Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

I read Sister Carrie as part of an Indiana author theme that my book club has been pursuing for a few months. It also would have fit well with the theme of fallen women that my previous book club discussed, but did not pursue, a year or two ago.

Of the other classic "fallen woman" tales that I have read, however, this would probably be my least favorite. I didn't particularly like the characters in Vanity Fair, but the historical details were interesting. In spite of Hardy's fatalism, I did like Tess of the D'Urbervilles for its beautiful narratives and vivid characters. But I am truly hard pressed to find anything that I like about Sister Carrie. The writing style is dull and tedious; the characters are mostly apathetic (and incredibly stupid, though that's not very nice to say); and the historical setting is extremely narrow in scope and description. If my book club's meeting had not been postponed for a week, I probably would not have even finished the book, which is something I rarely let myself do.

Carrie comes to Chicago at the age of eighteen to seek employment and find better prospects than her small Wisconsin hometown could afford. She finds work in a shoe factory, but spends most of her time bemoaning the hard labor and envying the rich who seem to lead such an easy and glamorous life. When she loses her job due to illness and is almost destitute, she is "saved" by Drouet, a travelling salesman who establishes her as his "wife." Among Drouet's acquaintances, Carrie is introduced to Hurstwood, a successful manager at least twice her age who is dissatisfied with his home life and quickly enamoured with Carrie. Hurstwood is charming, but deceptive. He hides that he is married; he steals $10,000 from his employer; he lies to Carrie so that she will run away with him; he even deceives her in supposedly marrying her, since that was not done legally either. Carrie and Hurstwood attempt to start a new life in New York, but Hurstwood struggles to succeed and Carrie is still jealous of her wealthy neighbors. When Hurstwood's business venture fails after a few years, he sinks into depression over his inability to find work. Finally driven to frustration, Carrie begins to work as a chorus girl and quickly achieves success and fame as an actress, leaving Hurstwood behind to fend for himself. As Carrie lives the life of luxury of which she had always dreamed, Hurstwood sinks lower and lower, begging and subsisting from day to day on the generosity of various charities. Yet Carrie is still unsatisfied and, above all, lonely. "This too is vanity and striving after wind."

I cannot help but compare Carrie to Tess. While it is true that both Hardy and Dreiser had a fatalistic world view, their portrayal of these women is vastly different. Tess is portrayed as a victim, one who was dealt the worst lot in spite of all her efforts to be good. Carrie, on the other hand, appears as one who is merely carried along by her circumstances, seldom protesting even if she doesn't like something. Goodness is inconsequential because her chief motivation is comfort. As long as she is provided for decently, she will go along with whatever farce is necessary to keep up appearances. Granted, Tess eventually succumbed to that at the end, but it was her last resort, not a continual habit. Needless to say, I can respect and feel sympathy toward a character like Tess much more than Carrie.

The narrator occasionally comments on this apathy, but generally it seems to be more social commentary than moral judgment. When Carrie accepted Drouet's help and became his mistress, we're told "She followed whither her craving led. She was yet more drawn than she drew" (74). Hurstwood wrestles about whether to steal the money from his employer for several pages, but for all that indecision the narrator notes, "The true ethics of the situation never once occurred to him. It is most certain that they never would have, under any circumstances" (270).

It is interesting to note the insights into roles of men and women. When Carrie gives up on Hurstwood's fruitless job search and starts to look for work, "Hurstwood saw her depart with some faint stirrings of shame, which were the expression of a manhood rapidly becoming atrophied" (381). Of Carrie, it is said, "It is curious to note how quickly a profession absorbs one. Carrie became wise in theatrical lore...Gradually the desire for notice took hold of her. She longed to be renowned like others and read with avidity all the complimentary or critical comments made concerning others high in her profession. The showy world in which her interests lay completely absorbed her" (442). By this time she had left Hurstwood and seldom gave him another thought. How sad for both the man and the woman when the roles of provider and nurturer are reversed.

In a word, I found Sister Carrie to be a truly pathetic story - not tragic, but pitiful in the foolishness and futility of it all. The characters are "driven and tossed by the wind" of their desires for love, fortune, or success, and as a result they make ridiculously foolish choices. I found it incredibly frustrating to observe their stupidity and naivete, especially coupled with the fact that they didn't learn from their experiences. Though I don't expect I'll need another dose of fatalism anytime soon, I'll take Hardy over Dreiser any day!

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