Published by W.W. Norton on 2006 (original pub. 1900)
Genres: Classics, Fiction
Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser, is a novel written at the turn of the century, as America was transitioning from a traditional to a modern society. In the modernized cities of Chicago and New York, new opportunities for social mobility were available to those with the imagination and determination to rise. Sister Carrie tells the story of one such person.
At the age of 18, Carrie Meeber leaves her home in a small Wisconsin town to begin a new life in Chicago. A materialistic young girl, she feels stifled by the small, wearisome and lower-class life she is expected to lead after moving in with her sister’s family. She wants money, pretty clothes and the freedom money affords! Through a combination of environmental factors and her own free will, she is able to rise through society. By the end of the novel, her transition from a poorly dressed girl living in a cramped apartment to a wealthy, self-sufficient woman living at the top of a first-class hotel is complete.
Sister Carrie is very much a novel about the American Dream — the idea that a person can rise from poverty to prosperity. Although some people attain success through hard work, others get lucky. While reading this novel and discussing it in my Modern American Lit. class, I had to keep questioning which category Carrie falls under. Throughout the novel, environmental factors influence her actions, but would those factors have been enough to make a difference if she did not know how to take advantage of them? I’ll give a few examples.
1. By chance, Carrie meets Drouet, a stylish and affluent salesman, on the train to Chicago, but she makes the imperative decision to give him the address at which she will be staying. It would not be socially acceptable during this time for Carrie, a young, single woman, to give her address to this complete stranger, but Carrie uses her move to Chicago as a chance to reinvent herself. She no longer has to be the meek girl people expected in her small town home; she can be a new woman who flouts traditional social conventions. Was she foolish and naive in giving him her address, or was she calculating?
2. She happens to run into Drouet again, in Chicago, while looking for a new job. He offers her money to buy a hat and a coat, and the environmental pressure of survival in the harsh winter drives her to accept. She doesn’t have to take the money, but without the clothes it will buy she might contract pneumonia and perish. It doesn’t take much longer for him to convince her to leave her sister’s home and move into his flat. She gets lucky in finding this man who takes her under his wing, but if she were not such a modern, liberated woman, she would not have accepted his help.
These are just a few examples early on in the book (I don’t want to give too much away); there are many instances in which luck seems to go her way, but her instinctive knowledge about how to get ahead enables her to take advantage of her opportunities.
I have mixed feelings about Carrie. On one hand, I was really irritated by her blind approval of wealthy people — she has a definite opinion that people who have money are somehow better than those who do not — and her materialism. On the other hand, her desire for beautiful things drives her forward; the pretty jacket in the department store window is something to strive for, and she does whatever it takes to attain it. But back on the first hand, she uses people to get what she wants and then tosses them aside when a better offer comes along. I could keep going back and forth about how I admire her for doing what it took to get ahead but the characteristics that allowed her to move upward are displeasing to me, until the cows come home, but I think I will leave it at that.
Although Carrie often irritated me, I really enjoyed the novel. (Who says the main character has to be likeable? New post idea right there!) The theme of determinism vs free will in the context of the transition from a traditional to a modern culture was intriguing and thought-provoking — there were some very heated debates in my English class! I would love to discuss this theme in more depth, as Carrie’s rise corresponds to another character’s decline, but I hate to give away the entire book for those who haven’t read it yet. Can you even “spoil” a book published over one hundred years ago? I’m not sure, but for the sake of brevity, I will leave off here. Aside from the interesting themes, Dreiser’s writing was written in a conversational style that made the reading easy and enjoyable.