Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

September 30, 2011

Plot summary (from the publisher): When small-town Carrie Meeber arrives in 1890s Chicago, she cannot know what awaits. Callow, beautiful, and alone, she experiences the bitterness of temptation and hardship even as she sets her sights on a better life. Drawn by the seductive desire to rise above her social class, Carrie aspires to the top of the acting profession in New York, while the man who has become obsessed with her gambles everything for her sake and draws near the brink of destruction.

Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie (1900) was inspired by the life of one of his sisters, who had eloped to New York with a disreputable lover. Its sympathetic depiction of Carrie’s love affairs shocked its publisher, whose grudging efforts won few initial readers until the book’s successful re-publication in 1907. Today it resonates with Dreiser’s clear-sighted understanding of life in the increasingly mercantile world of the big city, and with his belief in the domination of fate over free will. Particularly in the unflinching tragedy of its final chapters, the novel broke new ground in American fiction for its gritty realism and for the character of Carrie, who begins “a half-equipped little knight” and becomes a truly modern woman.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Dreiser reminds me very much of Thomas Hardy (a favorite) in terms of the stark, gritty lives his characters lead. They face privation and hardships, there is not always a happy ending. But it makes for fascinating reading.
  • I loved Dreiser’s characterization of Carrie as a materialist. She thought of everything in dollars and cents, and even when she was poor, she couldn’t help spending her money on luxuries instead of necessities. People like Carrie are part of the reason why America’s finances are in such disarray now; I consider her a precursor to the current state of affairs.
  • This book was published in 1900, and I can only imagine how shocking it was for people of that time to read about Carrie’s living arrangement with Drouet. He essentially bought her services as a kept woman, and Carrie barely even blinked at that fact.
  • It was interesting to witness Hurstwood’s descent into complete apathy. That rash act of stealing the $10,000 from Fitzgerald and Moy’s got the ball rolling, and from there Hurstwood managed a third-rate saloon in New York; idled about without a job for almost a year; broke a train workers’ strike as a scab (for one day); took on menial tasks at a hotel; turned to begging; and finally sunk into complete dependence upon charity for his survival. Then, when he saw no other way out, he committed suicide in a fleabag boardinghouse room with his final words being, “What’s the use.” Wow.
  • I liked that Carrie was still lonely and unfulfilled even after she achieved success as an actress. For people like her, being comfortably ensconced in the middle class is not enough. She always has her eye on those above her on the social ladder, and will never be satisfied with her own lot.

Disliked:

  • Certain episodes seemed unnecessarily drawn out, including the information about the train workers’ strike and Carrie’s first rehearsal for that play in Chicago. Those parts were pretty boring and lost my attention.
  • I wish Dreiser had revisited Carrie’s sister and brother-in-law to capture their reaction about what Carrie had made of her life. Didn’t they wonder where she went? Did they try to find her in Chicago? Did they know about Drouet and then Hurstwood? Did they hear about her success on the New York stage? I didn’t like that they were completely dropped at the end of the first part of the novel.
  • I didn’t like how Carrie thought it was so scandalous to support Hurstwood for a while. I realize that this is more a function of the time period (1890’s) than her character, but still… it just didn’t seem right. Hurstwood essentially threw away his whole life for her and shared his money to support her, but she couldn’t do the same? I agree that he could’ve done more to try to find work and could have at least tried selling discount dental supplies or something, but Carrie was still way too harsh on him.

Rating

This was my second time reading Sister Carrie, and it just reinforced my opinion that Theodore Dreiser is one of the most underrated American novelists. I wish I had studied him in school instead of some of the standards like Hemingway or Jack London. This book was highly realistic in its portrayal of poverty and the fear of poverty, and brought forth some memorable characters in Carrie Meeber, Charlie Drouet, and George Hurstwood. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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