Like many of you, I’m a lifelong reader. I literally can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to read and find it a comfort and a pleasure. But when Teresa put Sister Carrie on my list for our book swap this year, I admit that I hesitated, because that is the very first book I can ever remember disliking. I read it in eleventh-grade English class (American Literature), and it’s the first book on which I ever pulled the trick of flipping to the back every few minutes to check on my progress and see how many pages I had left to go. I remember finding it tedious and grim. But! I said to myself (and Teresa), there are many books I read as a teenager and liked much better as an adult. And I trust Teresa’s taste completely. She won me over to Thomas Hardy, after all. So onward and upward! Sister Carrie, ahoy!
This novel is about a young girl, Caroline Meeber, who comes to Chicago to make her way. After a brief stint trying to work for a living, she drifts into becoming first one man’s mistress, then another’s, slowly rising in wealth, if not status, as she does so. When Carrie’s second lover, Hurstwood, commits a crime and is ruined, she eventually leaves him to become a successful actress. The story contrasts her rise with Hurstwood’s fall, and their unexpected trajectories in society.
Dreiser takes pains to point out that Carrie is a little smarter than most of the people around her — a little more sensitive — but she is still a passive, reflective character. During the course of the novel, she rarely takes positive action. Instead, she accepts what she’s offered and manipulates it to her advantage. Early on, when she has lost her job at a shoe factory and is looking for work, she meets Drouet, who offers her clothing and an apartment.
Carrie shook her head. Like all women, she was there to object and be convinced. It was for him to brush the doubts away and clear the path if he could.
“Why are you going home?” he asked.
“Oh, I can’t get anything here.”
“They won’t keep you?” he asked intuitively.
“They can’t,” said Carrie.
“I’ll tell you what you do,” he said. “You come with me. I’ll take care of you.”
Carrie heard this passively. The peculiar state which she was in made it sound like the welcome breath of an open door.
Carrie drifts like this through one open door after another: she takes clothes and jewelry, she accepts a part in an amateur play, she begins seeing another man while she is still living with the first — all through passive acceptance of her situation and gentle manipulation of it to her advantage. She is no ruthless adventuress, no Undine Spragg. She simply adapts herself to her environment. Even when Dreiser gives her a moral environment, a step up in the person of Bob Ames, she is willing enough to absorb it, or try to: he recommends she try a serious play, to make her acting powers valuable to others and not to herself alone. After this encounter, she mentions to her bewildered friend Lola that she won’t stay in comedy much longer, that she wants to try a serious play. But Ames is not her lover, not her natural environment, and she does nothing further about it. Her drift takes a different direction.
The counterpoint to Carrie’s passive drift upward is, of course, Hurstwood’s passive drift downward. It may at first glance appear that Hurstwood’s ruin is owing to an overt act — stealing money from his company’s safe — but even that is a kind of drift. He can’t explain it even to himself: it’s like a stranger’s voice in his head.
“Why don’t I shut the safe?” his mind said to itself, lingering. “What makes me pause here?”
For an answer there came the strangest words:
“Did you ever have ten thousand dollars in ready money?”
By this action he does not understand, Hurstwood is cut off from friends, family, business, and associates. After that, unlike Carrie, he is completely unable to adapt to his new circumstances in a new city, or to manipulate them to any advantage. He can’t think of any kind of work to do other than the work he did in Chicago. The one day he tries a different line of work, it’s disastrous. Carrie easily switches from one name to another: Carrie Meeber to Mrs. Drouet to Mrs. Hurstwood to Mrs. Wheeler to the actress Carrie Madenda. Hurstwood reluctantly changes his name to Wheeler, but he can never change himself, and eventually it is his ruin.
Quite by chance, I read a version of Sister Carrie that was fairly different from the one I read in high school. When Dreiser published this in 1900, several people made cuts for different reasons: a friend of his cut a lot of the Naturalist philosophizing in the interest of selling it to a wider audience; his wife made editorial changes for readability; his editor cut out some of the more scandalous bits. The version I read is a “restored” version published by Penguin Classics, with an introduction by Alfred Kazin, and it brings back all the lost material. I found it more tragic, more shocking, and far more interesting than I’d remembered — though of course most of that is me, as a reader, getting better over the years, not Dreiser.
I think the thing that struck me most about this book was the contrasts. At the center, you have two characters who are basically drifters, not very strong, not very intelligent or moral or fine or witty, not very bad either, just your average city-dwellers. On one end, you have the experience of the ultimate importance of ten cents, or of the cost of a steak, or of the way people juggle their bills so they don’t have to pay everyone at once. On the other, you have someone earning a hundred and fifty dollars a week, who is offered a suite in a hotel for free so that the hotel has the benefit of her name, who can spend just what she likes. What pushes these two drifters up or down along this scale? Darwinism, I think, or rather the silly concept of social Darwinism; the ability to adapt, to use the environment to their advantage. Our society rewards those who can; those who cannot, sink, murmuring, “What’s the use?”
Of course I never should have doubted Teresa for a moment. This was a terrific read, and I particularly enjoyed comparing it to Zola, another Naturalist in another place. I’ve got a fever, and the only cure is more book swap!