Thoughts about “Sister Carrie”

I just finished reading Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and I have been struck by many of the themes. I had read it as a teenager–as an assignment–and so I came to it in a very different place. I think it is a brilliant book. It was considered immoral when it was published (Frank Norris was a reader at Doubleday and accepted it, and then when Doubleday himself read it, did not want to publish it and did so only under duress–and made no attempt to market it). I don’t think it is immoral, but it is certainly amoral–it’s typically called naturalistic. In other words, characters who do “bad” things are not necessarily punished. Carrie ends up prospering in the novel, even though she has “sinned” by living with both Drouet and Hurstwood without being married. Yet Dreiser is masterful in how he shows how limited her possibilities are. She doesn’t make moral choices as much as she just drifts from one segment of her life to the next. It’s interesting to me how well Dreiser portrays how luck sometimes has a part in what happens to us. We like to think that we are in control, and think that if something good happens to us it is because we deserved it, and worked hard for it–and if someone is out of a job, ergo they must not deserve one. It’s very easy to fall into that mental trap–I’ve done it.
The other thing Dreiser does so well that it hurts is describe poverty and privation. When Hurstwood is standing in the cold, waiting to have a 15 cent bed, with the wind whipping through his thin clothes, I FEEL it with his description. In fact when I was reading it, I turned the air conditioning off!
Carrie is uneducated, and has no moral compass. It’s interesting to me that there is just one mention of her father and no mention of her mother. There is never a mention of the possibility of children for Carrie–it is an absent idea. Motherhood and family don’t play an important part in this novel.
I have to admit that it was a little depressing to read it. It’s scary to think about spending your money down until you have nothing left and you are on the streets. We have all kinds of social safety nets that will catch us in 2008 that didn’t exist in 1898. But I think it’s good to be depressed sometimes. It reminds me that poverty exists, that I need to help do something about it, and that I may be closer to the streets than I think.


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