I read Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie so long ago that I only had the vaguest memories of it, except for one powerful chapter, a set piece in which a major character, in dire need of a job, becomes a scab trolley car operator. This probably speaks to Dreiser’s strengths as a writer, especially his ability to create scenes and report conditions. The internal life of Dreiser’s characters takes second if not third place to story, events, scenes, his Chicago and New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. I should note that his prose is famously crude– journalistically sharp and clear at its best. But, oh, he can do a scene and a set piece: indeed, his set pieces– the street preacher collecting money to feed the destitute or that great strike chapter– have a towering importance in creating the world and social tensions of the novel. For many of these reasons, too, it is an ideal novel to read on an e-reader: it moves forward rapidly, and it’s in the public domain, and thus free!
The dramatization of social conflicts is central to the novel, and Dreiser himself was extremely aware of the politics of his time. In the 1910’s he wrote for the socialist publication The Masses, and he was an acquaintance or supporter of many people on the left like Max Eastman (before he became a rabid anti-communist) and Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. His work assumes as its background a world of workers, sometimes exploited (Carrie in the shoe factory) and sometimes out of work (Hurstwood’s long slide into penury). His main characters are members of the lower and lower middle classes striving upward and in imminent danger of failure. He describes the whole gamut of society, too: informal Sunday fashion parades on the great avenues of New York and grotesquely overabundant dinners of oysters and champagne as well as miserable mission beds for the homeless.
The novel is also an important critique of the American fetish for individuality and financial success. It follows three individuals who believe in wealth and luck and individual responsibility– which is not, in Dreiser’s world, a particularly admirable thing. The title character, Carrie, is the one who at the end of the novel is most successful in her career. She is at the top of her climb as the novel ends, but not especially content– and we readers have to know that her success is built on the charm of youth and freshness, which is the most precarious success of all. She is also the character whose trajectory depends most on luck. She depends for her climb on men who seduce her and support her. There is some cultural sexism here, but also Dreiser’s belief that it isn’t really your striving that is most important, it’s being in the right place at the right time: having good fortune.
Carrie is a kept woman, but there is no indication that sex motivates her. She responds most sensually to fabrics and furniture and little leather boots and good food. She is largely faithful to the two men who either save her or exploit her, depending on how you look at it. Part of the story is about who is using whom, and what it means to be a sexually active woman outside of marriage. Some of Dreiser’s attitudes come from his own life and his own sisters’ lives. Sister Carrie shocked a lot of Americans by ending with Carrie unpunished for her unmarried liaisons. She’s not a terribly appealing person to me, but she’s intelligent enough to observe and grab her opportunities when they appear. I did wonder how she managed never to get pregnant, but I assume an explanation of that would have been too much for Dreiser’s sometimes reluctant publishers.
The most interesting character in the novel is Hurstwood, Carrie’s second lover, but I want to mention first Drouet, her first lover. He’s a Midwestern drummer, a traveling salesman, an unsentimental version of Harold Hill in The Music Man. Drouet is the one who first seduces Carrie– without a lot of effort and with very little planning. He’s good humored and takes reasonably good care of her, by his lights. He also, condescendingly, gives her her first opportunity on stage. Later, when he tries to come back into her life after her theatrical career takes off, he is comically amazed that she could reject him.
Droet is fatuous– but there is a telling small scene in which he comes across better than the other two. Drouet and Carrie and Hurstwood are together on the street, and a beggar approaches them. The affluent Hurstwood, who will himself soon be a beggar, totally ignores the man. To Carrie, who has herself been poor and hungry, the beggar is part of the scenery; he barely registers in her consciousness. But Drouet feels sorry for him and casually gives him a coin. Drouet , then, is presented as the kind of person whose heart is good, but whose role in society depends a great deal on the kind of society he lives in.
The best character by far is Hurstwood, the manager of a large, famous Chicago bar (or “resort” as Dreiser calls it). Hurstwood has all the accoutrements of success– lovely home, wife and adult children, excellent clothes, property– but he is, in spite of appearances, only the well-paid servant of a higher class. He is acquainted with celebrities and rich men, smokes excellent cigars and sips top shelf liquor with them. He has an easy mastery of moving in a particular world and is well fitted to his role as manager. He is not, however, a capitalist. He is a paid employee, and like many Americans then and now, his position is far more precarious than he realizes. He doesn’t have enough wealth to move up much more. He is in the position where a couple of mistakes can send him on a downward path, and much of the story traces his mistakes and follows him down this path.
Hurstwood makes two great errors– or three, if you count how seriously he falls in love with Carrie. First, he underestimates his wife and puts his wealth in real estate in her name. His second great error is that in his desperation to run away with Carrie, he steals a large roll of money from his employers’ safe, left open by chance. Hurstwood never would have lowered himself to plan a robbery, but when the money is lying available to him, his belief in his own entitlement blinds him. He thinks he should continue to get the good things in life. His wife now has all his worldly possessions, so it seems obvious to him that money should come to him so he can live with the woman he loves in the style to which he is accustomed. The theft is neither clever nor successful. He ultimately returns most of the money and does no jail time, but his special value to his employers has evaporated. Everything that made him what he was is gone from him.
The theft, and the following pages of something between an elopement and an abduction of Carrie, is the climax, the turn in the story. The rest of the novel– and probably the best part– is how it all plays out. We see Carrie continue on her slow upward trajectory, and we see Hurstwood decline. They go to start a new life in New York, but Hurstwood essentially feels above the possibilities available to him. He doesn’t realize that his value to employers has been destroyed. He has enough money to buy into a bar that he feels is below his social position, and he is unable to deal with his unscrupulous partner or to create the kind of atmosphere in the business that made his previous bar such a success.
After two or three years, Carrie finally sees that Hurstwood is ruined and out of work and not getting a new job. He goes out every day, but stops job hunting. She finally begins to take action. She puts in a lot of energy getting a job as a chorus girl, and there are excellent scenes of her knocking on doors for employment. She makes a little money, supports herself and Hurstwood, but is increasingly disgusted by his depression and physical decline. She makes a small splash at work, gets a substantial raise, and her upward trajectory picks up momentum.
Just as, of course, Hurstwood’s downward momentum increases. He has, in the end, been poisoned by the ideology that led him to believe he was one of the wealthy that he was, in fact, only serving. This is one of the special cruelties of a so-called classless society: the butler of a British aristocrat may have identified with his master, but he never thought he was of the master class. Hurstwood would essentially rather die than take a job below what he believes to be his position. He undermines himself and plunges toward his doom.
At a certain point, Carrie says directly that he needs to be a man and get a job. This leads to the wonderful Chapter 41, The Strike. Hurstwood the Manager actually works for two days. And the work he does– this man spoiled by his closeness to American wealth– is to become a scab during a strike of the Brooklyn trolley system. Hurstwood is so caught up in his own misery that it never registers that he is doing anything but making a personal statement to Carrie by earning a few bucks. But Dreiser takes pains in this chapter to open the floor to many voices: the Irish American cops who ride the cars to protect the scabs; the other scabs who say they are on the side of the strikers, but have hungry kids at home.
And then, of course, there are the voices of the strikers themselves as they lay rocks on the track to stop the trolley cars and try to convince Hurstwood to join them. Children and old mothers join in the chorus. It’s a brilliant passage of realism, and even if you don’t care for Dreiser, I’d recommend reading the strike chapter, which stands alone very well, although it is, of course, much more powerful in the context of the whole book. [Click here for Strike Chapter].
The end of the novel is Carrie’s somewhat dissatisfied apex of success, and Hurstwood’s sad tour of the soup kitchens and missions of early twentieth century Manhattan. His end is sad, but predictable, and to some extent, a relief to the reader as to Hurstwood himself. Dreiser’s skill with a story shows up at the end as he intercuts Hurstwood’s final hours with Carrie’s celebrity and Hurstwood’s wife and daughter and son-in-law on a train rushing to New York to catch an ocean liner to Europe. It’s all there: the rich, the poor, the ones whose success trembles on the brink, the dissatisfaction, the misery, the feckless, the despondent and the hopeless.
A large part of what makes Sister Carrie a great political novel is, in my opinion, the breadth and depth of the world it creates and, of course, the fault lines of that world: the down-and-out; the strikers; the scenes in a shoe factory; the platters of oysters for the wealthy; the way the theater managers look at the girls who want to work in the chorus. It is a dramatized take-down of an ideology that would lead us to scramble up the ladder of success as lonely individuals.
Sister Carrie is available in your local library for free; it is also free as an e-book from many sources, including the highly recommended Gutenberg Project.