ask directions. He stops when he sees the name on the mailbox: Titus Alden. This is the home of Roberta’s family. He is dumbstruck, which causes Sondra to ask him...

(The entire section is 379 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 42-43 Summary

Clyde receives a gushing, "baby-talk" letter from Sondra, relating her time at the lake. He also receives a letter from Roberta, describing her long, tiresome journey to her family’s home. Roberta says she stopped to see her sister and her family, in case she should never see them again; she is determined that they not lay eyes on her lest she is respectable. She talks about her mother and her fear of hurting her in any way. She tells Clyde that she is getting ready for their wedding and elopement, begging him not to disappoint her.

Clyde ponders the significance of these two letters. He is in despair over Roberta and wants to be rid of her so that he can concentrate on Sondra, whom he hopes he may marry this upcoming...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 44-45 Summary

Roberta sends Clyde a long, rambling letter in which she complains that the seamstress who is making her trousseau dresses is ill and cannot work. Her parents are talking about taking her on a trip for a few weeks, and she herself is nauseous and blue. She has done nothing but cry since she got home, which has worried her mother. She begs Clyde to write to her.

When Roberta does not hear from Clyde (since he is not in town to receive her letter), she writes him again to tell him that she is returning to Lycurgus, unhappy that all she has heard from him are a few short telephone calls. This news upsets Clyde, who realizes something must be done. He calls her and submits to a long, whining conversation. He tells her that...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Book 2, Chapters 46-47 Summary

Clyde agrees to meet Roberta in Utica. They take separate trains. He sees her at the station and positions himself so that she can see him. He compares her drab appearance with the rich style of Sondra. Roberta looks at him with relief, glad that he kept his promise to come take her away. They avoid speaking to each other so that no one will make a connection. However, she looks at his classy appearance and thinks that once again he is “her Clyde.”

Clyde plans to buy a second straw hat in Utica to leave at the lake after the drowning. The Utica label will throw off any investigation linking them with Lycurgus. He decides he must be pleasant around her to avoid upsetting her and ruining his plans. They ride in...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 1-2 Summary

Fred Heit, the coroner of Cataraqui County, receives a call with the news that a couple drowned at Big Bittern Lake. He tells his young assistant, Earl, to take notes as he hears the facts: the body of the wife is found, but not that of the husband; the boat was upset on the south shore; a straw hat without any lining was recovered, the body had bruises around her mouth and eye; her coat and hat had been left at the inn, but a hat and a veil had been found; a letter in her pocket addressed to Mrs. Titus Alden. The sheriff’s officers were still dredging the lake to find the husband’s body. Mr. Heit tells Earl to grab some subpoena forms to fill out on the train up to Big Bittern Lake. Earl is elated at the excitement caused by...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 3-4 Summary

As Heit examines Roberta’s body, he is moved by her youth and innocence. He remembers, however, that he has to go to Biltz, the home of Titus Alden, and inform Roberta’s mother that her daughter is dead. He thinks again about his friend, Orville Mason, the district attorney. Should Mason be involved intimately in the progress of this case, it would help him immensely in the upcoming election. Heit goes to Mason’s home and informs him of the details. While it is not right to use a murder for political advancement, Heit says, there is no reason he cannot use the situation to gain a competitive advantage. Heit gives Mason all the details of the case, including the sighting of Clyde in the woods by some hunters. Mason gives Heit...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 5-6 Summary

As Mason returns to his office, his anger toward the wealthy class grows. He views Clyde as an idle, evil, rich man who must be punished to the fullest extent of the law. He examines Roberta’s bag and finds the toilet set that Clyde had given her for Christmas, along with his card bearing his first name, but not his last. He begins to suspect that Roberta was pregnant, which means an autopsy must be performed, and travels to Lycurgus with a search warrant.

Mrs. Peyton is aghast when she learns the crime that Clyde is suspected of committing.  In Clyde’s room, Mason finds some old invitations from the social set, along with a locked trunk. He forces the trunk open and finds a cache of old letters from Roberta,...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 7-8 Summary

Over the weekend, Clyde suffers from mental visions of being hunted down and caught. He obsesses about the three men who saw him in the woods. Sondra worries about his seeming distraction, wondering if he is feeling all right. He resolves to act normally lest somehow he would be suspected. He throws his wet suit into the lake, wrapped to a stone, in an effort to cover his tracks.

Clyde joins the group on a boat trip to the golf club. One of the men, Burchard, rocks the boat back and forth, and Jill asks him if he is trying to drown them. This causes Clyde to wince as if he had been struck. He thought that things would be different after he rid himself of Roberta, but now everything is at risk if he cannot pull himself...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 9-10 Summary

Mason wonders if the prominent Griffiths family will hire a powerful lawyer to defend Clyde. He also fears whether he will be politically cast off and unable to convict Clyde for murder. He approaches the campers and asks them if they know Clyde Griffiths. Harley Baggott acts as spokesman and says that they do, and that he should be back soon. Mason sees Sondra and understands why Clyde would throw off a working-class girl like Roberta for a society princess. Mason returns to the other officers as Kraut escorts Clyde in from the woods. He asks Clyde if he is familiar with what has happened at Big Bittern Lake, but Clyde denies any knowledge; in fact, Clyde has decided he cannot admit to any knowledge of Roberta. This infuriates...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 11-12 Summary

The results of the autopsy are returned; it states that the blows to Roberta’s face were not fatal, but that the head wound, presumably from the blow from the edge of the boat, resulted in her death. This report corroborates Clyde’s testimony. From the amount of water in her lungs, it is determined that Roberta was not dead when she fell into the water. The cause of death is attributed to drowning. Mason wants to make Clyde confess that he struck her before throwing her into the water, but Clyde still refuses to say anything. Earl Newcomb tells Mason that a tripod had been discovered buried near the scene of the crime. This leads Mason to deduce that there was a camera present, which might be the weapon with which Clyde struck...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 13-14 Summary

Smillie gives his report to Mr. Griffiths and Gilbert. Gilbert points out to his father that he tried to warn him. Silently, he is glad to see Sondra Finchley put on the spot, believing as he does that she took up with Clyde only to get back at himself. Mr. Griffiths partially blames himself for leaving Clyde to his own devices, especially being put in a supervisory role over a group of women. Smillie informs Mr. Griffiths that Mr. Brookhart has returned; Mr. Griffiths requests Smillie to ask Brookhart to come to see him. He vows that he will not spend one penny on Clyde to rescue him of the consequences of his crime, should he be proven guilty.

Mr. Brookhart is unable to get anything out of Clyde, so the matter is...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 15-16 Summary

Belknap and Jephson discuss the difficulties of the case in defense of Clyde Griffiths, with Clyde present. If they present the story just as Clyde gave them, the jury will convict him of premeditated murder. Jephson asks Belknap if he thinks Clyde is guilty, and Belknap says that he does not necessarily think he is. Clyde seems like a nice person from a simple background, unlike the spoiled rich kid that Mason sees. Belknap speaks of Clyde’s run-in with the law in Kansas City, which he says he should not mention unless Mason brings it up.

Belknap gives Jephson a full account of Clyde’s background up until the time of Roberta’s murder. He presents Clyde as a young man caught in a love triangle. It is perhaps...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 17-18 Summary

Belknap and Jephson publicly present Clyde as a misunderstood youth, at the mercy of a defense attorney who has a personal political agenda. They say that they must file a formal protest at the state capital against Mason’s request for a special term of the Supreme Court, just so that he will be in the public eye at the time of the elections. Mason dismisses this, claiming that the evidence is clearly against Clyde and so there is no need to delay the proceedings. The special session of the Supreme Court is granted, and Justice Frederick Oberwaltzer is appointed judge of the case, with the Grand Jury set for August fifth, where Clyde is indicted for premeditated murder. Belknap requests a change of venue because of the...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 19-20 Summary

As October 15th arrives, crowds gather around the courthouse in preparation for jury selection. Jephson has worked with Clyde for weeks, drilling into his head that he is not guilty. He also reminds Clyde that they have invented a story in which Clyde had a change of heart before the accident. They both know this is not true, but it is also not true that Clyde killed Roberta intentionally.

Belknap and Jephson walk over to the courthouse while Clyde is escorted by police officers from the jail. Crowds in the courtroom eagerly await Clyde’s arrival. He sees that they are typical farmers or small town residents. As the judge enters, Clyde looks around at the people in the audience. The prospective jurors are interviewed...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 21-23 Summary

The prosecution calls one hundred and twenty-seven witnesses to take the stand. Belknap and Jephson object to most of them, stating that their testimony is either weak or in error. Titus Alden, Roberta’s father, is called, giving a tearful identification of Roberta’s bag and trunk. As her belongings are revealed, the Alden family sobs. Belknap accuses Mason of putting on a show for his political future, which creates an argument between the two attorneys. Judge Oberwaltzer warns them that he does not want to hear any mention of politics for the remainder of the case.

One by one, the witnesses come forward, painting Clyde as a manipulative, cold, and aggressive young man. Grace, Roberta's former roommate, states that...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Book 3, Chapter 24 Summary

Jephson leads Clyde carefully through his testimony. He describes his childhood and traveling around from place to place until he was twelve years old, when the family settled in Kansas City. He states that he did not do well in school because of this, being a year behind. He confesses that he did like going out at night to preach on street corners. Jephson tries to ascertain that after the car accident in which the little girl was killed, Clyde could have returned to Kansas City, most likely being put on probation and placed in the custody of his parents as he was still underage. Mason objects to this as being unclear what the legal consequences would have been. Jephson also tries to reveal that Clyde could have returned to his...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Book 3, Chapter 25 Summary

Mason’s questioning of Clyde is aggressive and confrontational. He begins by focusing on Clyde’s assertion that he did not have a camera at the lake, which Clyde now admits was a lie. To Mason, this is a sign that Clyde is a known liar. He moves on to the sad nature of Roberta’s letters to Clyde. Clyde claims the letters were a means to his change of heart about his intentions toward Roberta. Belknap objects to Mason’s speechifying with every question, but Judge Oberwaltzer overrules this.

Next, Mason brings in the boat they were in when the crime occurred. This rattles Clyde, especially when he is made to sit in it and act out what he testifies happened. Mason appears amazed at Clyde’s assertion that he was...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 26-27 Summary

For the remainder of the trial, witnesses are called but quickly eliminated by both sides. In his closing argument, Belknap presents Clyde Griffiths once again as a mental and moral coward, but not a murderer. He may have acted cruelly to Roberta, but who has not been cruel to someone they loved? Clyde may have let Roberta drown, but he did not kill her. He hesitated fatally, but not criminally, to save her. Mason, in his statement, gives the jury the inconsistent points of Clyde’s testimony. Judge Oberwaltzer instructs the jury to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt. Evidence is not to be discounted simply because it is considered “circumstantial.” He tells them that if they decide that Roberta involuntarily or...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 28-29 Summary

Mrs. Griffiths arrives at the jail late one night, but waits until the next morning to see Clyde. He is overjoyed to see her, and she thanks God that He has gotten her this far and is sure that He will see to Clyde’s release. She tells Clyde that she is acting as a reporter for a Denver newspaper in order to make money to come back East to see him and be with him. While she initially believed in Clyde’s innocence, his weak positive response shakes her faith in him.

Mrs. Griffiths sees Belknap and Jephson and asks them to pray for her success in getting her son freed. The Griffiths of Lycurgus want nothing to do with her or with Clyde and adamantly refuse to pay for attorneys to launch an appeal. Belknap and Jephson,...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 30-31 Summary

The days in prison begin to drag for Clyde. His mother, however, spends most of her time touring the state, giving lectures in churches and missions wherever she can. She finds that there is very little interest in her story among Christians, which makes her feel that they are not as Christian as they could be. They feel that even if he were innocent of the murder, Clyde had confessed to getting Roberta pregnant, a sin almost as bad as murder to many of them. One morning, she finds a Jewish movie theater owner who allows her to use his place to lecture, selling tickets for twenty-five cents apiece. She makes two hundred dollars that morning, an amount that encourages her. She soon makes a total of eleven hundred dollars, over and...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Book 3, Chapters 32-33 Summary

Reverend McMillan continues to visit Clyde frequently over the next several months. He continues to share Bible verses with Clyde, who is attracted to McMillan’s appealing nature. But Clyde cannot quite bring himself to accept the faith the McMillan personifies. McMillan questions Clyde, and Clyde begins to accept the wrongness of his actions concerning Roberta. Eventually, Clyde confesses that he was not sorry that she drowned, though it was still unintentional.

Almost a year after his incarceration, Clyde receives a letter from Sondra Finchley. It is opened by the prison warden, who deems that it is acceptable, perhaps necessary, to deliver to Clyde. In it, Sondra, speaking in the third person as “someone once...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Book 3, Chapter 34 Summary

Reverend McMillan and Mrs. Griffiths travel to the state capital in Albany to see the new governor, David Waltham. Waltham has followed the case proceedings, but had not considered intervening in the order of execution. Mrs. Griffiths presents to the governor a full history of Clyde, stating that though he was not faultless in the incident, neither was Roberta Alden or Sondra Finchley. Governor Waltham, a loving husband and father, can fully imagine her agony at this time. He listens to Reverend McMillan state that Clyde has asked God for complete forgiveness for all his sins and has trusted in Him for mercy. Governor Waltham sympathizes with their views, he says, but he cannot act upon sentiment alone. He asks Reverend McMillan...

(The entire section is 491 words.)