Friday, November 8, 2013

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

This book was first published in 1900.  The print edition that the Moore Memorial Public Library has is the same book that came out in 1900, with the addition of background notes and criticism.  “Sister Carrie” was Dreiser’s first novel.  The story takes place in Chicago and New York, cities in which Dreiser had had experience writing and reporting for different publications.  Carrie, a young 18 year old from Columbus, Ohio, comes to Chicago to live with her older married sister and to find work in the huge bustling city that people were pouring into at the rate of 50,000 people each year. 

Dreiser knew these statistics from his work in journalism, and his familiarity with the social economic classes at the time helped his novel writing.  But he is first and foremost a great storyteller.  While critics at the time found his writing clumsy or ponderous, the reader is conscious of nothing else but his or her interest in the character, and in anticipating what will happen.  Dreiser takes his narrative slowly, and we thoroughly experience the drabness and restriction of Carrie’s sister’s apartment that she shares with her husband.  As part of the struggling lower class, in 1889, they can’t look much farther than getting their wages –her husband cleans refrigerator cars in the stockyard – and paying their food and rent. 

Carrie got a glimpse of another kind of life when she met Drouet, a salesman, on the train on her way to Chicago.  He is a success at his work, and shows it in his dress and in his ability to pay his way in theaters and hotels, and to dine in restaurants with handwritten menus and red carpets. After she has tried to make her way alone, and gotten bruised in the process, Carrie encounters Drouet again.  He offers her a way into this big city, and all that it offers. 

While “Sister Carrie” brought censure on itself by having as its heroine a “fallen woman”, Dreiser saves Carrie from that censure by showing us her modesty, her desire to be married, and her own self-reproach for her actions.   We can see hers and the other characters’ limitations.  Dreiser lets us see their dreams, and how little import in their lives those dreams actually had.  This is his contribution as a “naturalist” writer. 

While reading Dreiser may make you somewhat melancholy, the steady growth of Carrie makes the book worth reading.  She is a woman in a man’s world, but a woman with aspirations, and with tenacity. 
You can find the book here in our catalog.

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