Friday, April 20, 2012
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
Speckled with moments of brilliance
Carrie Meeber leaves her small-town home in Wisconsin to try to make a life in Chicago. After unsuccessfully searching for steady employment, she gives up and becomes the “kept woman” of a male acquaintance, Charles Drouet. She finds her life with Drouet satisfactory for a while, but when she meets his friend George Hurstwood, a wealthier and more sophisticated gentleman, she begins a secret love affair with this older, married man.
I’m a big fan of the naturalist novel, and Dreiser is renowned as one of the best American practitioners of this literary style. Even so, I was disappointed with this book. Though Dreiser, like an exemplary naturalist, brilliantly captures the naked reality of social conditions and human behavior, that alone doesn’t make a great novel. A great novel requires characters that the reader actually cares about, and that’s what I felt was lacking from this book. It’s unfortunate that Dreiser chose a female protagonist, because he doesn’t display a whole lot of insight into the feminine mind. Based on this book alone, one would think his conception of womankind could be summed up in the phrase, “They like shiny things.” Carrie comes across as shallow and stupid from chapter one. She continually makes life-changing decisions based on her desire for fancier clothing. In the second half of the book we gain more respect for her as she shows some competence in her chosen vocation, but it’s too little too late, and her basic nature doesn’t change. Hurstwood is a far more sympathetic character, but he exhibits his own frustrating assortment of unforgivable faults.
The best portions of the book succeed in spite of the characters and plot, rather than because of them. The expository comments Dreiser makes on human nature are far more insightful than anything being acted out by the book’s cast. The more documentary portions of the book are brilliantly drawn, for example an account of a transit workers’ strike, or the portrayal of the plight of the homeless. Unfortunately it’s difficult to feel much pathos for the one poor character in the book because his fall from riches to rags is brought about by extraordinarily bad decisions. Instead of a “this could happen to anyone” feeling toward poverty, the tragic downfall of the character leaves the reader with the attitude of “that would never happen to me” and “serves him right.”
Sister Carrie is to be commended for its groundbreaking lack of sentimentality and its disregard for the puritanical morality of its day. Its liberating influence on American literature is unquestionable. Enough moments of brilliance shine through this flawed book to show me that Dreiser did have the great American novel within him, and I’m going to keep reading his work until I find it.
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