Sister Carrie, like most of Theodore Dreiser’s novels, embodies Dreiser’s belief that while humans are controlled and conditioned by heredity, instinct, and chance, a few extraordinary and usually unsophisticated individuals refuse to accept their fate wordlessly and instead strive, albeit unsuccessfully, to find meaning and purpose for their existence. Carrie, the title character, senses that she is merely a cipher in an uncaring world, yet she seeks to grasp the mysteries of life and satisfy her need to matter. In pointing out “how curious are the vagaries of fortune,” Dreiser suggests that even when life is cruel, its enigmatic quality makes it all the more fascinating.
Despite its title, the novel is not a study of a family but of Carrie’s strangely unemotional relationships with three men and of the resulting and unexpected changes that occur in her outlook and status. A “half-equipped little knight” with small talent, Carrie’s “instinct” nevertheless raises her from a poor young woman to a successful actor. The novel traces the rise, through Carrie’s increasing reliance on instinct, in three stages of development.
Initially, Carrie is at least partially ruled by reason, but by the end of the first phase of her rise—marked by her accidental second meeting with Drouet and her submission to his promises—she begins to abandon reason, since it has not served her well. During this second portion, her blossoming instinct pulls her to the material advantages offered by Drouet, and her life with him is evidence of her growing commitment to these instincts. However, it is her almost unconscious and unplanned switch to Hurstwood that reveals how totally she is now following her instincts. Hurstwood offers finer material possessions and more emotional rapport, and Carrie drifts easily into his orbit. Now fully and irrevocably tied to her instincts, Carrie throughout the rest of the novel considers it an obligation to self to let these impulses lead her where they will. When a stage career and her association with Ames replace the relationship with Hurstwood, she is merely proceeding further along that path. As a plant must turn toward the sun, Carrie must feed her unsatisfied urge for happiness.
Closely related to Dreiser’s belief that instinct must prevail is his thesis that humans lack responsibility for their fate, a thesis suggested by all three main characters. Drouet leads Carrie to what some consider her moral downfall, but, as Dreiser states, “There was nothing evil in the fellow.” His glands are to blame, not he. Neither is there any question of guilt in Hurstwood’s case. Since he rarely makes a choice, he cannot be expected to answer for what happens to him. Chance, not...
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