Sister Carrie

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!

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29 Responses to Sister Carrie

  1. MJ says:

    I’m glad to see this improved upon a second reading! I confess I loved it, as I can’t get enough of “scandalous” women in older novels.

    • Jenny says:

      This summer I’m in a book group that’s reading a bunch of those novels together! Hester Prynne, Becky Sharp, even Jo March. :) I love them, too.

  2. alenaslife says:

    I’m glad you loved it the second time through. I loved it in high school. She was my first true tragic heroine. I haven’t read it seince so I appreciate your insight. Maybe I too will give it a reread.

    • Jenny says:

      I guess I don’t see her as tragic. How is she tragic? She does very well for herself. I mean, she’s sort of melancholy, because that’s her nature, but Hurstwood is really the tragedy there. And “heroine” might be a bit of a stretch, too, to be honest. But yes, it was great.

      • alenaslife says:

        Hmmm…I think through my dramtatic high school eyes, her circumstances made her tragic to me. I may have romanticized her after all these years. I guess it is time to reread.

      • Jenny says:

        Well, that’s never going to hurt anything. I’d love to see your thoughts.

  3. I love your review. And I agree, books have a way of carrying its meaning to different age groups. Sometimes I enjoy a book months after the read. That’s when, in reflecting, the meaning grasps me. I also love the opposites demonstrated by Carrie and Hurstwood.

    • Jenny says:

      That was the interesting part to me. They are very similar characters, but end up in opposite places. Nice work, Dreiser.

  4. I am glad you liked this one. Not only a great book, but a seminal work of American fiction. Have you read Dreiser’s American Tragedy? I like that one even better.

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t read anything else by Dreiser, but after this, I might put that on my list! How is this one seminal? Do you think Dreiser really affected a lot of other American writers? Who, and how? I don’t know much about this stuff.

      • I think it is seminal from a cultural standpoint because it is one of the first American novels to deal with city life with all its grit, and vice, without being mired down in Victorian morals. Plus it deals with Carrie’s move from the rural to urban at the time when the country was urbanizing. It deals with class mobility (or imobility), it’s Chicago at a time when it had become the second most populous city in the US. It’s about a woman….its scandalous…I am trying to remember the discussions about it from grad school…

    • anglophile says:

      absolutely….Dreiser capture the American emotional landscape perfectly…

  5. Simon T says:

    I bought this nearly a decade ago, after seeing it mentioned favourably in an article somewhere, and yet I have never come even close to reading it. I didn’t have a clue what it was about. Your enthusiastic review has encouraged me somewhat… it might be useful for crossing off 1900 on my Century of Books!

    Whenever American Tragedy is mentioned, incidentally, I think of the Provincial Lady, who is reading it whilst waiting for someone at the docks…

    • Jenny says:

      Ha ha! She would! Yes, this seems like it might be something you’d enjoy, but I’ll warn you, Simon, there’s a lot of philosophy mixed in with the storytelling. Dreiser was really thinking things out, about the way place affects people, and the way temperaments change relationships, and so forth.

  6. Teresa says:

    I breathe a sigh of relief. I felt sure that you’d find this book interesting, but I had no idea you’d read it before when I suggested it, so I’m glad it went better the second time. I can’t think of many women characters quite like Carrie in novels of the period. So often the “wicked” women are Becky Sharps and Undine Spraggs, clawing their way to the top, or they’re rendered “wicked” by society’s double standards, like Tess and Ruth and all those other fallen women. Carrie is both, and neither. She’s willing to be good or bad, whatever is easiest and most comfortable. I also loved the breadth of it, different classes and lifestyles, different cities. It’s all urban America of course, but a hefty slice of it.

    I wish I knew now whether the edition I read was the restored on. I don’t think it was a Penguin. I’ll have to investigate!

    • Jenny says:

      You would probably be interested, maybe in glancing at some of the differences side-by-side. I checked a scene online (the University of Virginia has the non-restored version online as an etext) for this post, and it was quite different.

      I agree with you about Carrie! “Absorptive” was one word I thought of for her, like a sponge. She takes what she’s given and ponders it. And comfort is a big deal for her.

  7. Lisa says:

    I have never read any of Dreiser’s books – and we certainly weren’t reading anything at this level in high school. I’m always intrigued by novels about women “making their way” – particularly before the First World War.

    • Jenny says:

      The glimpse into factory life was really interesting in that way — how tedious and uncomfortable it was. Dreiser seems to imply that Carrie wasn’t made for that kind of life. But was she made for a life of sponging off of men, then? That seems to be her other option at the time.

  8. IN fairness to your earlier self, parts of the novel are grim, and other parts are tedious, just deadly. Carrie’s theatrical debut for example, where apparently thinks we need to read the script. A real play, for what that’s worth.

    The seminal and influential business is true, but it is a branch of American literature I have trouble caring about – the branch filled with Big Ideas and Critiques of Bourgeois Complacency and Bad Writing, The ant-Nabokovian branch, so to speak.

    But: The way Joseph Epstein describes Dreiser – I am paraphrasing – is that however bad his writing or ideas can be at times, he always pulls himself together for the really important scenes, He knows, somehow he knows. Hurstwood with the safe, for example, or the streetcar strike, which is pretty much outstanding from beginning to end.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I looked up the play (Little Auggie! Apparently the inventor of being tied to the railroad tracks?) and you must at least be impressed by the X-treme verisimilitude. And you nailed the way the novel ebbs and flows — I should have mentioned it. Sometimes I was howling at it to stop telling me every detail of the Forces of Men’s Lives, and then on the next page I had something like that streetcar strike, or the Captain finding beds for a hundred men, Hurstwood among them.

      Critiques of bourgeois complacency are okay (I like Steinbeck) but not bad writing. I’ll have to look further into it.

    • Jenny says:

      p.s. I see J. Epstein has a lot of collections of essays out. If I’d like to start mostly with his literary analysis, can you recommend a title?

  9. Epstein’s literary collections all have the iniitals “PP”: Plausible Prejudices, Pertinent Players, Puckery Pickles, like that. The Dreiser essay is in Partial Payments. I would say go by interest – whatever in the table of contents catches the eye.

    Oh, I am wrong – another book is called Life Sentences. Hey, there’s another Dreiser essay in that one. Same piece, different? No idea.

  10. I read Sister Carrie in a grad school class and I remember being surprised at home much I did enjoy it! It’s one of those classics I’d really like to revisit to experience it all over again.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve done that with a number of books I originally disliked (most glaring being The Great Gatsby) and have had wonderful success.

  11. Karen K. says:

    I’ve had this on the TBR list but I’ve been hesitant after An American Tragedy, which I found to be overly long and heavy-handed with the message (seriously, Dreiser could have cut a couple hundred pages from the last section and gotten his point across.) My husband also read this in high school and hated it, but maybe this is like Madame Bovary, something which would never appeal to a high-school boy. I didn’t read Bovary until I was 40 and I thought it was great. Maybe it is time to give Dreiser another try.

  12. Biblibio says:

    I read Sister Carrie in 11th grade (just for fun, not as any curriculum) and I really enjoyed it. It’s probably the Zola comparison – the style and the angle fascinated me. I remember thinking how wonderfully modern the book felt, almost as though the occasionally “bad” writing was just a more modern approach… This is one I could see appreciating even more some years down the line when I reread it.

  13. boardinginmyforties says:

    And this is why I am a big proponent of rereading. I have found time and again that my older self has a very different take on things that I read when I was younger. Sometimes I find a new appreciation for a book that didn’t do much for me when I originally read it and sometimes I find that a book I really liked doesn’t do much for my older self. But I am always surprised and glad to reread something and see what the outcome will be.

    • Jenny says:

      I totally agree with you, Kathleen. I have had many experiences where I’ve loved something I used to hate — the most notable being The Great Gatsby. I think I’m going to try Great Expectations again soon, and see what I make of it now.

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