Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

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.


John Kennedy said...

I am still reading this, and hope to finish in the next few days. I am about three quarters through, and from what you say, Faye, it would seem that the most powerful and harrowing parts lie ahead. So does most of Carrie's acting career. At the thre quarter point she seems to the modern mind a curiously passive and detached character, unable or uninterested in reaching out to any other human being. Not a monster of positive evil, certainly, but far from appealing.

I am glad I am reading it. As you indicate, Faye, the invocation of Chicage (and indeed of New York) is brilliant. It is amazing that Dreiser took such pains to evoke time and place, given that he was writing only a few years after the period in which the novel is set. It is as if an Australian writer in 2009 lovingly recreated the sights and sounds of Sydney in

John Kennedy said...

I have now finished this powerful novel. I am glad to have read it, though it is almost painful reading at times. The downward spiral of Hurstwood is done magnificently and is deeply moving and convincing. The evocatins of Chicago and New York are vivid and atmospheric.

I am not quite sure how I feel about the characterisation of Carrie. She seems curiously emotionless, at least until the last few chapters, when she develops some sense that there is more to life than fine clothes and fine restaurants. She seems never to feel much for Drouet or Hurstwood. Though believing herself married to the latter, she seems to take no interest in his work and to regard his economic problems as his alone to solve. It is interesting that there is never any mention of her contacting her family at home in Wisconsin, or any suggestion of any further contact with her sister (whose household, admittedly, was not too welcoming). Carrie seems never to make any friends: neither Mrs Vance or Lola is really more than an acquaintance. I also wonder if her success is not won with unconvincing ease. She has no training as an actor, she says she cannot sing, but she rises almost effortlessly on the strength of good looks and an innate talent little manifest before the last chapters.

Hurstwood, by contrast, is evoked with a power which makes your mention of Dostoyevsky far from inappropriate, Fay. I found myself wondering if Dreiser might not have been a bit of a misogynist. His female characters - Carrie until near the end, Mrs Vance, Hurstwood's wife and daguther - seem to regard wealth and the possession and acquistiion of it as absolutely the whole story of human existence. But admittedly the men are materialistic enough too.

Dreiser's style has been described as vulgar and cliche-ridden. Perhaps it is not wise to do do, but I will admit I generally did not find it too bad. Some of the philosophising does, however, seem muddled and pretentious.

This is not a novel I will forget easily.

John Kennedy

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