Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Dreiser’s second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, is often considered his most popular, having sold more than five thousand copies in its first six months. Not only does the author show his characters through their own dialogue (rather than relying on description and narration), he also injects a bit of realistic humor in the “baby talk” conversations between a toddler and her grandfather. Moreover, he presents a heroine whose sexual liaisons stem not from a longing for possessions but from a sense of family responsibility.
Because Jennie’s father is an unemployed glassblower with six children, Jennie helps out by doing the laundry of George Brander, a senator who resides at a fashionable hotel. Having taken a fancy to Jennie, Brander tells her that if ever she or her family are in need, he will help. Thus, when Jennie’s brother gets into trouble with the law, Brander gives Jennie the ten dollars bail that her parents cannot afford. In her relief and gratitude, Jennie yields herself to him completely.
Shortly afterward, Brander dies of heart failure, and Jennie learns that she is pregnant. Although she is mortified by her condition, Jennie’s maternal instinct comes through. Her strength during the pregnancy comes largely from the supportiveness of her mother, Mrs. Gerhardt, whose behavior Dreiser probably modeled on that of his own mother throughout the pregnancy of his sister Maine.
When her daughter, Vesta, is six...
(The entire section is 728 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Jennie Gerhardt, a beautiful and virtuous eighteen-year-old, is one of six children of a poor, hard-working German family in Columbus, Ohio, in 1880. Her father, a glassblower, is ill, and Jennie and her mother are forced to work at a local hotel in order to provide for the younger children in the family. Jennie does the laundry for the kind and handsome Senator Brander (he is fifty-two at the time) and attracts his eye. Senator Brander is kind to Jennie and her family. When he is able to keep Jennie’s brother Sebastian out of jail for stealing some needed coal from the railroad, Jennie, full of gratitude, allows him to sleep with her. Senator Brander, struck by Jennie’s beauty, charm, and goodness, promises to marry her. He dies suddenly, however, while on a trip to Washington.
Left alone, Jennie discovers that she is pregnant. Her father, a stern Lutheran, insists that she leave the house, but her more understanding mother allows her to return when her father, once in better health, leaves to find work in Youngstown. Jennie’s child is a girl, whom she names Vesta. At Sebastian’s suggestion, the family moves to Cleveland to find work. While her mother looks after Vesta, Jennie finds a job as a maid in the home of Mrs. Bracebridge. One of Mrs. Bracebridge’s guests, Lester Kane, the son of a rich carriage manufacturer, finds Jennie temptingly attractive. When he tries to seduce Jennie, the girl, though greatly attracted to him, manages to put off...
(The entire section is 1272 words.)