An American Tragedy Book 3, Chapters 21-23 Summary

Theodore Dreiser

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 Roberta was religious and conventional in manner until Clyde entered her life. Witnesses report seeing and hearing Clyde argue with Roberta and that he was pushing her to have sex with him while she remained steadfast. The people whom Clyde contacted after Roberta’s pregnancy identified him and his purposes in securing medicine that would induce a miscarriage, and then finding someone who would perform an abortion. The Aldens’ neighbors reported numerous contacts, by phone and by letter, between the two. Clyde and Roberta’s presence at the lake was also identified, including his attempts to disguise his identity. The camera was said to be the one purchased by Clyde, and on it were a few hairs, the same color as Roberta’s. The doctors testify that the blow to Roberta’s face stunned her, but she was still alive when she went into the water. A woman says that she heard a woman’s cry of pain at the time of the crime.

Mason reads Roberta’s letters to Clyde aloud, portraying her as a lovesick young woman who is desperate to be married to take away her shame. She had left her home, sure that she would never see it again. She wrote to Clyde that the best thing would be if she were dead. At the end of the prosecution’s case, Mrs. Alden collapses. The audience is firmly of the opinion of Clyde’s guilt.

Belknap begins his opening statement with a picture of Clyde as a misunderstood young man, who had always been virtuous. The “incident” in Kansas City had not been a permanent stain. He was a boy in love who changed his mind. Belknap appeals to the memories of youth of the jury members. He tells them that there is only one witness who knows how Roberta Alden died. The crowd is so excited by this news that the judge warns he will clear the court if they do not be still. Belknap calls Clyde to the stand. Jephson, seeing how unnerved Clyde is, decides to take on the questioning himself, rather than let Belknap’s heavy-handed approach cause Clyde to further break down and lose the case.