Friday, November 14, 2014

Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser

Beats the heck out of Sister Carrie
Jennie Gerhardt is a young woman of eighteen years of age, the daughter of a poor family living in Columbus, Ohio. Her father scrapes by with a series of odd jobs, but he can’t support seven children by himself, so Jennie and her mother call at a downtown hotel looking for housekeeping work. While cleaning at the hotel, they meet Senator Brander, a resident there, who hires the mother and daughter to do his washing. Brander, a charming and attractive man in his fifties who has never married, is immediately taken by Jennie’s unassuming but uncommon beauty. He takes an interest in her family and helps them out financially from time to time. Over the course of regular laundry deliveries, Jennie and Brander become more closely acquainted, and it soon becomes clear that, despite their difference in age and class, his interest in her is more than platonic. Jennie is a good girl, but how can she resist this attractive, charming, older man?

Though Theodore Dreiser is best known for his debut novel Sister Carrie, his second novel Jennie Gerhardt, published in 1911, is superior in almost every way. It’s surprising how similar these two consecutive novels are in terms of subject matter. Both feature a female protagonist born of a lower class who attracts a man from a higher station in life. Both women are thus elevated above their humble breeding into a higher social sphere, but never quite find comfort or safety in their new situation. In the eleven years between the two novels, it appears that Dreiser learned a lot about women. Jennie is a much more complex, realistic, and likeable character than Carrie Meeber. The male leads in each novel are quite similar also—men with established and prestigious positions in the business world who endanger their reputations by taking up with a woman socially beneath them. The one area where Sister Carrie surpasses Jennie Gerhardt is in its depiction of the social and economic conditions of its time, particularly in its scenes of labor unrest. Jennie Gerhardt does explore poverty to some extent, but mostly its an examination of the constricting social conventions and hypocritical moral righteousness rampant in the stratified social structure of the era. It was a time when one instance of premarital sex would brand a woman as a harlot, and anyone who strove to mingle with those financially above them would be firmly reminded of their proper place. Dreiser takes a feminist stance in pointing out the absurdity of such restrictions. Given such a rigid moral code, it’s a wonder how anyone ever got together to make babies.

The most compelling quality of Dreiser’s novel is its authenticity. Jennie is an exceptional girl, by some real-world standards, but she’s no idealized heroine. She makes some stupid mistakes in this book, but they’re real-life mistakes, the kind that you or I or the people we know make every day. Dreiser finds drama in the choices and tribulations of common people and elevates their everyday lives to the level of Greek tragedy. Stylistically, his prose is very much in the vein of Emile Zola’s naturalism. His descriptive passages are marked by an unflinching, almost microscopic realism, yet he goes off into eloquent philosophical asides that ponder the very nature of humanity itself. He’s kinder and gentler than Zola, though. Nothing feels forced or overwrought. I kept expecting that the next turn of the page would bring some monumental tragedy, but it never came. Dreiser shows us realistic people dealing with real-world troubles, yet it’s never dull, sappy, or melodramatic. Though not without its flaws, this novel is an exemplary work of American realism and a compelling read for anyone who enjoys the classic literature of the early 20th century.

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