Sister Carrie


Sister Carrie is one of a specific handful of American novels that I learned about in school, but (until now) never actually read. Along with those of Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Edward Bellamy and to a certain extent Stephen Crane, the works of Theodore Dreiser were always presented to me as more important to history than interesting as literature - not exactly the kind of ringing endorsement that inspires a person to run out and buy a book today. These authors were exposing social ills and introducing literary naturalism; they were unafraid to confront the American public with previously-taboo topics like the lives of prostitutes, or corrupt business interests. But lord, implied my high-school textbooks, were they ever dry and boring. Even in English classes, these authors were lauded mainly for paving the way for those writing after them, who took the social freedoms they pioneered and added a livelier prose style and a more compelling cast of characters. Recently, thinking about everything ELSE my high-school textbooks got wrong, I began to wonder if this generation of authors are really as unreadable as all that, and figured I should do my own bit of experimentation. Sister Carrie was my first foray into this early-20th-century American naturalist enclave, and it was an enlightening journey.

First of all, let me say that I can understand why Dreiser has been neglected. I would describe his prose as "utilitarian": it gets the job done, but doesn't involve any pyrotechnics. With the likes of Hemingway and Welty bursting onto the American scene a few short decades later, I can see why Dreiser's businesslike approach came to seem outdated and clunky. It's an odd, transitional-seeming style: more journalistic and less ornamented than your purple Victorian prose, yet not so aggressively streamlined or giddily experimental as the work of many Modernists.

The place smelled of the oil of the machines and the new leather - a combination which, added to the stale odours of the building, was not pleasant even in cold weather. The floor, though regularly swept every evening, presented a littered surface. Not the slightest provision had been made for the comfort of the employees, the idea being that something was gained by giving them as little and making the work as hard and unremunerative as possible. What we know of footrests, swivel-back chairs, dining-rooms for the girls, clean aprons and curling irons supplied free, and a decent cloak room, were unthought-of. The washrooms were disagreeable, crude, if not foul places, and the whole atmosphere was sordid.

(I chose this passage because it gives a fair idea of Dreiser's style, but also because I think it's hilarious that "clean aprons and curling irons supplied free" would be an item on the agenda for workers' rights. Where have my free curling irons been all these years of working, I'd like to know?)

I can also understand the criticism of Dreiser's characters for being undeveloped or unsympathetic, but I think he's actually making a conscious choice here: his super-naturalistic narrative method, combined with some cynicism about people rationalizing their own laziness, means that this is more a novel about circumstances acting on players than about individuals taking control of their own destinies. The young protagonist, Carrie, moves to the big city and quickly becomes overwhelmed with how hard a working-class woman has to labor in order to earn her living. When she's presented with the opportunity of being taken care of by a man and living with him out of wedlock, she drifts into it without ever taking decisive action. Similarly, Drouet (the young man) never plans to lure Carrie into a life of sin; he just finds it distasteful to be tied down in a real marriage, and so puts off the wedding indefinitely. The other characters drift similarly through their lives, finding reasons not to disrupt the momentum that has built up around them. I think Dreiser, like many socially- or socialist-minded writers, is using Carrie, Drouet and Hurstwood as Everyman characters; his book is more a portrait of the material conditions and social forces in turn-of-the-century Chicago and New York than of particular individuals within those cities.

I wrote in my thoughts on The Good Earth that this universalizing approach is not my favorite novelistic technique; I tend to prefer stories with highly-individualized characters and distinctive narrative voices, not to mention innovative, well-crafted prose. Nevertheless, it's a tribute to Dreiser's storytelling ability that I had a hard time putting Sister Carrie down. He uses the tools at his disposal in compelling, sometimes surprising ways: one of my favorites was the way in which he played the characters off each other, enlisting the reader's sympathy first for one, then for another. All three of the main characters act very poorly at certain points, and all three fall prey to the lure of habit and drift along in their unsatisfactory lives for painfully long periods before they are finally spurred to make some kind of change. As a reader, I found myself either frustrated with or cheering for all three characters in sequence as the novel progressed. And although any given character may be acting badly at a certain juncture, the fact that I had been rooting for them only fifty pages earlier meant that none of the three was ever wholly unsympathetic.

In fact, Dreiser works so hard to keep Carrie, Drouet and Hurstwood emotionally accessible to the reader, even at their most selfish and unlikeable, that I was reminded of the work of contemporary writers like Toni Morrison and Dorothy Allison - writers who make a point of empathizing with characters usually beyond the pale. I remember how conflicted I felt, reading Morrison's The Bluest Eye, at the author's empathic portrayal of a father who rapes his own daughter, and I wonder whether readers in 1900 would have found Dreiser's subject matter to be equally shocking and conflicting. Probably so, judging by its history: it was withdrawn from publication for being "too sordid," and only after Dreiser cut many suggestive passages did Doubleday agree to publish the expurgated version. In another triumph for Norton Critical Editions, I read the appended catalog of the passages cut in the initial publication, which was fascinating. To my surprise, many of them involved scenes in which Carrie gets cat-called and solicited on the street - surely the fact that this happens is no mystery to any urban woman? I certainly deal with it whenever I walk downtown. But maybe, at the turn of the century, men only felt confident cat-calling women who looked working-class, so the middle-class readers of Sister Carrie would not have encountered the behavior? I'm not sure how to feel about the suggestion that public humiliation of women has been democratized in American cities over the past century, but it's interesting to think about.

But cat-calling is just one small aspect of the loving-yet-critical portraits of 1890s New York and Chicago in this novel. Dreiser is at his most vivid when depicting the inhumane conditions of city life and the unfettered, dog-eat-dog realities of pre-regulation American capitalism. It's this, along with the frank portrayals of cohabiting out of wedlock, that made the book famous, and I think the urban landscape is really the star of Dreiser's show. The reader gets a strong sense of a world full of possibility ripe for the picking - all the young men, like Drouet, streaming in from the countryside to secure sales positions, the newly-constructed glass-fronted buildings housing newly-incorporated retail firms, the movers, shakers, and hangers-on in the untamed melee of exponential urban growth. And one also sees vividly how the skirmish-and-grab for that pool of possibility creates a class of casualties, left even more to their own devices than the modern urban homeless. Dreiser does a good job of communicating the extent to which all his characters are performing without a safety net, and even the highest is capable of a dramatic fall. I think I preferred Sister Carrie to The Good Earth because Dreiser's cities-as-characters are so dynamic. I'm not sure turn-of-the-century American urban literature will become my new favorite genre, but Sister Carrie was certainly enough to convince me to give it another try.

(Sister Carrie was my fourth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1900s.)


  • It's been a long time since my high school days, Emily, but Dreiser's exactly the sort of writer who was fobbed off on kids wanting to read something extra outside of class. I don't think I ever really read anything by him, but I love the irony in how you used him as a test case to see whether he was underrated by your high school! Very well-crafted review as usual. :)

  • I thought I left a comment yesterday!

    I am interested in turn-of-the-century Chicago and I loved the "universalizing approach" of the family in The Good EArth, so I'm eager to read this. You write about the book so beautifully!

  • I've never seriously considered reading Dreiser before, fortunately your review has changed that.

    I also want to stick up for Stephen Crane- a wonderful writer, not at all dull and dreary as some textbooks make him sound!

  • I recently read a book that used what you so aptly termed "utilitarian" prose. I didn't really like it, but the book also lacked sympathetic characters - however your review of "Sister Carrie" has made me think again about how important it is to understand what the author's intentions were. It may not make you like a book better or worse, but it certainly lends more depth to the overall experience. Hmmm. :)

    Anyway, thanks for the excellent review. I may try Dreiser out...someday!

  • Richard: Thanks! Yes, exactly the kind of writer to get fobbed off, poor guy. :-)

    Rebecca: I think you might really like it! If you liked The Good Earth, and since I know you read darker books as well, Dreiser might be right up your alley. Thanks for your nice words. :-)

    Sarah: Thanks for the tip on Crane. I think his novel Maggie might be one of the next on my list for this period. I've also heard that Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is surprisingly engaging and well-written, despite its reputation as The Book That Reformed The Meat-Packing Industry.

    Sarah: Yes, I think trying to understand authorial intentions definitely adds depth to the reading experience. And I mean, you can still be of the opinion that the author tried & failed, but at least you're engaging in a more nuanced discussion. Thanks!

  • I've pretty much avoided all the writers you list at the beginning of your post, and I probably did so for the reasons you mention, which strike me as accurate. They DON'T sound like much fun, do they? Well that, and the American Lit. class I had in college that covered those authors wasn't that great. But I love finding out that authors I thought I wouldn't like I actually do, and I'm glad to be able to read about Sister Carrie here. Perhaps I'll give it a try one day.

  • Dorothy: It's true, they don't sounds like much fun at all! And I wouldn't say that Sister Carrie WAS all that fun, but I enjoyed it on several levels despite that.

  • I think that even the most ardent 19th century Americanists would agree that Dreiser is stylistically challenged. And yet, as you suggest, he is a compelling storyteller as are many of the writers of similar ilk from the time who came out of journalism.

    William Dean Howells and Harold Frederic deliver a better crafted story in my opinion. Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware and Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham are two of my favorite books, and both of those authors also came from the newsroom.

    And no one in high school wants to read any of these. Trust me. I've tried.

  • Frances: Haha, no, I probably wouldn't have wanted to read them in high school either, even if the textbooks had made them sounds glamorous (quite a trick, in the case of Sister Carrie.

    Thanks for the tips on Howells and Frederic - I've never even heard of the latter! I read a bit about Howells the historical person in Ron Powers's biography of Mark Twain, and it seems like he was a very admirable and interesting person, so it's great to hear that Silas Lapham is so high up on your list. I'll definitely check it out!

    As an amusing side-note, when David and I are planning a trip to Powell's (the huge bookstore in Portland), I often make up a little song about it that rhymes "going to Powell's" with "William Dean Howells."

  • This book has been sitting on my shelves for awhile now and I really need to read it. Thanks for the great review!

  • Sometimes Dreiser's prose is so bad that it's a little shocking, and a few scenes (Carrie's theatrical debut in Chicago) must be among the most tedious in any great book.

    It's the key scenes where Dreiser somehow pulls it all together. The language becomes more taut and focused - not just better but really good.. I'm thinking of Hurstwood and the safe, or the streetcar strike. Those are great scenes.

    Dreiser's a dang ol' paradox.

  • Great review! I have this on my shelf and have been meaning to read it since my high school days as well.

    One of my favorite books of all time is An American Tragedy by Dreiser. It actually changed the way I feel about the death penalty. I had a hard time getting into it at first, but once I did, I couldn't put it down!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography