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 months old, Jennie meets Lester Kane, heir to his father’s flourishing carriage business. Lester is quickly attracted to Jennie and asks her to become his mistress, promising financial support to her family. This proposal throws Jennie into a conflict. Although the attraction is mutual, she has determined not to...
(The entire section is 728 words.)