Style and Technique
Just as the story’s simple, realistic plot conveys several levels of meaning, so Dreiser’s narrative style conceals complexity and contradiction. Dreiser’s writing has often been criticized, and his fiction, although praised as realistic, is occasionally dismissed as lacking consistency. One might claim that Dreiser employs pretentious diction in “The Lost Phoebe,” such as the words “immedicable” “perambulations,” “albeit,” “aberrated” or “peregrinations,” which is inappropriate in a simple tale. Dreiser might also be criticized for employing a grand style in a simple story, for example, when he compares the peace of the night to the systolic and diastolic rhythms of the human heart. Dreiser claimed to cultivate this inconsistent style, and there is a connection between the shifting style and the complexity of themes presented. Just as Dreiser thematically juxtaposes the desolation of the rural areas of the United States with the togetherness of the couple, so he employs conflicting methods to communicate these themes. Opposed to the genteel, pretentious words above is the following simple dialogue written in a local dialect: “I kin make a shift for myself.”
This apparently simple story is constructed more carefully than it might appear at first. The early argument over Henry’s misplaced corn knife foreshadows Henry’s later hallucination that Phoebe abandoned him because he accused her of losing his pipe. Phoebe’s threat to leave Henry if he accuses her of hiding his belongings foreshadows her eventual death. There is also a crescendo structure. Henry’s visions of Phoebe begin as illusions that anyone might have but build into actual hallucinations. His search over seven years climaxes in his most fantastic vision, Phoebe as a beautiful young woman for whom he will leap from a cliff.