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Book Review: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

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Sister Carrie is the first novel I’ve read by Theodore Dreiser. Previously, I’d read some of his short stories, which were excellent. I am pleased to say that Sister Carrie does not disappoint, though there are a few things about the book that intrigued me, as well as Dreiser himself as a writer.

First, his prose is fresh. Sister Carrie, published in 1900, had little publicity, largely due to the controversial subject matter for the time. And although certain references evoke that period, the work, both in subject and form, is timeless. Because Dreiser is more concerned with the “working man” over someone like Henry James for example, there isn’t this aloofness present that often accompanies James’ novels. Dreiser, an American from Indiana, is more concerned with poverty and class struggles — some of the very themes present in Sister Carrie.

The novel, which is supposedly inspired by Dreiser’s own sister, is centered around an 18-year-old girl who arrives in Chicago as a means for “making her way” into the world. She spends much of her time looking for work, unsuccessfully. She gets turned away at every corner because she is too “inexperienced,” all the while she is longing for the nicer things that richer women have.

One of the first scenes has her meeting a shallow, yet affluent man named Drouet. He flirts with her a bit, offers to buy her the things she craves, to take her to dinner, etc. At first, Carrie is reluctant, but she gives into his offers when she is forced to endure a full day’s work at a manufacturing company.

Dreiser does an excellent job evoking these environmental hardships, from the worn looks upon the women’s faces, to their tedious, repetitive movements, to the physical pain felt from sitting on a stool all day, to the slow passing of the hours. Carrie works her entire shift and for what? By the end of the week she has not even enough money to purchase a decent jacket for those cold winter months. Eventually she is fired from having fallen ill, and being unable to show up for work.

Drouet is shallow both when it comes to his values and also his own perceptions. He notices only the outlines of people, never their interiors. He buys Carrie nice clothes and she can’t resist his offers. He takes her to dinner. Meanwhile, Carrie is still dissatisfied. Basically, that’s the theme Dreiser sets throughout the book. Carrie is someone who will never be happy and never really be satisfied — she will always feel an internal loneliness, no matter her successes.

But then the book switches to where she finds herself introduced to George Hurstwood, a friend of Drouet. Hurstwood is a wealthy man with “connections” who is unhappily married, and he manages to fall in love with Carrie.

It is no coincidence that Carrie manages to get by in life much on her looks, for it is her physical beauty, coupled with Hurstwood’s personal connections, that eventually lands her a minor role in a play. Dreiser gives us the sense that she’s a mediocrity, and her motivation to move upward is only due to shallow ambition. Carrie likes the stage because she wants to be noticed. She likes the thought of people reading her name in newspapers. Yet she is only able to secure minor roles, and is still ultimately unsatisfied. Luck, it seems, will only take her so far.

After she and Hurstwood marry, they live a middle class lifestyle until his business suffers and he loses his wealth. Yet it’s not just something that happens right away, but we see it through Carrie’s perspective. The only thing she can find worrisome is that Hurstwood insists on wearing “poor” clothes around the house. She’s embarrassed by the thought of anyone seeing him dressed in such ugly garb.

Meanwhile, she is building connections in the theatre, and managing, by the help of a friend, to demand more money, which she ultimately gets. She and Hurstwood can barely pay their rent, but Carrie is insistent upon buying new clothes for herself, so she can be like all the other rich women who pass her on the streets. One of the insightful moments is when Carrie goes out and is able to land a theatre role, yet Hurstwood is unable to find a job himself. She rationalizes her belief that Hurstwood is just lazy, while overlooking the fact that she is young and attractive, and if it weren’t for that, she’d easily be in his position  — unlucky and struggling.

With today’s failing economy, Dreiser could not have been more prophetic. Here we have a society of people who live beyond their means, use material possessions to define themselves, and Carrie ultimately is nothing more than a mere user. Her sense of entitlement is particularly aggravating, but it is this kind of quality that makes the story and characters so compelling and realistic.

Dreiser also accomplishes something that is just another sign of what a great writer he really is. He manages to create a compelling story of depth based largely on shallow characters. Perhaps Carrie might be capable of depth, but she sure doesn’t seem to value much beyond her own self-interest. Is she a bad person? No, just immature. She’s actually very believable and reminds me of some of the girls I went to school with. People who place no value in others, view life as a disposable thing, and only take, take, take, want, want, want.

Another technique Dreiser uses is his narrative story switch. The book is of course about Carrie herself, but as the story goes on, it becomes more of Hurstwood’s tale. Yes, Carrie is still the force driving it, but we are given two separate lives—as Carrie manages to thrive, Hurstwood becomes homeless, helpless.

It’s almost the Dorian Gray syndrome: as a result of such shallow values, one part of life deteriorates while another prospers at the same time. When Hurstwood is forced to wait in line with all the poor people just so he can get food, he does seem to learn a lesson about his own past arrogance, yet chooses not to carry it out. Instead, he just gives up. Carrie, on the other hand, has benefited from her shallowness, her mere luck, and will continue to do so. It is almost a strange blessing that she seems to let go of any desire to reflect on the emptiness of her life. She is satisfied with her emotional mediocrity and even though she’ll always be lonely and unhappy, she is not likely to ever realize she’s the cause, or even what she is really missing. Hence, why Dreiser ends with:  “In your rocking chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.”

A great book — fresh in both prose style and social relevance, Sister Carrie deserves your readership.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • Phillip

    I think you’ve read the best of Dreiser. After Sister Carrie, I tried An American Tragedy. Whereas Carrie was artfully done, Tragedy is incredibly repetitive and lumbering.
    Although I read it years ago, I still remember the scenes where Carrie goes looking for work. I cared about her plight. Dreiser was non-judgemental – Carrie did what she had to do.
    I also liked how Dreiser was concerned with money. You don’t find that a primary concern of many writers today – maybe because only those from affluent families can afford to get an MFA (rather than something practical, like a degree in business or accounting).

  • I am planning on reading “The Financier” and I did order “An American Tragedy”–so I am interested to see how they are. Yes, the MFA thing can be a problem on multiple levels, but the biggest being the writing all sounds the same.

  • Phillip

    I was at the library, browsing their DVDs, and came across something called “Carrie.” Yes, there’s a movie version of Sister Carrie (I didn’t know). I checked it out because 1) it starred Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones 2) it was directed by William Wyler and 3) the screenplay was by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. The latter 3 individuals were responsible for what I consider a masterpiece: “The Heiress.” The Goetz’s made the James’ novel (Washington Square) more complex, more ambiguous. Of course, the director and the actors did their jobs to perfection.
    I finished “Carrie” last night, and I think you (anybody) should see it. The story is Carrie’s at first, then it becomes Hurstwood’s. I felt that the ending of Sister Carrie was weak. I know, now, what was missing. What was missing is very hard to take – the film is almost brutally depressing. That’s why, I suppose, it was a box office flop.
    But it’s a truthful and intelligent film. To me, those are redeeming elements.
    And Olivier? – he’s brilliant.

  • That’s good to know that a film was made–I was wondering. Though with a title like “Carrie” when you search for it, all that is likely to come up is Sissy in pig’s blood.

    I’ll have to check it out sometime, it sounds interesting. Though I wish my tiny library carried it, though it doesn’t even carry the Dreiser novel but has every Danielle Steel trash book ever published. Sad, huh?