Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Crime and Punishment in Dreiser's an American Tragedy: The Legal Debate

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Crime and Punishment in Dreiser's an American Tragedy: The Legal Debate

Article excerpt

Theodore Dreiser's 1925 An American Tragedy is generally acknowledged to be one of the major twentieth-century American novels. It has remained in print since publication, has attracted a great deal of commentary over the years, and is also known to many Americans in the form of its 1951 Academy Award movie adaptation, A Place in the Sun, which is still frequently shown on television. The novel is based on Dreiser's retelling, within a 1920s setting, of the 1906 murder of a pregnant upper-New-York-State young woman, Grace Brown, at the hands of her sweetheart, Chester Gillette, who was subsequently tried, convicted, and executed for the crime. (1) Much of Book Two of the novel (which is in three books) is devoted to Clyde Griffiths's relationship with Roberta Alden (the fictionalized Gillette and Brown) and his preparations to kill her, leading to her death by drowning in a remote Adirondack lake, while all of Book Three comprises Clyde's capture, trial, and execution. It is difficult for anyone reading the trial transcript not to accept that Chester Gillette was guilty of killing Grace Brown, but--as many have remarked--Dreiser complicates the issue in his fictional recreation of the event. To note a few of the most salient differences, when Gillette took Grace Brown out on a small boat, he had with him a tennis racket; Grace Brown's body revealed severe bruising around the head and the battered tennis racket was recovered. Clyde takes not a racket but a camera, and though he had intended to use the occasion to kill Roberta, he has a failure of nerve and does not make the attempt. As Dreiser narrates the incident, Roberta, noticing Clyde's disturbed emotional state, stands up in the boat to aid him. Clyde, "angry and confused" (564) by his failure of will and by her proffered comfort, "accidentally and all but unconsciously" (564) strikes out at her with the camera still in his hand. Her collapse within the boat causes it to careen, and when Clyde himself arises to assist her, it capsizes, throwing both of them into the water. Roberta begins to drown, but Clyde, rather then assisting her, swims to shore.

From its initial reviews to the present, Dreiser's depiction of Roberta's death--to say nothing of the complicating factors represented by the significant role of Clyde's background in his motives, the conduct of the lawyers, judge, and jury at his trial, and the legitimacy of the death penalty--has raised the issue of whether justice was adequately served in the trial, conviction, and execution of Clyde Griffiths. Indeed, soon after publication of the novel, Dreiser's publisher, Horace Liveright, capitalizing on the interest generated by the question, sponsored an essay contest (with a prize of $500) on the subject "Was Clyde Griffiths Guilty of Murder in the First Degree?" It is significant that the contest was won by a lawyer, and an academic lawyer at that, Arthur Levitt, who taught law at Washington and Lee University. The flamboyant Liveright was no doubt less interested in clarifying issues in the American criminal justice system than in exploiting for publicity purposes the sensationalistic subject matter of the novel, but the theme of the contest has in fact continued to attract much serious-minded attention from both legal scholars and those interested in the social dimension of the law. As C. R. B. Dunlop, himself a law professor, wrote in 1971, the case depicted in An American Tragedy is still of vital interest "because it goes to the heart of the Anglo-American system of criminal law and raises questions of fundamental importance to anyone interested in the ideal of justice" (380).

My intent in this paper is to review discussions of the legal problem presented in An American Tragedy in order to clarify the nature of the discussion and thus also to contribute to it. Although almost all examination of the novel by literary critics and scholars contains considerable--and sometimes a great deal of--analysis of "The Case of Clyde Griffiths" (to adopt for a moment the title of one of the work's dramatic adaptations), I will concentrate not on this extremely large and amorphous critical corpus but rather more narrowly on writing that stems from authors with either a legal background or a specific interest in the legal dimensions of the case depicted in the novel. …

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