Sister Carrie – Theodore Dreiser
Setting: Chicago and New York, 1880s
Similar to: Madame Bovary, Main Street
Summary: A small-town girl, Carrie, goes to Chicago to find her fortune. Initially revolting against the constraints of poverty and grueling labor of her elder sister’s working world, she finds herself drawn to the glittering city life, prepared to sacrifice her undeveloped sense of morality to find her own place in it. The tentative unblemished girl hence quickly moves in with a traveling salesman and later becomes the mistress of yet another man, who whisks her off to New York City. The central theme of the book seems to be, “Will they make it there”?
Rating: 3.5 stars.
Dreiser was praised on the cover of the book as a leading American ‘naturalist’. I don’t think the novel’s atmosphere is grim or gruesome enough, at least as compared to European naturalists (no good countrymen suddenly going crazy and lopping off their mother’s heads, no factory girls tearing each other’s hair out). There is more of the stale odor of middle-class boredom and lack of passion, like Emma Bovary’s, in Carrie’s interactions with the world. The scenes depicting lodging houses for the homeless in NYC are anything but pleasant, but they still do not reach the level of brutal descriptiveness of the dregs of society as did Zola or Blasco Ibáñez.
There is also surprising little attention paid to the development of the central character. Carrie as a naturalist heroine might be expected not to have a distinct sense of morality, but she also does not experience love or even passion – her sexual initiation with a traveling salesman seems not have any impact on her at all (given it was an adventurous step for a girl from a conservative background, you would have thought it would have impressed her at least slightly, in one way or the other. But she doesn’t seem to react at all. She just seems to float right by that, and numerous other occurrences). Her family background and environment are hardly mentioned; she never seems to experience any natural human emotions at being separated from her family (sadness, nostalgia, interest in reconnecting with her home). Of course, one might argue that these aren’t natural emotions, and that was precisely the naturalists’ point. But even instincts seem suppressed in her – the only real instinct she seems to follow is self-preservation. Even the physical facts of life – the impact of a girl’s losing her virginity, persistent worry about getting pregnant, sickness – never seem to mar the course of the narrative, as they often do in other naturalist novels.
For a ‘naturalist’ novel there is surprisingly little by way of concentration on external circumstances. The environment of the city is described, as well as the home, but there is almost nothing about family/hereditary traits influencing her behavior, or any of her partners’. They seem to exist in a sort of empty space – there is no mention of the parents or siblings of any of her men.
At the heart of it, I don’t think the novel is about “Sister” Carrie at all. I still don’t understand the “Sister” in the title. She is most definitely not a nun. Nor is she anybody’s real sister – she is a one-dimensional woman existing in her own independently created vacuum, who does not need family or personal ties. Readers, put off by her simultaneously egotist and empty personality, will not feel compelled to call her sister either. And the author himself spends much more time living in the mind of her second false husband and chronicling his decline than concentrating on her, the supposed heroine.
Would I recommend reading this book? If you are interested in gritty details of the life of the poor in Chicago and New York at the end of the 19th century, definitely yes. If you want to find out more about the secrets of the feminine psyche – don’t bother. Dreiser didn’t seem to have it figured out in his personal life, and he definitely doesn’t have it figured out in this novel.