I just love when I am pleasantly surprised in reading a novel in which I had marginal expectations. For whatever reason (should I claim ignorance?), I have never read Theodore Dreiser, and I am not even sure what caused me to starting reading Sister Carrie other than guilt for having an opinion without actually having a true right to have such opinion!. I like the works of artist Reginald Marsh, and I find the book a handsomely produced book, very conservative and classic in style, which is why I picked up the book in the first place.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was an acclaimed, controversial and famous novelist in the early twentieth century. He has remained influential, and his works Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy continue to be popular and ensure his place in the Western Canon. Dreiser was an early founder of what is called the naturalist school, the style of which can best be described as a type of realism, avoiding romantic or surrealist influences. The naturalist school was often perceived as pessimistic, painting an often glum picture of life. Dreiser often focused conflicts between a desired life and social mores. His characters are real with human frailties, and can frighteningly seem eerily familiar when looking in the mirror.
Sister Carrie was published in 1900. It sold rather poorly (only 456 copies sold when first published), and was not heavily promoted due to moral objections about its content. However, it was met with some, though not universal, praise from critics. Over time, it’s importance grew, and it is now considered one of the great American ‘urban’ novels. It is gritty and bleak, but it is an outstanding story that captures the readers attention. There are not a lot of ‘wisdom’ sentences, resulting in relatively few quotes that will carry forward with me. However, the entirety of the novel will stay with me for quite some time.
Eighteen year old Caroline Meeber (“Sister Carrie”), a naive, small town girl moves to Chicago seeking a better life. Dreiser immediately foreshadows Carrie’s future when he says:
When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.
On the train to Chicago, she meets a man named Charles Drouet, a successful traveling salesman and womanizer, that becomes smitten with Carrie. Carrie quickly becomes disillusioned at the monotony of everyday life and the squalor around the very low paying factory jobs that the poor seek and perform. Being broke, and living with her financially poor, working class sister and her husband, she is unable to live the life she dreams of; going to the theater, wearing nice clothes, being treated as ‘someone’.
She realized in a dim way how much the city held — wealth, fashion, ease — every adornment for women, and she longed for dress and beauty with a whole heart.
Carrie runs into Drouet one day, who begins tempting Carrie by showering her with clothing, providing her some money and taking her to the theater.
The true meaning of money yet remains to be popularly explained and comprehended. When each individual realizes for himself that this thing primarily stands for and should only be accepted as a moral due — that it should be paid out as honestly stored energy, and not as a usurped privilege — many of our social, religious, and political troubles will have permanently passed. As for Carrie, her understanding of the moral significance of money was the popular understanding, nothing more. The old definition: “Money” something everybody else has and I must get,” would have expressed her understanding of it thoroughly.
He soon talks her into being a kept women, as he rents an apartment for Carrie. She struggles with the decision to move, but ultimately desire trumps instinct and reason.
Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason…his free will not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect guidance. He is becoming too wise to hearken always to instincts and desires; he is still too weak to always prevail against them…In this intermediate stage he wavers — neither drawn in harmony with nature by his instincts nor yet wisely putting himself into harmony by his own free will….In Carrie — instinct and reason, desire and understanding, were at war for the mastery.
She has not intentionally set out to improve her life by being ‘put up’ by a man; and in fact naively believes they will soon be married. The desire for a better life, or at least to not go back to the misery and poverty she came from, wins out.
Over time, being surrounded by more than she is used to, she begins to drop her provincial mannerisms and becomes more sophisticated, which adds to her charm and beauty. She meets a friend of Drouet named George Hurstwood, a seemingly worldly man, in a respected position, apparently better off financially than Drouet. They fall in ‘love’, or at least think they do, and secretly begin an affair.
..passion that sweeps from its seat, fuses and melts all arguments and theories into a tangled mass, and destroys for the time being the reasoning power. This majesty of passion is possessed by nearly every man once in his life, but it is usually an attribute of youth and conduces to the first successful mating…She might have been said to be imaging herself in love, when she was not. Women frequently do this. It flows from the fact that in each exists a bias towards affection, a craving for the pleasure of being loved. The longing to be shielded, bettered, sympathized with, is one of the attributes of the sex. This, coupled with sentiment and a natural tendency to emotion, often makes refusing difficult. It persuades them that they are in love.
Drouet is able to get Carrie a part in a local amateur play. She ends up giving an outstanding performance, causing both men to fall for her even more. The next day, her affair with Hurstwood is discovered. It also turns out Hurstwood was already unhappily married, unbeknownst to Carrie. Hurstwood panics, steals a bunch of money from his employer, lures and dupes Carrie to go with him, and escapes to Canada. Though upset, Carrie feels some excitement in traveling:
To the untraveled, territory other than their own familiar heath is invariably interesting. Next to love, it is the one thing which solaces and delights. Things new are too important to be neglected, and mind, which is a mere reflection of sensory impressions, succumbs to the flood of objects. Thus lovers are forgotten, sorrows laid aside, death hidden from view. There is a world of accumulated feeling back of the trite dramatic expression — “I am going away.”
A private eye and a guilty conscience have Hurstwood return most of the money in turn for not being charged. He realizes he cannot go back to Chicago, so gets divorced, marries Carrie (making her an ‘honest’ woman) and moves to New York. Initially things go well, and Hurstwood is able to provide Carrie with a moderate, but acceptable, living. However, he soon drops the veneer of sophistication that had attracted Carrie to him in the first place, and also loses the business he was part owner of.
In New York…the sea was already full of whales. A common fish must needs disappear from view — remain unseen. In other words, Hurstwood was nothing.
Carrie senses the change and grows increasingly despondent. Soon, their economic situation deteriorates drastically.
A man’s fortune or material progress is very much the same as his bodily growth. Either he is growing stronger, healthier, wiser, as the youth approaching manhood, or he is growing weaker, older, less incisive mentally, as the man approaching old age.
Hurstwood is too proud to take a job below him, and soon they go broke. Carrie is miserable and leaves him, moving in with a friend, once again poor.
Carrie lands a small part in a Broadway play. Soon the parts become bigger, and she becomes a minor star, with fame and more money than she has ever had. Carrie finds that she still longs and desires ‘something’ else; she thought fame and money would bring happiness, but it turns out they do not.
Carrie had attained that which in the beginning seemed life’s object, or, at least, such fraction of it as human beings ever attain of their original desires…yet she was lonely..Thus in life there is ever the intellectual and the emotional nature — the mind that reasons, and the mind that feels. Of one come the men of action; of the other, the poets and dreamers–artists all.
Dreiser’s characters are not judged by him, he just presents them as they are. Immorality certainly exists, but only that which could be called real and even somewhat understandable. Carrie essentially climbed the social and financial ladder by living with one man, then another. She ‘used’ them for life support when she had no other means. However, she felt that she loved them, and does not come across as a scheming, deeply immoral person.
Not evil, but longing for that which is better, more often directs the steps of the erring. Not evil, but goodness more often allures the feeling mind unused to reason.
If anything, the men, especially Hurstwood, come across as deeply troubled, incapable of making decisions based on moral choices. Having said that, even their situations are presented naturally, giving the reader some understanding and even sympathy for their situations. Even for the moralists out there, it would be hard to argue that clear lessons were not drawn; Carrie did not find happiness and Hurstwood lost everything (eventually even his life).
About the Edition
The highlight of this edition is the illustrations by Reginald Marsh (1898-1954). Marsh was one of the top American artists of the first half of the last century. He rejected modern art, preferring the influences of more classical styles. His work was a perfect match for Dreiser, as Marsh’s style could also be classified as social realism.
- This limited edition is from 1939
- 6 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches, 408 pages
- Designed and printed by Joseph Blumenthal at The Spiral Press in New York in black and brown inks
- Illustrations and drawings by Reginald Marsh, who also signs the edition
- Introduced by Burton Rascoe
- The text is composed in the 12-point size linotype Janson, and printed on a white rag Worthy paper
- Gold gilding on top edges, uncut on side
- The binding is of boards covered with a natural Irish linen and brown Bancroft linen, with a linen label stamped in gold
- Limited to 1500 copies, mine is #424