Friday, July 2, 2010

On "Sister Carrie" by Theodore Dreiser *****

There are moments toward the end of Sister Carrie that reminded me of a work toward the beginning of my list of American writings between 1870 and 1920, and those moments help illuminate why Dreiser's book was hushed away while Horatio Alger's books were popular. Alger writes of a shoe-shine boy who works his way from rags to riches. Dreiser writes of a man on the way down. The former works hard for a living; the later, at some points, tries to but remains too depressed to move forward and too hard pressed by the forces around him to even manage to make a decent living. Meanwhile, a woman who has shown almost no substantial morality gets rich on her looks.

But although Dreiser's book may be a commentary of sorts on the saccharine view of some of the popular literature of its day, it's even more a commentary on American society and American values--as they were then, and as they continue to be to our day. Dreiser's work is nothing less than an attack on consumerism, capitalism, and the American dream. Each of the three main characters in some way values money and riches. That's is their soul. That is their occupation. That is the only motivation.

Carrie, the book's main character, is a case in point. She moves to the big city for some adventure and for a little spending money. She ends up in the dull home of her sister and her brother-in-law, hard-working lower-class Americans. If this were Alger's work, this family would be moving on up--and quickly. But this is Dreiser, and their life is a drudgery, and so too promises to be Carrie's life.

Carrie, however, is swept up with the glamor of the big city. She wants in--but not on some servant level. She wants to be as well off and well dressed (grooming is important in this book) as the rich people she sees wandering down the street. She wants to go to the fine restaurants, to the plays. She wants to be entertained. She wants.

So do the other characters. This is America, and what's more natural than a little lust to make things work properly. Drouet, an up-and-coming salesman and a lady's man takes Carrie in. She gets paid well for becoming essentially his mistress. She gets clothes. She gets to go to the theater. She doesn't have to work. Drouet knows to say just enough to string her along, promising marriage, some day, if he can ever manage to be faithful and ever manage to make the next big sale.

Enter Hurstwood, a man of even greater wealth and seemingly more depth. Carrie falls hard for him. He falls hard for her. The problem: He's married, only Carrie doesn't know it. But in the end, what does marriage matter when lust is involved? Hurstwood determines to have her at all costs--destruction of his marriage, double-crossing his friend Drouet, whatever.

In the end, the two of them get exactly what they want--only it's not what they envisioned. Happiness, says Dreiser, is something one finds only in one's dreams.

In keeping with what was the rising modernist period, Dreiser places "art" as a counterpiece to this lust. Toward the end, Carrie, with all she has ever desired but incredibly unfulfilled, begins to realize that there is more to life than material things. Somehow, art can fill our craving. Call it what you will, the modernists were an optimistic sort. If God is dead, art, which can do nothing for us save offer some happy distraction for our brain or, more rarely, some insight into bettering the human condition (but certainly not escaping death or meaninglessness), is certainly an empty shell of a replacement.

Dreiser's writing is dry. Toward the the start, I found myself dreading the read. He provides lots of details about the city of Chicago in his day, many not pertinent to the narrative. He goes off on philosophical tangents (the story is told omnisciently, something few authors would try now and even fewer could get away with). But for all that, the novel picks up, and by the end, I found it hard to put it down for need of doing something else. This one is well worth sticking out the early passages.

You can download the book here at Project Gutenberg.

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