An American Tragedy Book 3, Chapters 19-20 Summary

Theodore Dreiser

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 one by one, and Clyde recognizes people who have come to be witnesses against him. He sees Emily, Roberta’s sister, looking almost identical to Roberta and causing Clyde to shake. He sees the rest of Roberta’s family, looking at him with hate in their eyes. He sees the Gilpins, the family at whose home Roberta lived. He sees Mr. and Mrs. Newton and their sister Grace, who had been Roberta’s roommate before she met Clyde. He sees Orrin Short, the store clerk of whom he asked about a doctor who would perform an abortion. He sees Heit, the coroner who examined Roberta’s body.

The jury is selected after five days and the opening arguments begin. Mason presents Clyde as coming from a poor but moral family, who deserted all that his parents had taught him in favor of a “better” life. Clyde was a wanderer, who came to Lycurgus to benefit off the family name. He went against company regulations by dating Roberta. He pressured Roberta out of the Newtons’ home and into a solitary room where he could seduce her. He quickly used his family name to enter into the highest social circles in Lycurgus, where he met “Miss X,” as Sondra is called, both parties agreeing to leave her name unspoken. Mason reads the letter that was in Roberta’s coat pocket, which indicates that Clyde had lured her up to the lake to marry her, which Clyde did not intend on doing. He took her out to the lake and drowned her, thinking that the secluded area would render no witnesses. But, Mr. Mason says, Clyde was mistaken. There was a witness who will be presented later. Belknap and Jephson, along with Clyde, are shocked to learn of the letter and a witness. Clyde’s attorneys begin to think that Clyde lied to them after all. Still, they have several tricks up their sleeves and tell each other that they may be able to get Clyde off with twenty years at the worst.