An American Tragedy: Book 3, Chapters 31-34

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Chapter XXXI

Over the next five months, a number of the condemned men are executed, including Nicholson. Nicholson had given him advice about how his appeal should be handled, and he went to his execution with great calm. After Nicholson’s death, Clyde is lonely. Mrs. Griffiths arranges for him to be visited by an evangelist, the Rev. Duncan McMillan, who is from Syracuse. The two men take to each other. The Rev. McMillan tells Clyde to turn to God and pray for help. Clyde is sympathetic to what he says, and the minister says he will visit Clyde again in a week.

 

Chapter XXXII
Desperate to find some peace of mind, Clyde is more sympathetic to religion than earlier in his life. But he considers the fact that prayer had not helped his parents much, or the condemned prisoners he had heard praying. He asks himself whether God really does exist, and if so, does He respond to prayer? The Rev. McMillan insists that He does.

 

Months go by, and the minister visits Clyde regularly. Clyde ponders his own guilt or innocence. He begins to think that he was in a sense insane when he was infatuated with Sondra, or he could never  have plotted to kill anyone. But he still feels at times that he may indeed be guilty, since if he had not plotted to kill Roberta, she would still be alive. One day he receives a brief, typewritten note from Sondra saying she has not entirely forgotten him. But there is no address on the letter.

 

Chapter XXXIII
After reading Sondra’s letter, Clyde is depressed for two weeks. He cannot find the peace the Rev. McMillan tells him about, so he goes over his story again with the minister. This time he drops the story that was told in court and tells something closer to the truth. There was no change of heart in his feelings for Roberta, he admits. He even admits there may have been some anger in the accidental blow he struck Roberta, and that he had not tried to save her. He asks the minister if his actions truly constitute murder. McMillan does not answer directly but engages Clyde in more discussion about his motives and feelings. The Reverend does not seem to know the answer himself. Then he prays more, and tells Clyde he must leave to continue to think and pray. In a week, McMillan returns and tells Clyde that he “could not feel that either primarily or secondarily could he be absolved from guilt for her death.” Clyde, however, continues to believe that he is not as guilty as everyone declares him to be. Four months later, the Court of Appeals confirms his conviction and sentence. He must die between the end of February and mid-March. Macmillan informs him of the decision. McMillan opposes capital punishment, and says he says he will appeal to the Governor, but Clyde is not listening.

 

Chapter XXXIV
Mrs. Griffiths and the Rev. McMillan go to see the governor of New York, David Waltham, to plead for Clyde’s life, but the governor says he cannot go against the ruling of the courts. With two weeks left to live, Clyde paces his cell, reliving the events that brought him there. His mother tries to talk to him but he is less forthcoming with her than he was with McMillan. Clyde still does not feel as repentant as McMillan feels he is and his mother expects him to be. He writes a statement in which he affirms his faith in God and that he believes his sins are forgiven.  Yet he is still unsure of whether this is true. On the evening of his death, and until his execution at four in the morning, his mother and the Rev. Macmillan are allowed to remain near him. As he is led to the execution chamber he bids farewell to his fellow prisoners, but his voice is weak. After the execution the Rev. Macmillan, who had been there, walks disconsolately out of the prison. The novel ends, with a section titled “Souvenir,” almost where it began, with a description of the Griffiths family, now in San Francisco, conducting a religious service in the street. Nothing has changed for them, except that now, they bring Russell, Clyde’s seven- or eight-year-old nephew, the son of Esta, along with them. 

 

Analysis
Clyde does make a small amount of progress in prison, in the midst of his despair and desolation as he watches one man after another go to the execution chamber. He is more honest with McMillan than he had been with his mother or with his lawyers, but he still does not really know whether he should think of himself as guilty or innocent. He dies much as he has lived—unsure, confused. He tells his minister that he feels saved by his faith, and he writes a statement testifying to it, but the reality is rather different. He remains full of doubt, and a series of questions bedevils him about the faith that McMillan has urged him to adopt. Was he really saved? Could he rely on God? Was there really a life after death? He does not know the answers. All he knows is that he has been judged harshly by those whom, he feels, do not fully understand him. In one of his plaintive final thoughts one perhaps hears the voice of Theodore Dreiser, sensitive to the cruel fate of a young man whose path to the electric chair was marked out for him by the kind of society he was born into, and by the place he occupied in it: “How could they judge him, these people, all or any one of them, even his own mother, when they did not know what his own mental, physical and spiritual suffering had been?” (ch. XXXIII, p. 917). 

 

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