Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

I knew nothing about Dreiser or Sister Carrie when I picked up this book. My paperback copy, indeed, belongs technically to my wife, but it got mixed in with all the books I plan to read when our marriage and single family home brought us together.

I regret not getting to it sooner, as Sister Carrie is a remarkable novel and, I suspect, Theodore Dreiser may be a remarkable author.

In Sister Carrie Dreiser, the faithful reporter, presented the facts of existence in a segment of a new American city as he had known them. True, he had written a novel about a girl who, with few qualms, lives with one man and then leaves him for a more glittering seducer. Seduction, adultery, bigamy, and theft are presented as natural actions on which it is useless to moralize. Worse still, no one is punished for them. These actions had been events in the life of Dreiser’s sister; if the events were true, why should they not be touched up a bit and made into fiction? Dreiser had no idea that he had written an immoral book and that there might be trouble ahead for it.

This is from Willard Thorp’s afterword which, coming at the end of the novel, helped me appreciate something that I suspected while reading the novel itself.

She conceived a true estimate of Drouet. To her, and indeed to all the world, he was a nice, good-hearted man. There was nothing evil in the fellow. He gave her the money out of a good heart--out of a realization of her want. He would not have given the same amount to a poor young man, but we must not forget that a poor young man could not, in the nature of things, have appealed to him like a poor young girl. Femininity affected his feelings. He was the creature of an inborn desire.

Sister Carrie is not a moralizing novel; a novel that takes pains to ensure that the virtuous end up flourishing while the wicked suffer and atrophy. The characters are not good or evil. They and their actions, instead, are natural. Creatures of inborn desire. Natural processes unfolding as natural processes do.

Yet no beggar could have caught his eye and said, “My God, mister, I’m starving,” but he would gladly have handed out what was considered the proper portion to give beggars and thought no more about it. There would have been no speculation, no philosophizing. He had no mental process in him worthy the dignity of either of those terms. In his good clothes and fine health, he was a merry, unthinking moth of the lamp. Deprived of his position, and struck by a few of the involved and baffling forces which sometimes play upon man, he would have been as helpless as Carrie--as helpless, as nonunderstanding, as pitiable, if you will, as she.

And in this natural world, success and failure are not tied to moral precept, nor even moral action. Involved and baffling forces sometimes play upon man, and they, not man’s philosophical speculations about them, determine who succeeds and who fails. Who lives and who dies.

It is a theme Dreiser returns to again and again as he introduces the characters that populate his narrative; as he does above about Carrie’s first seducer, Drouet, and as he does below, most expansively, about Carrie herself.

Among the forces that sweep and play throughout the universe, untutored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is not yet wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason. On the tiger no responsibility rests. We see him aligned by nature with the forces of life--he is born into their keeping and without thought he is protected. We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near an approach to free will, his free will not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect guidance. He is becoming too wise to hearken always to instincts and desires; he is still too weak to always prevail against them. As a beast, the forces of life aligned him with them; as a man, he has not yet wholly learned to align himself with the forces. In this intermediate stage he wavers--neither drawn in harmony with nature by his instincts nor yet wisely putting himself into harmony by his own free will. He is even a wisp in the wind, moved by every breath of passion, acting now by his will and now by his instincts, erring with one, only to retrieve by the other, falling by one, only to rise by the other--a creature of incalculable variability. We have the consolation of knowing that evolution is ever in action, that the ideal is a light that cannot fail. He will not forever balance thus between good and evil. When this jangle of free will and instinct shall have been adjusted, when perfect understanding has given the former the power to replace the latter entirely, man will no longer vary. The needle of understanding will yet point steadfast and unwavering to the distant pole of truth.

In Carrie--as in how many of our worldlings do they not?--instinct and reason, desire and understanding, were at war for the mastery. She followed whither her craving led. She was as yet more drawn than she drew.

It’s a novel with a thesis and, despite some fossilized allusions to “free will” and “good and evil,” it’s a radical thesis at that. In this way, Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s first novel, published in 1900, was wildly ahead of its time. As Tharp describes in his afterword...

Why had Mrs. Doubleday and most of the reviewers in the genteel journals been so horrified by Sister Carrie? Why did the word get around that Dreiser had written a “dirty” book? After all, seduction has been an item in the stock-in-trade of novelists since the first novel in English, Pamela, appeared in 1740. But there were regulatory conventions and taboos, all of which Dreiser had ignored. Seducers must be punished or reformed. Yet Carrie’s first lover, Drouet, is more prosperous at the end of the novel than at the beginning. Hurstwood, who steals Carrie from Drouet, does, it is true, go slowly down to poverty and suicide, but Dreiser is careful to explain the reasons for his decline. His seduction of Carrie is only an incidental cause. If he had been a young man, able to start life over in New York, he might, we gather, have become again a manager of a saloon as elegant as Fitzgerald and Moy’s.

Convention permitted a number of solutions for the case of the fallen woman. Carrie might have had to endure a series of terrible misfortunes, in order that she could be redeemed in the end by a good man. Or she might have gone irremediably to the bad. She might have entered the limbo of the demimonde, where she could be sealed off from decent people, prospering, but secretly and constantly grieving. Dreiser used none of these approved recipes in cooking up Carrie’s seduction. Already in love with the gauds of the big city, unable to find work which will provide even her minimum wants, she falls like a ripe plum into Drouet’s kind hands. There is no struggle. There is no passion. A steak dinner and “two soft, green, handsome ten-dollar bills” do the trick.

What most particularly shocked many of the first readers of Sister Carrie was the matter-of-factness of the seduction. Dreiser warned them in Chapter 1 that it was inevitable. “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.” Here is the shocker. Dreiser is implying that in the throbbing big cities of the land there are many--how many?--Sister Carries. This no right-thinking American was prepared to believe. Soon Carrie compounds her felony by deserting Drouet and eloping with Hurstwood, a man with a family. Again there is no extenuating passion. It is simply in Carrie’s nature to move up and Hurstwood is, to her, more refined than Drouet, more a man of the world. “The constant drag to something better was not to be denied.” As Hurstwood slowly sinks downward to destitution and suicide, Carrie again moves up, this time into the world of the stage. Instead of punishment, in the end she is accorded success, of a kind, as the charming little Carrie Madenda, who has smiled her way out of the chorus line.

But Dreiser, in the end, actually does have some moralizing to lay at Carrie’s feet--not with condescension because of her sexual freedoms, but with a kind of sympathy because of where her inborn desires have taken her and for what purpose.

For throughout the novel, throughout the several transitions that Tharp has summarized for us in his afterword, Carrie is chasing something, dazzled by it, pursuing it with longing and naive jealousy, as she does here with her initial glimpse of Broadway and the society that surrounds it.

Carrie stepped along easily enough after they got out of the car at Thirty-fourth Street, but soon fixed her eyes upon the lovely company which swarmed by and with them as they proceeded. She noticed suddenly that Mrs. Vance’s manner had rather stiffened under the gaze of handsome men and elegantly dressed ladies, whose glances were not modified by any rules of propriety.

Wait. Stop right there. Whose glances were not modified by any rules of propriety. Dreiser fills his novel with wonderful turns of phrase like this, capturing base thoughts and actions in the idiom unique to his time and culture. Perhaps my favorite comes when Dreiser describes the thoughts of a young man who is “favorably impressed by Carrie’s looks.”

“Good-looking,” he said to himself, and proceeded to visions of condescensions on her part which were exceedingly flattering to himself.

Glorious. But back to Carrie’s reaction to Broadway society.

To stare seemed the proper and natural thing. Carrie found herself stared at and ogled. Men in flawless topcoats, high hats, and silver-headed walking sticks elbowed near and looked too often into conscious eyes. Ladies rustled by in dresses of stiff cloth, shedding affected smiles and perfume. Carrie noticed among them the sprinkling of goodness and the heavy percentage of vice. The rouged and powdered cheeks and lips, the scented hair, the large, misty, and languorous eye, were common enough. With a start she awoke to find that she was in fashion’s crowd, on parade in a show place--and such a show place! Jewelers’ windows gleamed along the path with remarkable frequency. Florist shops, furriers, haberdashers, confectioners--all followed in rapid succession. The street was full of coaches. Pompous doormen in immense coats, shiny brass belts and buttons, waited in front of expensive salesrooms. Coachmen in tan boots, white tights, and blue jackets waited obsequiously for the mistresses of carriages who were shopping inside. The whole street bore the flavor of riches and show, and Carrie felt that she was not of it. She could not, for the life of her, assume the attitude and smartness of Mrs. Vance, who, in her beauty, was all assurance. She could only imagine that it must be evident to many that she was the less handsomely dressed of the two, It cut her to the quick, and she resolved that she would not come here again until she looked better. At the same time she longed to feel the delight of parading here as an equal. Ah, then she would be happy!

Ah, then she would be happy! Time and again throughout the novel this is Carrie’s lodestone, the weight that pulls her forward and drives all the narrative action. She leaves her hometown in Wisconsin, goes to Chicago, gets connected with Drouet, leaves him for Hurstwood, eventually leaves him for the stage--all because she is chasing a happiness she is unable to find within herself. Happiness, to Carrie, is always something shiny and distant.

How vexing it is for her, then, to meet a young man amidst all her desired glitz and splendor who represents the absolute opposite ideal.

As the waiter bowed and scraped about, felt the dishes to see if they were hot enough, brought spoons and forks, and did all those little attentive things calculated to impress the luxury of the situation upon the diner, Ames also leaned slightly to one side and told her of Indianapolis in an intelligent way. He really had a very bright mind, which was finding its chief development in electrical knowledge. His sympathies for other forms of information, however, and for types of people, were quick and warm. The red glow on his head gave it a sandy tinge and put a bright glint in his eye. Carrie noticed all these things as he leaned toward her and felt exceedingly young. This man was far ahead of her. He seemed wiser than Hurstwood, saner and brighter than Drouet. He seemed innocent and clean, and she thought that he was exceedingly pleasant. She noticed, also, that his interest in her was a far-off one. She was not in his life, nor any of the things that touched his life, and yet now, as he spoke of these things, they appealed to her.

“I shouldn’t care to be rich,” he told her, as the dinner proceeded and the supply of food warmed up his sympathies; “not rich enough to spend my money this way.”

“Oh, wouldn’t you?” said Carrie, the, to her, new attitude forcing itself distinctly upon her for the first time.

“No,” he said. “What good would it do? A man doesn’t need this sort of thing to be happy.”

Carrie thought of this doubtfully; but, coming from him, it had weight with her.

“He probably could be happy,” she thought to herself. “All alone. He’s so strong.”

But Ames does not become a major figure in Carrie’s life. She does not cling to him the way she clings first to Drouet and then to Hurstwood. She sees Ames only once or twice more, and he seems to pass in the night, Dreiser signaling, I think, that the simple satisfaction that comes with happiness in oneself is beyond Carrie’s acquisition and appreciation.

But, as Tharp tells us, Carrie neither suffers the prescribed fate of her moral choices nor succumbs to the destitution and despair of her inborn desires. In the end, rather, she achieves success and, if not happiness, certainly a kind of simple wisdom.

Some of Dreiser’s closing paragraphs are worth revisiting, as they seem to summarize both his overarching theme and how Carrie has represented it throughout his narrative.

And now Carrie had attained that which in the beginning seemed life’s object, or, at least, such fraction of it as human beings ever attain of their original desires. She could look about on her gowns and carriage, her furniture and bank account. Friends there were, as the world takes it--those who would bow and smile in acknowledgement of her success. For these she had once craved. Applause there was, and publicity--once far off, essential things, but now grown trivial and indifferent. Beauty also--her type of loveliness--and yet she was lonely. In her rocking chair she sat, when not otherwise engaged--singing and dreaming.

That’s the story. Now, the theme.

Oh, the tangle of human life! How dimly as yet we see. Here was Carrie, in the beginning poor, unsophisticated, emotional; responding with desire to everything most lovely in life, yet finding herself turned as by a wall. Laws to say: “Be allured, if you will, by everything lovely, but draw not nigh unless by righteousness.” Convention to say: “You shall not better your situation save by honest labor.” If honest labor be unremunerative and difficult to endure; if it be the long, long road which never reaches beauty, but wearies the feet and the heart; if the drag to follow beauty be such that one abandons the admired way, taking rather the despised path leading to her dreams quickly, who shall cast the first stone? Not evil, but longing for that which is better more often directs the steps of the erring. Not evil, but goodness more often allures the feeling mind unused to reason.

Some many turns of phrase; so worth remembering. The long, long road which never reaches beauty. Not evil, but longing...more often directs the steps of the erring. This is Dreiser’s theme and he has created one of those rare masterpieces that fully incorporate a theme into a narrative plot.

Although he waxes a little epic at the very end, poetically but unnecessarily summarizing his intent.

Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward, onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows. Whether it be the tinkle of a lone sheep bell o’er some quiet landscape, or the glimmer of beauty in sylvan places, or the show of soul in some passing eye, the heart knows and makes answer, following. It is when the feet weary and hope seems vain that the heartaches and the longings arise. Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.

Hmmm. Might be worth rethinking whether Carrie truly prospers as a result of her actions--moral or otherwise.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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