What are the themes and symbols in the Sister Carrie novel?
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Dreiser is often consiered to be a determinist. He believed that we were not free agents, but that we were driven by "chemisms." Although he never specifies exactly what these are, we know that they are forces that drive us, almost in spite of ourselves, in certain directions. He compares us to a moth drawn irresistably to the flame or to a waife in the breeze.
In "Sister Carrie" one of these is our attractions is to economic success, wealth and all the associated trappings. Carrie comes to Chicago, lives in poverty with her sister, works for a brief time in a shoe factory and realizes that this is going to get her nowhere. It is then that she somewhat fortuituously meets Drouet (who she had first met on the train) and he beings her march toward weath. He gives her money to buy one of the major symbols in the book --- clothes. These symbolize Carrie's fixation on the outward trappings of wealth without any need to improve the self they are on. Another major symbol in the book is the rocking chair. A rocking chair requires effort to create movement, but this movement never gets the rocker anywhere. The chair appears some 13 times in the novel, and always carries the same meaning, whether it is Carrie early in the novel, or Hurstwood later in the story. Carrie finds no fulfillment in her "success."
There are other themes and symbolizes, but these seem like major ones to me.
A) American Dream
Each of Dreiser’s characters in Sister Carrie search for their own “American Dreams”-the ones offered by a growing and prosperous democratic country. Carrie, a poor country girl, arrives in Chicago, filled with the expectations of acquiring the finer things in life. She imagines the elegant clothes she will wear, the exciting places to which she will go, and the fashionable people with whom she will associate, thinking that everyone who lives beyond the boundaries of her Midwestern state has achieved that higher status. Drouet seeks his own version of the American Dream. He has achieved a certain station in life and wears the clothes to prove it. He frequents the important establishments in town and has befriended many of the right people. Yet, he pursues the other appointments that represent his dream, such as a beautiful woman to adorn his arm and his own home. Hurstwood has the woman, the established home and family, and a good position. He, though, wants more. He knows that his employers leave him out of important decision making, and he knows his friends like him for his position. He seeks love, appreciation, and more prestige.
B) Change and Transformation
Carrie and Hurstwood undergo dramatic changes from the beginning of the novel to the end. Though gradual, their transformations create immediate repercussions along the way. Carrie’s metamorphosis takes her from country bumpkin to glamorous actress. In her wake, she leaves her disillusioned sister, an angry suitor, and a broken-down man. Hurstwood’s transition moves him from prominent and trusted businessman, husband, and father to homeless street beggar. Behind him survive robbed employers, a dysfunctional family, and a self-satisfied woman.
C) Choices and Consequences
Hurstwood makes one choice that dramatically affects the rest of his life. While all choices result in consequences, those consequences can be positive or negative. Hurstwood’s decision to take the money from his employer’s safe starts his downward spiral to his eventual suicide.
D) Class Conflict
Industrial growth brought the United States a period of prosperity during the late 1800s and early 1900s. With factories flourishing, job opportunities were abundant. People made good money in factory management positions and other white-collar jobs. Factory workers, however, not only earned low incomes, but they also worked long hours. Consequently, a wide division existed between the wealthy and the poor.
Carrie comes from a lower middle-class background and determines that she will rise above it. Her sister’s family, however, maintain the same struggling existence Carrie has always known. They have no time to enjoy leisure activities and no money to spend on them. Carrie wants more for herself.
Throughout Sister Carrie, the distinction between social classes is obvious. The clothes people wear, the homes in which they live, and the activities in which they are involved distinguish the rich from the poor. The wealthy wear stylish clothes and attend elaborate performances of the arts. The poor buy factory-made clothes and jeans and are lucky to go to the penny arcade or the local dance pavilion. In the final chapter, the description of Hurstwood’s last days offers a vivid picture of the ultimate plight of the poorest.
Experiences contribute greatly to shaping people’s identities. Carrie’s transformation from the beginning of the novel to the end occurs as a result of her responses to her experiences. The Carrie who boards the train in Columbia City sits primly, trying to ignore the glances of the man seated near her. Having certain morals, Carrie hesitates to acknowledge Drouet’s presence. Yet, she responds quickly to his initial comments to her and makes direct eye contact with him when she senses his interest in her. From this point on, Carrie allows herself to act in whatever manner benefits her. Leaving her sister’s home and moving in with Drouet, for example, goes against all propriety her parents have taught her. She sees, though, that this action will get her closer to having what she wants. As she understands her value to others, she changes her identity accordingly. As a result, she never really has an identity but adjusts her “act” to fit the situation. In the end, this ability gains her recognition as an acclaimed actress but does not result in her achieving happiness.
In the early 1900s, the morals and virtues of the Victorian era still guided people’s actions. People with proper upbringing did not speak of sex. The public was shocked that Dreiser’s characters so openly participated in explicit relationships and that Dreiser seemed to condone it.
Carrie uses sex to gain status for herself. She sees nothing wrong in living with Drouet to get the clothes she wants and to have opportunities to move in Chicago’s affluent circles. Later, Carrie sees that Hurstwood can offer her an even higher standard of living. She ignores the fact that he is already married and the two of them will be committing adultery. With no regard for Drouet’s emotions, she breaks off their relationship and pursues one with Hurstwood. After living with Hurstwood for some time, she realizes she can no longer benefit from the arrangement and leaves him, too.
G)Lack of communication
The failure of the characters to communicate with words is a recurring theme in this novel. This is most evident in the relationship between Hurstwood and Carrie as only the readers are made privy to their thought processes. They are unable to express their full views of each other and this may be interpreted as an attempt to reflect how little we know of our friends, partners and ourselves. A useful example of this may be found when Hurstwood fishes for words when trying to express his affection for Carrie, and finds instead that words fail him. Language is seen to be an inadequate means to articulate emotions.
By contrasting the characters’ thoughts with what they say, the narrative also exposes the gap between expression and the unconscious. By recording what they are thinking, it is also possible to see, on a simplified level, an echo of how quickly we change our minds.
Carrie’s fear of poverty and desire for material possessions are the only two factors which disturb her from her passivity. Consumerism often dominates her decisions as she is mainly characterized by her love of new clothes and need for comfort.
Interestingly, the narrative does not condemn her for this predilection. She and Drouet represent polar opposites of the puritan work ethic as they prefer finery and living for the moment. Although she is not punished by the author for her extravagant tastes, and is a likeable figure at times, she is never given a great amount of depth. Her encounters with Ames teach her that desire for wealth will lead to dissatisfaction, and she considers him as wise for holding such views, but it is not until the end that she appears to ponder these thoughts more closely. For this reason, it is possible to see that through Carrie Dreiser is attempting to convey a convincing human rather than a good or evil main protagonist. Carrie’s desires are recognizable, as is her sense of melancholy when the desires are fulfilled.
It is suggested in the narrative that Hurstwood’s fall from grace into eventual suicide has partially come about because of his loss of social standing. In a society that overvalues appearance and the appearance of money, he gradually becomes ousted from his position of respectability. Through necessity and apathy he begins to wear his old clothes whilst living with Carrie and this symbolizes his decline into being a nonentity.
As his position weakens, Carrie’s is seen to strengthen as she acquires independence and a level of wealth and is metaphorically accepted back into the fold when Mrs Vance visits her in her dressing room. It is of interest that Carrie is allowed to succeed and achieve such acceptance, as a so-called fallen woman, because such women are traditionally punished in literature (remembering Eve, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina). This novel may be regarded, therefore, as challenging the moral codes of the late nineteenth century because of she is depicted as rising, rather than declining, in perceived value.
By contrasting Carrie and Hurstwood’s change in fortune, their separate lives become all the more pronounced. Her newly acquired fame is emphasized in relation to his eventual suicide. The novel’s use of contrasts depends on the relativity of meaning, and so employs the same technique of defining by comparison as the city dwellers who are under observation.
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