An American Tragedy: Book 3, Chapters 19-24
It is October and the trial is close at hand. Clyde’s lawyers coax him as to how he can make a good impression by his appearance and demeanor. Jephson encourages him to maintain his belief in his innocence. Clyde enters the crowded courtroom to witness jury selection. As the process begins, Clyde looks around him at all the assembled people, which include Roberta’s parents and her sister. The sight of them distresses him.
Jury selection takes five days. From the outset, the jury is convinced of Clyde’s guilt. When the trial begins, Mason makes a fiery opening statement. He gives a glowing picture of Roberta’s life and character and a damning portrait of Clyde’s. He reconstructs the entire story of the relationship between the two, pointing out the depths of Roberta’s love for Clyde and the despicable way in which Clyde behaved toward her, which culminated in the murder. He claims that Clyde battered Roberta to death before he tipped her into the lake.
The prosecution brings forth 127 witnesses, including Roberta’s father, her friend Grace Marr, the Newtons and the Gilpins (in whose houses Roberta had lived), and Roberta’s sister. All testify to Roberta’s good character. Many other witnesses testify as to what they heard and saw regarding Roberta and Clyde, from Orrin Short who reports that Clyde asked him if he knew a doctor who would perform an abortion to a man who overheard part of a telephone conversation between Clyde and Roberta.
This parade of witnesses lasts more than ten days. The most damaging to Clyde’s case is the testimony about the camera and the tripod, which Clyde has denied possessing. It becomes evident to the jury that he has been lying. Photographs of the dead Roberta are shown, revealing the injuries to her face. Burton Burleigh falsely testifies that he had discovered two of Roberta’s hairs entwined in the camera. Another witness who was near the lake says that at the time of Roberta’s death she heard a woman’s cry coming from a distance. After this Mason reads aloud all Roberta’s letters, one by one, which has an emotional effect on everyone in the courtroom. That concludes the prosecution’s case. Clyde is in despair because he assumes he has no hope of being acquitted.
Belknap begins to put the case for the defense. Belknap argues that Clyde was never formally engaged to Roberta. He is only before the jury because of an “utterly misleading set of circumstances” relating to her death. Belknap goes on to present Clyde as a mental and moral coward but not a violent criminal. It was cowardice, for example, that prevented Clyde telling Roberta that he could not continue their relationship, and Belknap tries to present the entire story as a continuing result of Clyde’s inability to face the truth, such as when he failed to report Roberta’s death. After Belknap finishes his opening statement, he puts Clyde on the witness stand, to be questioned by Jephson.
Clyde tells the entire story of his life, as Jephson prompts him sympathetically. When they reach the point when Clyde begins his relationship with Roberta, Clyde makes sure that he gives the answers he has memorized, that his lawyers told him to say. But sometimes he has difficulty remembering the story, and does not come across as a very good witness in his own defense. Jephson continues to present him as a moral and mental coward, which irritates Clyde. He admits to being in love with Sondra, whose actual name is never mentioned in the trial (she is referred to as Miss X), and no longer wanting to see Roberta. He denies plotting to kill her. He says it was her idea to go to one of the lakes. He picked up some maps of the area while he was at Utica. He registered using a false name to avoid any scandal that would involve them both. He explains the problem of the two hats by saying that one was dirty so he bought a replacement. He then sticks to the story his lawyers concocted, saying that he had a change of heart, and when he said he would marry Roberta, she jumped up in excitement and stumbled; he rose too, trying to steady her, and so the boat capsized. He claims that he was dazed when in the water but managed to tell her to catch hold of the boat. He insists that the entire incident was an accident. But he also realizes as he is speaking how bad his case must look.
In these long accounts of the trial, the case against Clyde is devastating, especially given the fact that all twelve jurors are convinced of his guilt even before the trial starts. Clyde, it turns out, is good at his own lies but not so good when it comes to presenting the lies that others (his defense lawyers) have constructed for him. He is nervous and unconvincing. This is in spite of the fact that Jephson ingeniously explains to him just before the trial starts that the lies are not really lies but “a dummy or a substitute for the real fact” (ch. XIX, p. 725). Jephson justifies the strategy by saying that since Clyde did not strike Roberta deliberately, he is not guilty, and that fact justifies altering some of the other facts because otherwise no one will believe him. He explains this to Clyde in a homey metaphor: it’s like buying potatoes with corn and beans even though you have money, because people think your money is not genuine.
Mason dismisses the notion of Clyde’s early deprivations, pointing out his connections with the wealthy Griffiths. He gets the details of the crime almost right, exposing Clyde’s series of lies (although he is wrong in claiming that Clyde beat Roberta to death before he put her in the lake). Mason explicitly denies the notion that a person like Clyde has no real control over his destiny. In Mason’s view, Clyde at every point was free to choose what he wanted to do. Mason’s presentation is very dramatic, pulling on the emotions of the jurors, damning Clyde at every turn.
Belknap, on the other hand, presents Clyde as a “victim of an internal conflict between two illicit moods” (ch. XXIII, p. 769), his involvement with Roberta that produced the pregnancy, and his being “ensnared” by “Miss X,” which caused him to fear that he would lose her if she got to hear about his involvement with Roberta. The word “ensnared” is carefully chosen to develop the notion of Clyde as himself a victim. However, the case for the defense, although pursued with great spirit and ingenuity, seems to have little chance of success.
Throughout the trial, Clyde is a picture of misery. He is confused, frightened, feeling deserted by everyone, although on the advice of his lawyer, he tries to look confident and gentlemanly. This is just another instance of the duplicity that always seems to be present in Clyde’s life—being one way but pretending to be something else.
There is a moment of foreshadowing during Mason’s presentation of the case for the prosecution that gives a strong visual image of Clyde’s future fate. Since Roberta’s death he has been haunted by visions of the electric chair. When Mason says he can produce a witness to the crime, the effect on Clyde is remarkable. His hands grip the side of the chair, his head is jerked back as if he bas taken a great blow, his head droops and he looks as if he might fall into a coma—a gruesome foreshadowing of what will happen to his body in the electric chair.
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- An American Tragedy
- Book 1, Chapters 1-5
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- Book 1, Chapters 11-15
- Book 1, Chapters 16-19
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- Book 2, Chapters 7-12
- Book 2, Chapters 13-18
- Book 2, Chapters 19-24
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- Book 2, Chapters 42-47
- Book 3, Chapters 1-6
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- Book 3, Chapters 13-18
- Book 3, Chapters 19-24
- Book 3, Chapters 25-30
- Book 3, Chapters 31-34
- Character Profiles
- Metaphor Analysis
- Theme Analysis
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