Roberta is a farmer’s daughter who has grown up in poverty. Unlike her father, however, she has the imagination to conceive of something better for herself. She spent two years working in a hosiery factory and then on the advice of a friend had moved to Lycurgus for better opportunities. She is pleased to be working at the Griffiths factory, although in the evenings she feels lonely and neglected.
Clyde, being lonely and despairing of being admitted to the world of the Griffiths, takes an interest in Roberta. He finds her good-natured and with a sense of humor, and he falls for her just as he had earlier fallen for Hortense Briggs. Roberta finds him attractive, and thinks that as a Griffith he occupies a higher social status than in fact he does. She is aware that he is interested in her, but not sure what attitude she should adopt toward him.
One Sunday afternoon in July, Clyde goes to Crum Lake and takes out a canoe. He is feeling resentful of his lonely solitude and envies the young couples he sees out on the lake. He wonders whether he has done the right thing in coming to Lycurgus. By chance he runs into Roberta, who is at the lake with her friend Grace Marr. While her friend is somewhere else, Roberta agrees to get into Clyde’s canoe, and they row out and collect some water lilies. They talk easily and the mutual attraction is strong.
The next week Clyde longs to see Roberta again, and he knows that she is as drawn to him as he is to her. One night he walks past her house, wondering what she is doing. The next morning he tries to intercept her as she goes to work, but she is walking with Grace so he is unable to talk to her. But that afternoon she has to consult him because she has made an error in stamping the collars. Clyde brushes off the error but says he would like to meet her somewhere. She is hesitant and flustered but eventually agrees to meet him at the end of her street at eight-thirty on Wednesday.
They meet on Wednesday night. Clyde decides that she is much more attractive than Hortense Briggs or Rita Dickerman. He tells her he is crazy about her, that he can’t sleep because of her, and he thinks of her all the time. He kisses her and tells her he loves her. She confesses that she loves him too.
Clyde and Roberta are in love and happy. They meet in secret and try to figure out a plan that would enable them to spend a little more time together. The following Saturday they manage to meet after traveling separately to the nearby town of Fonda, where they spend some hours together, going to a park which is also a fairground, where they dance. Roberta is still under the impression that Clyde is a man of wealth and position. They arrange to meet again the following day.
These chapters show the gradual development of the relationship between Clyde and Roberta. They both know that it is against the company rules, but they are swept along by their enthusiasm for each other. It is hard to blame either of them. Clyde finds in Roberta someone who can end his loneliness, since he feels shut out by his rich relatives, and Roberta is clearly a better prospect for him, in terms of what she can bring to the relationship, than Hortense or Rita. She may be just as poor as Clyde is, but she has the ability to show him genuine affection and to develop deep feelings. The early days of their courtship has an idyllic quality to it, as it plays itself out against a slight sense of danger: they must see each other in secret, lest word get out that Clyde is becoming involved with one of the girls who works for him. There is, however, in chapter XV an ominous and sustained piece of foreshadowing in their meeting at Crum Lake. Foreshadowing, as we have seen, is a technique frequently used by Dreiser. In this incident, Clyde tells Roberta, as she is hesitant to get in the boat, “It’s perfectly safe. . . . Of course you won’t be in any danger.” She queries, “Will it be perfectly safe?” and he reassures her again. He tells her where to sit in the boat and says, “It won’t tip over.” This first romantic encounter between them ironically foreshadows their tragic last encounter, in which it is decidedly unsafe for Roberta to get in a boat with Clyde on Big Bittern Lake.