Essays and Criticism
Sister Carrie as a Tragic Novel
Sister Carrie, written by Theodore Dreiser from 1899 to 1900, was published by Doubleday, Page in 1900. The novel created a stir from the moment of its publication, caused in part by a supposed attempt by the publisher to suppress the novel. The truth behind the “suppression” of Sister Carrie is difficult to uncover. Regardless, the novel met with mixed reviews from contemporary readers, who found the book unpleasant and gloomy. Some critics suggest that these initial negative reviews were because Sister Carrie was a novel ahead of its time. The novel has grown in stature over the years until it has come to be considered one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century.
Sister Carrie is the story of young Carrie Meeber, who comes to Chicago in 1889 to make her fortune. Chicago is not as she envisions it, however. In her desire for material possessions and success, she begins and leaves two different illicit affairs. By the close of the book, she is in New York, having embarked on a highly successful stage career. Even this success does not bring her happiness; the novel closes with Carrie rocking in her chair, considering her sense that there is more to life than she has experienced.
While the book received many negative reviews upon publication, it nonetheless attracted the attention of the literary establishment, igniting a controversy that still has fire. Stuart P. Sherman, in the famous and...
(The entire section is 1588 words.)
Overview of Sister Carrie
In Sister Carrie Theodore Dreiser went beyond the Hoosier romanticism of Meredith Nicholson’s “Alice of Old Vincennes” (1900) and the genteel realism of Booth Tarkington’s The Gentleman from Indiana (1899). Growing up poor in Indiana, the daydreamy Dreiser envied the escape to the metropolis of his older brothers and sisters. Later, he drifted from one newspaper to another—Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Charged with Balzac’s Comedie humaine, Herbert Spencer’s First Principles, and his own vivid memories, Dreiser began Sister Carrie in New York in 1899. The author based his first novel partly on his sister, Emma, who in 1886 had fled from the law with a saloon clerk. Because of the novel’s sexual frankness, Dreiser’s own publisher (Doubleday Page) did not promote it; but the senior reader, the writer Frank Norris, zealously sent out review copies. When B.W. Dodge (in 1907) and Grosset and Dunlap (in 1908) reissued the controversial book, Sister Carrie reached a larger public.
The novel has an hourglass structure. Carrie Meeber—pretty, eighteen, penniless, full of illusions— leaves her dull Wisconsin home in 1889 for Chicago. On the train Charles Drouet, a jaunty traveling salesman, impresses her with his worldliness and affluence. In Chicago, Carrie lives in a cramped flat with her sister and brother-in-law. Her job at a shoe factory is physically and spiritually crushing. After a period of unemployment,...
(The entire section is 875 words.)