Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sister Carrie

Theodore Dreiser 1871-1945

I had to read Sister Carrie for my Gilded Age in America class in the Spring of 2006. It fit very well into the themes established in the class such as: the transition from rural to urban, the male bachelor subculture, female/male relations, the vital importance of money, the divisions in class, labor issues, the breakdown of family bonds and male conquest. When you get down to it this is the quintessential Gilded Age book. It contains lots of fun literary devices and wry comments from the narrator. There are some problems, however. It is sometimes painful to listen to the narrator speak for Carrie. He can be sexist, generalizing what all women should feel. There is something off-putting about his voice. The end of the book is ponderous and slow.
Carrie Meeber is the main character of the story, a small town girl to whom we are introduced on a train on the way to Chicago. The use of a machine taking an innocent girl from the nourishing country to the corrupting city is an apt way to begin the tale. Carrie is intrigued by the world of wealth and society. She accomplishes social gain by becoming a kept woman, quite a damning state of affairs around the turn of the century. The fact that Carrie's options are so incredibly limited (work for a pittance, marry a poor man, return home, or have an affair) is an indictment of the gender situation at the time. She and her lover, Hurstwood, have a whirlwind affair that takes them around the country, into and out of good situations, and finally to disaster.
Hurstwood is a respected bar manager at a high class place in Chicago. He leaves his family and his job because he is obsessed with Carrie, a lover of his friend. His desperation is a powerful force in the book. He completely breaks through all cultural restraints by stealing money from his bar and spiriting Carrie out of town. His life spirals downward as the travel through Montreal and New York where he finds a job in another bar. Eventually though, he is thrown out of work and becomes destitute. Carrie fulfills her dream of becoming a stage star (reminiscent of Nana by Emile Zola). The couple does not stay together, but their tortured thoughts go on. The late introduction of the enigmatic Ames makes for a confusing ending.
Carrie herself is a tough character to get a grasp on. She is subdued most of the time. For some reason I never got a clear picture of her in my head. She also never seemed happy. Since people are always using Carrie for their own purpose she has good reason to be sad.
My favorite part of Sister Carrie is the portrayal of the cities. Dreiser's realistic style is especially suited to conjuring the essence of the metropolises. Chicago, a rapidly developing city, has streets that run to nowhere. The grid is ready before the houses, businesses or people are. The upper class know each other well. The poor classes toil endlessly and earn nothing. When Carrie lives with her sister and the grey, depressed Sven the oppression of the city is palpable. New York, with the glitter of Delmonico's, Sherry's, and the theaters. The final message from in Sister Carrie comes from Carrie herself. She's found the wealth, fame, and achievement she's alway desired, but she can't help but feel terrible for the working and non-working poor (including her ex-lover Hurstwood). She just wishes she could do something about it, but she can't figure out a way to help.
This was Dreiser's first book. Quite an achievement. It was written in 1900 but got little publicity because of the controversial subject matter. Dreiser's success did not come until later.

Quotes and Main Themes
-About Hurstwood, "Bigamy lightened the horizen of his shadowy thoughts for a moment."
-Drouet to Carrie, "Be natural."
-After Hurstwood is ruined, "Hurstwood sat there, a perfect load to contemplate."

Rating: 7/10 This book has its pros and cons. The realistic tone is a departure from earlier American novels. Dreiser's strengths are his vivid descriptions of cities and his ability to relate the feeling of the time. The Gilded Age is a favorite time period of mine, so this book was an illuminating experience for me. Yet Dreiser's long-winded prose can get irritating.


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