Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2011

Jennie Gerhardt, by Theodore Dreiser

Eleven years after Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, the ground-breaking Sister Carrie had failed to sell well because of its ‘morally dubious’ central character (see my review).  When Jennie Gerhardt was published in 1911, this time the heroine was a noble, self-sacrificing soul, an innocent who stumbles into the sort of folly that respectable people who’ve never known the depredations of poverty deplored. She is naturally attractive to men, who don’t intend to treat her badly, but her social situation means that they can treat her as they never would a member of their own class. And when she falls, as the reader knows she inevitably will, she is judged harshly by the gender-specific hypocrisies of the day.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Senator Brander is the first man to take an interest in her.  Father Gerhardt is off work due to illness, and the family’s steady progression towards the American dream is in peril. There is a mortgage to be paid, and when bills fall due there is no money to pay them.  Jennie and her mother take up cleaning and laundry work at an expensive hotel, and there the lonely Senator, twice Jennie’s age, gives in to the attraction he feels.  He begins by helping the family, and while keenly aware of the social distance between them, he starts to think of marriage.  Mother Gerhardt is mildly anxious when she hears gossip about Jennie’s innocent sojourns in the Senator’s rooms and puts a stop to her visits; Father Gerhardt is outraged when –  deprived of in-house contact, the Senator walks out with her in the evenings.  Up to this point it is all as chaste as could be, but still, Gerhardt is so angry that he refuses Brander’s offer of marriage, prohibits all further financial help, and makes the women stop working at the hotel.

This on its own would catapult the family back into dire financial straits, but then Jennie’s brash older brother, Bass, gets into trouble.  To make ends meet, the children have been gathering scrap coal that’s fallen by the railroad tracks, but Bass now climbs up onto the wagons and throws down the coal to make collection more efficient.  While the authorities were obviously turning a blind eye to poor children harvesting scrap, they won’t tolerate blatant theft, and Bass is arrested.  He makes things worse by resisting arrest, and ends up with a fine to pay.  Jennie knows not what else to do but to ask the Senator for help.  She goes alone to his hotel room.  And you can guess what happens there.

Preoccupied by political machinations, Brander then sets off for Washington, sending Jennie money and making vague plans about how to marry her in the face of her father’s hostility.  And then he has a heart attack…

The next fellow to cause Jennie grief is Lester Kane,  self-confident arrogant visitor to the wealthy Bracebridge household where she has taken work as a lady’s maid.  The family has broken up over Jennie’s pregnancy: Gerhardt threw her out of the house and then went to work elsewhere, while the rest of the family moved to Cleveland to get away from the shame of the illegitimate child.  Jennie’s employers do not know that she is a mother; and Lester thinks they share a destiny.

Given the frenetic pace of 21st century life, it is amusing to see that Dreiser complains about the pace of change, declaring that Lester can’t really be blamed for his Rabelasian ways because the human brain can’t really cope with the ‘vast army of facts and impressions which present themselves daily… weighed upon by too many things’.  This passage gets quoted everywhere:

We live in an age in which the impact of materialised forces is well-nigh irresistible: the spiritual nature is overwhelmed by the shock.  The tremendous and complicated development of our material civilisation, the multiplicity, and variety of our social forms, the depth, subtlety, and sophistry of our imaginative impressions, gathered, remultiplied, and disseminated by such agencies as the railroad, the express and the post office, the telephone, the telegraph, the newspaper, and, in short, the whole machinery of social intercourse–these elements of existence combine to produce what may be termed a kaleidoscopic glitter, a dazzling and confusing phantasmagoria of life that wearies and stultifies the mental and moral nature.  It induces a sort of intellectual fatigue through which we see the ranks of the victims of insomnia, melancholia, and insanity constantly recruited.  (Ch 17)

Having outgrown youthful idealism, Lester is interested in female company but not in marriage.  He does love Jennie, in his way, but not enough to transcend the social gulf.  Keenly aware of her beauty and her vulnerability, he nevertheless decides that Jennie’s destiny lies with him.  Once again the family finances are in dire straits, and that’s that, really. There is a sort of inevitability in Dreiser’s plots as if the characters have little choice about what happens to them.  The only difference this time is that Jenny has a clearer idea of what she’s getting into, that there is an added complication in the form of Lester’s rigidly conservative brother Robert and the rest of his family, and that Jennie already has a child by another man.

It is a painful moment for Jennie when she realises from Lester’s sister Louise just how the world perceives their arrangement.   She has adjusted to the idea that Lester will never marry her despite the fact that they love one another and enjoy the kind of companionship many marriages fail to have, but she yearns to be ‘decent’:

So this was her real position in another woman’s eyes. Now she could see what the world thought. This family was as aloof from her as if it lived on another planet. To his sisters and brothers, his father and mother, she was a bad woman, a creature far beneath him socially, far beneath him mentally and morally, a creature of the streets. And she had hoped somehow to rehabilitate herself in the eyes of the world. It cut her as nothing before had ever done. The thought tore a great, gaping wound in her sensibilities. She was really low and vile in her–Louise’s–eyes, in the world’s eyes, basically so in Lester’s eyes. How could it be otherwise? She went about numb and still, but the ache of defeat and disgrace was under it all. Oh, if she could only see some way to make herself right with the world, to live honorably, to be decent. How could that possibly be brought about? It ought to be–she knew that. But how?  (Chapter 32)

Things having come to a head with his family, Lester decides to make a fresh start further afield, where the couple style themselves as man and wife to the extent that they even convince old Gerhardt to come and live with them in his old age.  Dreiser omits to give any hint of Jennie’s isolation – having no friends or company of her own throughout the years they are together – but he allows a brief honeymoon with the neighbours until rumours begin to circulate.  The author’s suggestion that Jennie doesn’t mind (unless it’s meant to be irony) isn’t very convincing:

And as a matter of fact existence with Lester and Jennie did run smoothly. It is true that the neighbors did not call any more, or only a very few of them, and there was no social life to speak of; but the deprivation was hardly noticed; there was so much in the home life to please and interest.

Well, events conspire as the reader knew they would and Jennie soon learns that Love was not enough in this world–that was so plain. One needed education, wealth, training, the ability to fight and scheme. (Chapter 54)  For Lester there is a battle between material and spiritual gain; but his indecisive character and inherent weaknesses leads to the inevitable.  His complete lack of self-awareness makes him claim that ‘all of us are more or less pawns. We’re moved about like chessmen by circumstances over which we have no control’ but no reader can take that at face-value from him in the circumstances.

For Jennie there is only fatalism: ‘Life was always doing this sort of a thing to her. It would go on doing so. She was sure of it’. (Chapter 57)

The Dreiser view of the world is not an optimistic one – the question is, how realistic a picture is it of American life at the turn of the twentieth century?  This might be more readily answered if Jennie were less self-effacing and endlessly forgiving.  She is almost saintly in her thoughts and deeds, as if to underscore just how unreasonable society’s attitudes were: she never loses her temper, has no interest in money, rationalises the attitudes of others towards her by taking all blame upon herself, and adapts herself to everyone else’s wishes.  This characterisation is a bit heavy-handed, in my opinion, and not very convincing.  Or perhaps it’s just that I would have liked Jennie to have a bit of spirit!

© Lisa Hill

Author: Theodore Dreiser
Title: Jennie Gerhardt
Publisher: Project Gutenberg, first published 1911
eText 28988
Source: Amazon Kindle


Responses

  1. I like the idea of Jennie as a kind of anti-Carrie. If I ever stumble across this novel in a second-hand shop I will consider it a fortuitous find :)


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