Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie

Topics: Novels

Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” has been distinguished by various critics among author’s other novels due to complexity of themes revealed through the story of a woman. According to Dreiser, and he developed this point clearly throughout his many novels, “The Financier,” “American Tragedy,” and “Sister Carrie,” society is too concerned with the societal demands for material success. However, the last story clearly deviates from author’s traditional inclinations, and reveals much more beyond the politics of money. From this perspective, “Sister Carrie” discusses money as only second to sex drive of human existence.

However, Dreiser’s intention was to use these two drives as particular setting to depict human relationships, confusion of human life, utopia of happiness and controversial character of moral judgments. From the critical point of view, the whole scope of illustrated problems in “Sister Carrie” places the novel above Dreiser’s more traditional stories.Historical Value of the NovelDreiser’s “Sister Carrie” was one of the first pieces of American literature to depict country’s realistic picture.

Carrie’s life in Chicago and New York is determined by the operation of simple biological and mechanical laws. Form the critical standpoint, the fact that Dreiser has been greatly influenced by C. Darwin and as a German by Karl Marx, makes it understandable that the author sees the struggle and fate of Carrie and Hurstwood as the predetermined result of their psychological make-up, their economic and social background, and simple chance. Marx was the great intellectual force behind labor unrest throughout the Western world in the late nineteenth century.

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In his treatise “Das Kapital”, he criticized the capitalistic system because under it fewer and fewer owners of property and resources gain more and more as methods of production become more efficient, while at the same time greater numbers of oppressed common laborers compete against each other for jobs and necessarily must be content with less than their fair share of wages. Labor unions made great progress in America during Dreiser’s boyhood and youth. But they had a long way to go before such a dispute as the one which led to the Brooklyn trolley strike of 1895 involving Hurstwood would ever be settled in favor of labor. It is obvious from even reading of “Sister Carrie” that Dreiser’s sympathies are thoroughly with the workers. Less obvious is the fact that in chapter, called “The Strike,” Dreiser depicts the struggle as not only a Marxian class struggle but also a Darwinian battle in which only the fit will survive. In fact, the entire novel shows Carrie surviving because she is adaptable and Hurstwood failing once he leaves his familiar environment, because he is unfit to learn anything new.Events in Carrie’s career are simply the result of “matter in motion.” A human being in the world she knows, no matter how strong he might be, is only a wisp in the wind, a chip on the flood. The main characters hardly understand what drives them, and it often seems as though Dreiser is documenting Freud’s theories concerning the role of the unconscious in human behavior. Life in the big city is a battle conducted not according to the law of red in tooth and claw. You strike first and eat, or you are struck down and eaten. In “Sister Carrie” two men compete for a single girl, and the stronger one wins; but then the girl proves stronger than that winner, and so she survives. In the background Dreiser suggests that a class struggle is also going on. Not far away from the Chicago resorts are shoe factories where girls sweat for fifteen cents an hour, catch cold in the draft, and lose their jobs; and not very far from the lights of Broadway are the dark holes of the bowery. Dreiser portrays both the “haves” and the “have-nots,” but surely his best efforts are reserved for the Ash Can scenes of the oppressed and the downtrodden.  Practically, in “Sister Carrie,” Dreiser did more than any other works to win the battle for complete frankness in American literature.It is necessary to emphasize that Dreiser saw America as being at middle-age. As some critics have pointed out, he was not an orderly philosopher with a defined system. His announced conversion to Marxism in his last years was a token gesture and not, as he claimed, the logical culmination of his life, or at least not of his life as revealed in his literary works. All that Dreiser does in “Sister Carrie” is caution us to look around, to see what has happened to the individual in America, and specifically, to understand what was happening to the American family. This is the precise point, in which historical portrayal of “Sister Carrie” is embedded – not in dates, or specific facts but in general historical picture and atmosphere of that period. From this perspective, historians can use this novel along with other Dreiser’s masterpieces, to observe the complete historical picture with the emphasis not on particular dates, but cultural characteristics of the period and life of big cities of New York and Chicago.Historical Setting of “Sister Carrie”The history of Carrie begins in 1889, precisely in the moment of American new industrial development. From the historical standpoint, from 1830s to 1880s America has been lagging behind world capitalistic states, and early 1890s evidenced great increase in manufacturing, new business opportunities and challenges. Symbols emerged in Dreiser’s novel, Chicago and New York, stand for urbanization of the country and American life. However, American employers experienced unusual difficulties in the special fields dominated by large enterprises, in the broad general areas of business they adopted both European methods and inventions rapidly and successfully, and in the process, made their full share of the Western world’s innovations in the use of machines and commercial practices (Rosenberg, 431). For instance, as Dreiser describes a shoe factory: “there was a large, low-ceiled room, with clacking, rattling machines at which men in white shirt sleeves and blue gingham aprons were working” (39). As novel progresses, the author gives more specific and problematic description, stating that “factory chamber was full of poor homely-clad girls working in long lines at clattering machines” (505).   By 1890 a score of industries had built up production complexes so large that in order to promote efficient management they were subdivided into separate plants, creating avoidable unemployment and other shortages. Consequently, industrialism had matured, however, the problems of early American capitalism have been illustrated through many Dreiser’s novels, including “Sister Carrie.” From both economic and historical perspective, Dreiser’s illustrates how the rapid expansion in American settlements and population became deterrents to growth in income for laborers, and simultaneously became a benefit to many marginal businessmen, or capitalists in Dreiser’s viewpoint.  From this perspective, Carrier’s everlasting search for money aims to provide particular parallel for American regular citizens deprived from sufficient wages in dynamic economic conditions.Literary Value of the NovelThroughout the novel, Dreiser eloquently and often awkwardly pleads with his readers to agree that men and women are victims of nature and are trapped by circumstance. Carrie did not ask for her naivety, nor did she ask to have an attractive face and figure to present to Drouet on the train to Chicago. She did not ask to catch cold and thus lose her first job there. Hurstwood could not have predicted that his wife would turn out to be materialistic and vindictive, and would place her home and the creature comforts of her children ahead of him. Hurstwood did not know that when he was flooded by overmastering desire for young Carrie he was already on the way to being swept to ruin. Carrie chanced to obtain a part on stage, chanced to sense her latent ability to act, and thus gain prominence. Hurstwood happened to be drinking before happening to find the safe door open with thousands of dollars inside -simply waiting to be carried away. And the safe door happened to swing shut after he had taken the money out to fondle it momentarily. The main characters act as they do because of the forces of heredity and environment. At the end of the novel, Dreiser effectively dramatizes the pervasiveness of ironic chance and coincidence. As Carrie rocks and dreams of pursuing beauty, Hurstwood leaves this world of friendless cold for the anonymity of Potter’s Field, Drouet flits off in pursuit of another pretty face, and Hurstwood’s wife and daughter approach New York on their way to sunny Italy.All of this being the case, Dreiser asks if we are not foolish to apply a rigid and old-fashioned code of ethics to condemn piteous creatures who cannot control their destinies or even understand their psychological constitutions. There is no human villain in Dreiser’s drama. Dreiser does not pit man against man but men and women against naturalistic forces. Since it is the men and women who inevitably lose, Dreiser pities them all. In “Sister Carrie”, Dreiser does not condemn anyone, good or bad. He does not label his characters. They simply are. And being what they are and life being what it is, Dreiser has abundant reason to be sympathetic toward all.Although Dreiser has been greatly criticized for his literary clumsiness, his so-called errors greatly contribute to his aesthetic writing style. Quite traditionally, author effectively uses imagery and symbolism, which particularly evident in the manner he titled book’s chapters. His early experience, in newspaper writing becomes efficient in constructing parallels in the Carrier’s story. Early in the novel, Carrie is seen rocking in her sister Minnie’s chair in the Hansons’ unprepossessing Chicago apartment. This symbolic action of rocking is most apt: Carrie is at once discontent, physically uneasy, reasonably energetic, and passively willing to wait for better fortune to come and find her. Discussing Dreiser’s overall attitude to Carrie, Thomas Riggio explains that “…when he describes her actions, he avoids social and cultural analysis and turn for his needs to metaphors derived from popular culture and science” (59). At the end of the novel, Carrie is still rocking. Her chambers are now different, and “better” by material standards – she is now in a lush New York hotel – but the action is the same and is symbolic of everlasting discontent. Dreiser explains the situation in several lines : “Carrie soon found that a little money brought her nothing. The world of wealth and distinction was quite as far awa,y as ever. She could feel that there was no warm, sympathetic friendship back of the easy merriment with which many approached her” (368).Review and Critical AnalysisCarrie arrives in Chicago to get a job, earn money, and buy nice things. When she fails in this endeavor, she succumbs to the first presentable man who happens by. This man, Drouet, is attracted sexually to Carrie, whom he judges to be a charming, soft, warm creature. Nice hot food, comfortable rooms, creakingly new suits and dresses, and “two soft, green, handsome ten-dollar bills” are all symbols of material success in Carrie’s eyes, until she has more than she needs in each category. As Ben Michaels explains in his essay, “The model is an economy of scarcity, in which power, happiness, and moral virtue are all seen to depend finally on minimizing desire” (374). When she fails through honest effort to earn enough money to satisfy her material ambitions, she uses her body as a means of doing so. As Michael precisely points out, “Carrie’s definition of money, like everything else about her, includes the element of desire; money for her is never simply a meansof getting what you want, it is itself the thing you want, indeed, it is itself your want” (375).And Drouet is sufficiently well off to be able to expend spare money to make her comfortable and therefore to win her sexually. On the contrary, Hurstwood claims that when the choice is between money and sexual gratification, irrational people often choose the latter, until they are really impoverished. He abandons his family, his substantial home, his well-paying position, and his good name in order to have Carrie. She agrees to leave Drouet for Hurstwood because he seems physically more attractive but really for the more important reason that, at least initially, he seems to offer more material security – in short, because he apparently commands more money.In his critique, Leon Seltzer suggests that “despite Dreiser’s sometimes deterministic explanations of Carrie’s behavior, his heroine emerges more as a creature of romance than as a fictional by-product of naturalistic dogma” (193). Simultaneously, Sybil Weir argues that Dreiser was “one of the first American novelists…to accept the fact that woman have erotic desires and to assert that their sexual careers do not automatically invalidate their moral nature” (65).  However, from the critical viewpoint, Carrie represents the curiously passive object for whom Drouet and Hurstwood compete. Hurstwood is stronger physically, financially, and in terms of sexual attraction; so he wins. It is odd that Dreiser chooses to portray Carrie as attractive sexually and yet more anxious for material security than for love. Audience may infer that Drouet was satisfactory enough as a lover, as Dreiser portrays that Hurstwood, aged about forty, has sufficient ardor. Dreiser actually glosses over sexual matters almost without exception. His timidity is owing to the fact that the times in which he wrote were squeamish about the subject. It must have seemed expedient to portray Carrie as anxious for money but rarely aroused sexually. As Seltzer explains, “it is Dreiser’s notion of Carrie’s essential innocence (an innocence that fluctuates between psychological and moral connotations) that underlies his frequently uncritical affection for her; yet he relates her innocence to her rural background” (193).Carrie drifts into Drouet’s arms and as casually leaves them for Hurstwood’s. Dreiser shows us only the scantest of consciences in operation here, and indeed anywhere in the novel. When she stands to gain by leaving Hurstwood at the time of his unemployment in New York, Carrie does so with only a moment of vague sadness. Dreiser does not presume to criticize her for being hard-hearted; instead, he presents her as a typical young woman, necessarily out to protect herself in a world where change in human relationships is as inevitable as the changing seasons. Hurstwood once loved his wife. Their two children were once dependent and admirable. With the passing of time, however, all of this changed. His wife turned shrewish, and his children grew up and became selfcentered. Hurstwood himself changes. When we first meet him, he exudes confidence and charm, he is fluent and dynamic and heavily handsome; at the end, he is a piece of human rift-raft, or so an outsider would conclude. Dreiser loved him to the end, however, and wrote of his suicide with regret. Hurstwood is a walking proof that people change.Simultaneously, Drouet is strangely unchanging, as he remains the same when the last time he sees Carrie. In spite of his material advancement, he is almost a pathetic figure, because he cannot seem to adjust to the inevitable change in those nearest to him. His changelessness is a kind of punishment. He is certainly pathetic when late in the novel he timidly tries to re-establish himself in Carrie’s regard, only to have his offer spurned without so much as a glance.Dreiser often suggests that life is an utterly incomprehensible mess. In “Sister Carrie”, too, Dreiser’s sense of meaninglessness is particularly evident. The canyons of Chicago are a terrible combination of riches and squalor, and Carrie at the outset views both parts with equal dismay. She has no idea of the complications involved when she agrees to let Drouet provide a place for her to live. She fancies that so long as she regards his generosity as a loan, she is uninvolved. Once she submits to him, she remains uncertain and vague, and is soon irrationally drawn to Hurstwood. Later, when that older man lets his passion cloud his reason, he rushes irrationally into behavior which he must know is going to prove ruinous ultimately. He simply cannot think straight, and he gives up accumulated wealth, wife and children, home, job, everything, simply because of passion. Drouet too is somewhat unthinking. He naïvely believes that he owns Carrie because he has paid out money for her temporary affection. When his friend Hurstwood takes his girl away, he feels abused. Much later, when he has located Carrie again, in New York, he fancies that he can resume their relationship precisely where it broke off several years before.Throughout her career, Carrie leaves the thinking to others and is content to drift toward warmth and ease. She lets Drouet provide for her, not thinking much about the consequences. She follows her heart, rather than her head, when she falls somewhat in love with Hurstwood; and even when she learns that he is married, she agrees to leave Chicago with him provided he will marry her. From the critical point of view, Carrie does not think very deeply. When she meets Bob Ames and participates in an intellectual discussion with him, her contribution is minor and her conclusions, drawn from his rather impressive words, are fuzzy. In the main, Ames simply arouses vague, illdefined longings in her, not any determination to sit down, face the facts, and reason from them to a few specific conclusions about her own life. In short, she drifts, rocks, and longs vaguely for something she does not have.Audience may arrive at the following “moral” from viewing the confusion of Carrie, Hurstwood, and Drouet: permanent happiness is a chimera in this unstable world. Carrie drifts to Chicago hoping to get work, do a little window-shopping, and then buy some nice things. But events conspire to frustrate this happy ambition. She settles in with Drouet in the hope that such a course will prove pleasant, but within a few months she is dissatisfied. She fancies that success at the Elks play will bring her joy, and she works hard to do well in it. But events soon conspire to take her away from both Drouet and the stage. Travel to Canada with Hurstwood brings some excitement, but she quickly expresses her dislike of Montreal. Once the two get to New York, she tolerates their tawdry life there but is never overjoyed. She is adaptable, however, and might have stayed indefinitely with her “husband” if he had not lost his job and then his savings in Manhattan. Her neighbor, Mrs. Vance, arouses feelings of discontent, even envy, because of her better home and possessions. So Carrie tries the stage again. Quickly revealing her long-suppressed talent for acting, she becomes discontent as a mere chorus girl and begins to make her way up the ladder. But even after she gets some attractive speaking parts in musical comedies and comic dramas, she is still discontent – this time because Ames analyzes her face and mien, and plants in her the ambition to become a more serious dramatic actress.Both men in the novel are also representatives of universal discontent. At the outset, Hurstwood has that which would satisfy most people, which most people would say in advance might well please them permanently. But he abandons the familiar and the reasonably pleasant to seek something new. Toward the end, as he is sliding to ruin, he fools himself by saying repeatedly that he is not down yet. He keeps looking and hoping, until at last he knows that life will never bring him any more comfort and content, and then he kills himself, asking, “What’s the use?” His friend Drouet flits from sales assignment to assignment, and from girl to girl. Content with each until each proves dissatisfied with him, Drouet – imaged at one point as a butterfly – is a subtle symbol of the perpetual motion of man toward happiness and of his perpetual frustration in that pursuit.On this grand picture of complex human relationships, Dreiser invites the audience to the plight of Carrie, Hurstwood, and Drouet to conclude with him that old-fashioned moral judgments of human behavior are invalid. Never once does Dreiser pause and lecture his wayward characters, for two very good reasons. In the first place he had already committed the same “sins” he puts them through. And in the second place he blames life, and the way things are, for the predicaments in which his characters find themselves. Like Carrie, Dreiser was trapped in Chicago and lusted for good hot food, fine clothes, and a life of ease. Like Drouet and Hurstwood, he followed pretty women and clumsily embraced every one of them who would say yes. Like Hurstwood he stole, and like Hurstwood he contemplated the terrible act of self-destruction. Further, like Carrie his sisters took up housekeeping with their gentlemen friends without benefit of marriage. Dreiser could not condemn his characters without turning his back on his own nature. Here one can notice some pointing to historical setting, in which none of Dreiser’s characters could be happy, because apparently Dreiser himself did not believe in the possibility.Dreiser came to New York at roughly the same time as Carrie, and saw the problem of the pointlessness of the searching endeavors during that period.  Careful audience can notice that Carrie’s New York has been much common to that city depicted in “The Toilers of the Tenements,” where Dreiser described the pitiful conditions of those who toiled in their slum rooms at piece work, at the mercy of greedy employers and grafting police. A random few achieved success. In discussing “Sister Carrie”, Dreiser stated, “I never can and never want to bring myself to the place where I can ignore the sensitive and seeking individual in his pitiful struggle with nature – with his enormous urges and his pathetic equipment.” For Dreiser “Life is a tragedy . . . the infinite suffering and deprivation of great masses of men and women upon whom existence has been thrust unasked appals me” (Matthiessen, 11-12). From this perspective, “Sister Carrie” indeed represents Dreiser’s first lengthy presentation of the stories of individuals who faced this life.;

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Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie. (2019, Jun 20). Retrieved from

Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
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