Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2011

Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser

Sister Carrie (Oxford World's Classics)One of the things I really like about plodding through the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, is the discovery of some less well-known classics.  Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser is a real ‘find’.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

1001 Books calls it grim, but I’d rather call it poignant.  It’s the story of Carrie Meeber who travels to Chicago for a better life than the one she has in small-town America.  On the train she meets a salesman who takes a shine to her, and before long she leaves her sister’s dreary house and shacks up with Drouet.

Well, no wonder readers were scandalised, eh? There were all kinds of shenanigans with the text and Dreiser had to fiddle with it to get it published at all.  But although this kind of frankness about ex-marital relationships was controversial, that’s not why this book is included in 1001 Books.  It was ground-breaking because of its realism in depicting the American Dream Gone Wrong and the shallowness that lies in the heart of a society fixated on material gain.

There’s no grand love affair, you see.  It’s not like Young Jolyon and Irene in The Forsyte Saga.  Carrie’s not in love with Drouet; she’s just totally discouraged by her fruitless search for work in a city that won’t give her any because she has no experience.  She wants to have nice clothes and a bit of fun, and Drouet offers both, not to mention vague promises of marriage as well.  And he, somewhat like an affectionate labrador, is only mildly fond of her; he just likes the company and he feels good about helping her out.

Alas for Drouet, one of his friends takes a shine to Carrie too, and he’s got more money and seems to Carrie to be more sophisticated and a better prospect.  He neglects to mention that he’s married which causes a bit of grief, but it’s an unhappy marriage and he’s so besotted with Carrie that he not only abandons his family for her but also irrevocably ruins his career and ends up on skid row.

And that’s the other aspect of this fine novel which scandalised its early readers.  For when Hurstwood and Carrie run away to New York together, he can’t get work at all while she finds a niche in a dramatic career.  As his money runs out, her acting career blossoms and she finds herself staying at the Waldorf while he’s begging outside.  Her capacity to grasp opportunity and thrive is in contrast to his degradation and moralists did not approve.

Saddest of all is that no one ends up happy.  Carrie is never going to be satisfied with her life, and all the characters’ relationships are shallow.  Money, and the want of it, is a constant theme throughout the novel,  but even when they have it, it doesn’t bring contentment.  None of these characters have a frame of reference by which to judge the worth of the consumer goods they buy.  Smartness matters, and fitting in wit people like Mrs Vance matters, but that’s the limit of their ambitions.

Amoral as these characters are, you can’t help feeling profound pity for Hurstwood…

Author: Theodore Dreiser
Title: Sister Carrie
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Source: Personal library

Availability: Sister Carrie (Oxford World’s Classics) at Fishpond; or Project Gutenberg


Responses

  1. Now that you’ve read Dreiser’s ‘Sister Carrie’, you are ready for Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’. It is just as scandalous. It was turned into this wonderful movie ‘A Place in the Sun’ starring Montgomery Cliff and Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. Both novel and movie are excellent. The novel is a quite long 800+ pages, so you may want to opt for the movie at this point which follows the novel quite closely.

    • Hi Tony, that’s a recommendation I can’t resist. I’ve downloaded it to my Kindle…

  2. I think I’ve heard of that one, and its probably another book I should read. I highly approve of books which don’t have a wholly positive message and reflect the messiness of life. The spoiler warning is a good idea but I think you need to tell the whole story with a book like this

    • Ah, Tom, I have a reason for evasive about the plot of this one. It’s a set text for American students, and I’m not about to provide the less scrupulous ones with material that they can copy and paste into their own essays! I have written reams about this story in my reading journal, but that’s where it stays…

  3. It is a very moving novel (and I didn’t realise it was in 1001… Oh goody, another one to tick off!)

    In the end it was Hurstwood’s story that gripped me. I cannot think of another novel of that era where a well set up man collapses so completely.

    • Yes, I can still see him sick and alone in that miserable room…


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