Theodor Dreiser is an exceptional American writer, journalist, and a pioneer of naturalism in the American literature. Though, not only is he known as a contributor to the literary naturalism. Dreiser’s precise descriptions and analytical observations, as well as characters that are portrayed to be the product of their environment, integrated harmoniously with and contributed greatly to American literary realism.
Dreiser’s works show the emergence of capitalism and desire of consumption being two leading forces behind people’s actions, as opposed to the earlier important, outdated sentiment. His characters usually change in class and status over the course of the narration, and fall for the risk of being trapped in the machine of the cruel society.
The following paper is going to present the literary analysis of the first, very well known and successful novel of Theodore Dreiser – “Sister Carrie”. The paper will be built in the following way. To begin with, I will demonstrate in what way the noel can be classified as a naturalistic one. Then, I will present a very brief summary of the novel, together with short analysis of the main characters (the development of the main character – Carrie- will be discussed in the later section of the paper). After that I will present the main themes of the work together with my reflection to the work and of other authors.
As it has been already mentioned, “Sister Carrie” is a text grounded upon the conventions of realism, though built with the addition of interesting traits of naturalism. According to the article “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser: Naturalism, Capitalism and the Urban Sea the characters in the novel are “creatures not only of the natural world, but also of the environment”.
The environment of capitalism, urbanism, and class inequalities. In fact, naturalism is usually set in an urban setting, where the characters are wisps in a sea that are brought from shore to shore, by forces stronger than them, like capitalism. If to believe the above to be the textbook definition of naturalism in literature than “Sister Carrie” should be seen as a perfect example of it.
“Sister Carrie” tells a story of a woman who leaves behind her family, which is not closely knit with, and moves to the big city in search of employment, money, and of course love. In Chicago she has to stay with her sister and brother-in-law who are leading a poor life, earning just enough, or at times even not enough, to help the both ends meet. Carrier detests the miserable existence she witnesses in the house, though has to take up a job. The job she finds at first is too hard for her, and the wages are so low that she has to walk to work. Such reality contradicts with the dream Carrie had about living in the city and enjoying everything this city has got to offer. To make the matters worse, Carrie gets very ill, stays home from work, and loses her job. The hardship of finding a new job and living with her sister, as well as temptation of material life especially in contrast with the grey dull reality make Carrie end up as the mistress of a salesman, Drouet. Later on in the novel, married to Hurst wood, she again has to find a job; though this time she luckily rises to a famous actress in New York.
Other important characters in the novel that have been briefly mentioned above are: Charlie Drouet and George Hurstwood – two men who played a very important role in Carrie’s life. Charlie Drouet is a young, charismatic salesman who Carrier meets on the way to Chicago. All he wants in life is entertainment and pleasure and does not intend for any of his romantic endeavors to result in something serious. Though, when Carrie is forced to leave her sister’s house Drouet rents a place for her and provides her with basic material possessions she has always dreamed about. Though, when Carrie meets Hurstwood, a manager of Fitzgerald and Moy’s, she leaves Drouet. Hurstwood is portrayed as a wealthy and important man at the beginning of the novel, though becomes a beggar and commits suicide at the end of it. In order to make his life with Carrier better he steals money from his employer before they flee to Montreal. Later he has to return the money to save his reputation. Without money and status he descends in apathy and dies alone after Carrie has left him.
In “Sister Carrie” Dreiser develops many themes. The first theme I believe is the transformation of the America society in the nineteenth century. This theme of transformation is many-folded and concerns the erosion of the traditional moral values, economic shift from agricultural to an industrial base, vanishing of traditional values following the Darwinian revolution, and the alteration in the roles and relations of men and women (Eby). Thus, the themes of the novel can be looked at only within the historical context.
Within the theme of economic transformation, Theodore Dreiser develops the theme of growth of marketplace, marketing and importance of consumption. On the example of Carrie and Charlie Drouet we see a different generation of Americans. Those, that are willing to consume, and whose desires can be easy manipulated. The theme interlinked with the one of appearance of active market place is changes in merchandising and methods of selling products.
The theme of Darwinian social revolution (extension of evolutionary ideas to human behavior and interaction) and its sometimes negative effects is also an important concept in “Sister Carrie”. According to Clare Virginia Eby from University of Pennsylvania Library, Carrie’s life periods such as “drift, chance, competition, struggle, survival” are concepts directly derived from evolutionary thought.1 Influences of Darwinian revolution are also seen in the depreciation of God for the main characters, their ability or disability to survive in the throat-cutting competition. In addition, in the novel Dreiser emphasizes the elevation and development of concept of chance.
The moral descend and is shown in parallel to the rise of the importance of money and monetary possessions. It is aw well presented in the uncensored establishment of Carrie’s relationship with the married man, and the fact that she dares to live with a man without being married to him at the beginning of the novel. As for the changing role of women, we see that first of all in this novel women are willing to work and not only at jobs that they need for income, but also become ambitious and are willing to become independent and self-sufficient.
The above paragraph brings us closer to the analysis of the development of Carrie’s character. When she lives home Carrie is a wide-eyed young woman, with very little understanding of urban life. Thus, when coming to Chicago Carrie throws herself into this new exciting fast-moving life and because of her lack of knowledge and preparation almost always ends up in negative, sadly ironic situations. She is a woman of no great virtue or fundamental knowledge of herself or men.
Carrie’s life gives her a lot of lessons. Though, I believe that all through the book we see that Carrie, although enriched by experiences, has only these experiences and has not learned her lessons or grown. At the end of the book Carrie still does not seem to be a changed character, and it even seems that if put in the situations experienced at the beginning of the novel, she would act similar to how acted earlier. Of course, her financial situation has changed, she learned to understand men, and naturally this gave her hands-on knowledge on fundamental matters, though the fundamental nature did not evolve. She, the way the society portrayed in the book, is a shallow and empty float of circumstances. What makes her character distinctive is the lack of any morality of virtue – a departure from the conventional literary style of that time.
“Sister Carrie” was published in 1900 – the beginning of the century, and was, in my opinion, one of the first, if not the first outburst endeavor of the American writer to write something different from what has been written before. When writing a book Theodore Dreiser wanted to portray life and people they way they were, notwithstanding the possible negative attitude of the public. Dreiser’s novel is enjoyable to read, its plot is vivid and colorful, has metaphorical structure, and great thematic unity. Theodore Dreiser also uses symbolism as the main writing style in “Sister Carrie”.
Though, in comparison with other novels with the main female character I cannot but accept that Dreiser’s character and novel in general is rather weak. Indeed, the novel caused outrage at the time of publishing, but only because that was the time of short-sided sanctimony. However today, I believe that this novel should not be looked at a classical work; it should be looked at as a book that should be seen within historical context of America at the outbreak of the twentieth century.
Work Cited Eby, C.V. 2001. “Cultural and Historical Contexts for Sister Carrie”. University of Pennsylvania Library. Accessed on January 23, 2010 from < http://www.library.upenn.edu/collections/rbm/dreiser/scculhist.html>. Ma, Li. 2006. “The Analysis of the Symbols of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie”. China Jiaotong University Volume 4, No.9 (Serial No.36) US-China Foreign Language, ISSN1539-8080, USA. Smith, N. "Sister Carrie" by Theodore Dreiser: Naturalism, Capitalism and the Urban Sea. Accessed on January 23, 2010 from <http://www.articlemyriad.com/sister_carrie.htm>.
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