Catherine Meeber, aka Sister Carrie, is a compelling character to read about. She leaves her Wisconsin home at 18 years to come to Chicago to make a living. She has dreams and yearnings but the simple reality of work in the tough non-unionised shop conditions of the 1890s is hard. She is just not able to cope with it all. The attentions of a dapper travelling salesman save her from an inevitable return to her home in Wisconson as a failure. She moves in with the salesman, Charles Drouet. Life becomes reasonably pleasant but her dreams continue . She yearns to be happy,stylish and admired and we follow her yearnings throughout her young life as she leaves Drouet and ends up in New york with her next lover George Hurstwood. From then on the plot takes on a paricularly socially realistic atmosphere.
The way in which the story is told through the characters experiences is fascinating - the all-knowing narrator makes no moral judgment of the actions of his three main characters - Carrie, Drouet and Hurstwood. The reader fears there are slippery slopes for them to negotiate- especially for Carrie and Hurstwood - the tension in this seemingly simple story line is very strong . The tension moves to heightened reality with the misfortune of Hurstwood who steals from his employers , regrets this and makes restitution but cannot regain his sophisticated hold on life. Carrie, throughout the graphically described decline of Hurstwood , is still yearning for the better life - she has luck with chorus line work then as a successful broadway actress in New York where she is living as a defacto with Hurstwood. She leaves him for her own ambition and betterment and his life goes from bad to worse in a harsh unemployment environment - he is literally cold and starving towards the end of the book . She is a success and is well to do. He ultimately commits suicide in a flop house without her being aware of his whereabouts.
This rush through the plot of 'Sister Carrie" serves as a backdrop to emphasise Dreisers non-judgemental approach to his characters which contributes so much to the interest in this fascinating book. Carrie is a victim at times - she is actually tricked by Hurstwood into going away with him and leaving Drouet but on the other hand she has shown herself somewhat willing to be compromised by him whilst she is still living with Drouet. So the reader cannot stay with one theme of sympathy only - there are no goody two shoes here and no real monsters either. Dreiser's moral concerns are with poverty , excess materialism as a religion and loss of opportunity. The scenes of starvation and degredation in the second part of the book are reminders of Gogol, Dostoevsky, Orwell and Lawson. The masterful telling of a strike and scab situation and the plight of the workers and police involved on a tramway service in New York is chilling .
Dreiser had difficulty getting this, his first novel, published . It was refused by Doubleday despite the enthusiasm of their editor. It was published by Heinemann in London in 1900. Some of the controversy about it has to do with its depiction of non-marital social relationships and of course, an immoral, successful woman . Carrie was a financial success - albeit as an actress - the career open and suitable for fallen women. Sinclair Lewis said about Sister Carrie in 1930 when receiving his Nobel Prize, " Dreiser"s great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since mark Twain and Whitman" .
Dreiser went on to write several other works notably his acclaimed "An American Tragedy" which was made into film on two occasions including the much awarded "A Place in the Sun" with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. It seems the American tragedy which is wrapped up in the American Dream is a powerful theme in American literature exemplified by "The Great Gatsby". I think "Carrie" can be see as fitting into this contextual way of thinking to some extent. Did Dreiser see Carrie herself as really successful ?- the two major endings of the book which went through many editing changes have it finishing with the death of Hurstwood or the alternative ending with the additional philosophising which sees Carrie sitting in her rocking chair oblivious of Hurstwoods death, "Sitting alone, she was now an illustration of the devious ways by which one who feels, rather than reasons, may be led in the pursuit of beauty. Though often disillusioned, she was still waiting for that halcyon day when she would be led forth among dreams made real" . Dreiser edited the book somewhat himself and others did as well - to make it more morally acceptable to the reading public and the publishers. There is a large number of web site links to information about all this and much scholarship as you would expect.
I have read that Dreisers verbal style is viewed by some critics as inept - I dont go along very far with this but I can understand why this would be said. For example I sometimes found his philosophising passages obscure. He revels in the contrasting comment about a set situation to sometimes an overblown level. However the substantial power in his prose sustained my enjoyment along with the intense examination of the human condition told in a uniquely strong and descriptive story.
Finally, a couple of other very interesting scenarios in the book which readily come to mind are the early scenes in Carrie's sister's apartment and her relationship with her sister and brother-in-law - strangley cold and sad. By vivid contrast the physical descriptions of a developing industrious ,retail Chicago are wonderful - Dreiser did like Chicago i think. Overall this is a fascinating piece of social writing.