How does Dreiser implement Naturalism in "Sister Carrie"?
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Influenced by Herbert Spenser and Charles Darwin, Naturalists looked at their writings as a scientific experimentation through which they simply recorded their observations. Many of the works included the following themes: survival, determinism, and violence. Without these ever-present themes the works could not be truly considered Naturalistic.
Nature was considered all powerful. Mankind was left to fight the typically personified Nature. Artificial and natural objects were given human or, more typically, animalistic qualities to which man was required to fight against.
One main characteristic of Naturalistic texts was the exclusion of free will. For the Naturalist, free will did not exist given nature was all-powerful and determined the outcome of all. Naturalists also include scenarios of all types in their texts. They are not afraid to illuminate the sexual perversions of people.
This being said, in the novel Sister Carrie, Carrie tries very hard to overcome the obstacles in life- lack of social standing, lack of wealth, and lack of experience. Regardless of her determination, Carrie is unable to conquer the ultimate fate which nature has decided for her: her inability to find true happiness.
Outside of that, the novel is filled with prostitution and adultery. These topics are relevant to the theme of the Naturalist given the Naturalist does not shy away from topics which some would find offensive or pornographic. Naturalists detailed life as it was; they did not provide a lens through which to examine life. They simply stated the obvious and factual.
Dreiser does this in his novel. He protrays a woman, driven by financial desire, who prostitutes her body fro the promise of wealth and upper-class life.
Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie is an example of a naturalist text because
1)it integrates the ideas behind the American literary realism movement, particularly in terms of precise descriptions and rational observations, yet also contains elements that make the reader understand that characters are simply the products of environment and outside influences.
2)It should also be stated that the urban landscape marks a departure from traditional realists texts and this urban “sea” of humanity forms the basis for the actions of both the protagonist as well as her society as a whole. Capitalism in “Sister Carrie” by Dreiser and the desire to consume is the driving force and desire becomes more important that genuine sentiment.
3)In this novel, characters change in class status and are constantly at risk of being lost in the sea of the urban landscape. These elements define Sister Carrie and the naturalist movement as a whole.
4)Although Sister Carrie is a text with groundings in the conventions of realism, there is an interesting shift towards naturalism. This shift is most visible when the narrator gives the reader insights into characters and it becomes clear that they are creatures not only of the natural world, but also of the environment.
5)More specifically, this environment is one of capitalism, of urban landscapes, and class differences. It is no longer feasible for Dreiser, to depict the world as the merely as the realists before him did, he obviously recognizes the forces of the marketplace that not only shape existence, but also in fact create it. One of the most visible differences between the world depicted by the writers of realist texts and that of Dreiser is that he is keenly aware of urbanization and views the city as a sort of new natural landscape to set his characters in.
6)For example, in one of the most important quotes from Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, the narrator states,
“We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near an approach to freewill, his freewill 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” (61).
7)It is no longer appropriate for Dreiser to rely strictly on the conventions of realism. Instead, in this, one of the important quotes from “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser he has to take it one step further and speak of freewill and desire. Here, freewill and desire are not matters of nature or feeling, but are rather symptoms of the environmeIt is this emphasis on characters being shaped by their surroundings that defines this text as a naturalist versus realist text. The distinction is subtle and at times the lines between the two are dulled, but it clear that the focus is not necessarily how the individual responds in a natural way to surroundings, but more so how the environment shapes perception and even reality.
10)Money and capital are responsible for the actions of humans rather than the more “pure” forces that regulated the lives of characters in realist texts. Consider, for example, the idea presented by the narrator that, as stated in one of the meaningful quotations from “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser, “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, les incisive mentally, as the man approaching old age. There are no other states” (259). It could not be put in a more concise way—clearly human nature is no longer molded by the forces of love, feeling, or even rationality or reason. Instead of being shaped by nature and being able to describe characters with microscopic precision, this becomes unnecessary when the reader knows the motivation. A man is shaped by capitalism, the need to consume and all other impulses become secondary.
11)Metaphorically speaking, whereas realist text might have tended to focus on the jungle, Sister Carrie, as an example of naturalism, concentrates on the sea. In other words, the jungle for the realist novel would represent man in his primitive state, acting on natural desires and impulses that were generally the result of emotion or other “pure” persuasion. The jungle represents man as an individual, man surviving in a world that might not be suited to his best intentions. With realism, every detail could be described with perfect accuracy, everything reasoned out and the character would be inclined to act according to a sort of internal reasoning. With Sister Carrie, however, the sea is the object of interest. In this case, the sea represents the sea of people that crowd together in urban areas. Unlike the jungle, this is a massive place where one could lose the way or become drowned quite easily. In the sea, one must stand out because there are so many other fish swimming, mostly with the current, in an effort to shine. While this might be a dramatic and slightly abstract concept, put quite simply, the difference between the jungle and the sea is that the desires are quite different. In the jungle, it is an individual struggle close to the natural world. In the sea, however, there is simply the struggle to stay afloat and not get lost.
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