Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Chicago. Great Midwestern American city for which Caroline Meeber, or Carrie, boards a train as the novel opens. When Carrie arrives in Chicago, she is both nervous and youthfully optimistic about her opportunities in this vibrant new place. In depicting this place, with which he was intimately familiar, Dreiser describes an energetic young city of over 500,000 people, full of opportunity for those lucky enough to find and take advantage of it. He depicts the bustling factory and wholesale districts in which Carrie seeks work, the crowded tenements where her sister lives with a husband and baby, and the lovely new mansions erected along Lake Shore Drive, the viewing of which contributes to Carrie’s restless discontent with her lack of money. In spite of the vast opportunities for the industrious, however, the fact that Carrie becomes a mistress to first one man and then another indicates that Dreiser also wished to portray the big city as a place offering moral temptations for young unmarried women, especially those without money. Many of the events that unfold in the first half of Sister Carrie could only happen in a big city, and some of them only in a young, growing city such as Chicago.
Interestingly, Dreiser also briefly depicts a sense of Chicago’s inadequacy and lack of sophistication when Carrie attempts to work as an actress and is told that New York City is the only place in which to begin a stage...
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The United States experienced a huge growth in manufacturing in the late 1800s that resulted in prosperity for many but virtual poverty for others. As a result of improved technology and an increase in the number of people in the workforce, including experienced businessmen, factories could produce more goods at a faster rate than ever before. In addition, changes in government policy and the availability of resources contributed to the expansion of manufacturing. Factory jobs were plentiful, but the wages were not always sufficient. Many workers enjoyed a better standard of living, while others struggled to make ends meet.
Factory conditions varied from workplace to workplace, yet the challenge of the type of work remained the same. First, the work was boring. A factory worker generally stood at an assembly line performing the same job repeatedly and to a degree of perfection. Factory work also meant long hours. Workers often averaged ten hours per day, six days per week with few breaks and little flexibility. People who were accustomed to working on farms or to creating their own handcrafted goods found factory schedules a difficult adjustment. Next, the factories themselves lacked safe working conditions and were often dark, dirty, and poorly ventilated. Illnesses, injuries, and even death were not uncommon. Finally, factory workers’ wages varied. Often, women, like Carrie, and children worked at...
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Dreiser sets his story in the large American cities of Chicago and New York. He uses the image of the big city as a symbol of wealth and artifice, and his readers come to view the city as an illusion of happiness rather than a promise of wealth and fulfillment. The city setting serves as a backdrop for the actions of Carrie and her lovers, Drouet and Hurstwood, but it also serves as a place of greed, selfishness, and immorality. Dreiser portrays the big city as both seducer and destroyer, and in doing so he creates obvious parallels between the city and a dangerous temptress.
Just as Dreiser uses certain images of city life as symbols for corruption, he depicts certain scenes of city events to create a social history of the times. He juxtaposes images of flashy signs and brightly clad women with dark, bleak factories and giant pieces of machinery that appear dangerous and foreboding. Because readers recognize in Dreiser's cities a day-to-day grind that offers continual movement but no true fulfillment, they understand his use of the city setting as an indictment of capitalistic society. Dreiser's city, as the model of this society, is both seductive and destructive; those seduced by the promise of financial gain find themselves in a constant battle with the crushing vices of greed and selfishness.
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Point of View
Dreiser uses a third person omniscient point of view to tell the story of his heroine, Carrie. Through this point of view, Dreiser provides readers with insight into not only Carrie’s thoughts but also those of all his characters. One example of this is found in chapter twenty-seven, when Hurstwood discovers a note from Carrie and later steals money from his employer’s safe. Dreiser portrays Hurstwood’s distorted thinking as well as Carrie’s confusion over Hurstwood’s actions.
Early twentieth-century, newly urbanized America provides the backdrop for Sister Carrie. At the start of the story, Carrie travels by train to Chicago, a city of opportunity for not only country girls like herself, but also for immigrants from all over the world. The Chicago that Carrie finds offers an abundance of factory jobs for both men and women. In addition, numerous opportunities for enjoyment of the arts present themselves in the form of theatre, opera, symphonies, and so on. Carrie enjoys the fashionably dressed people around her and her own ownership of the latest styles. The same prosperity exists in New York City, where Carrie and Hurstwood find themselves at the end of the story. Yet here, the less fortunate in this materialistic culture appear more obviously, begging on street corners and seeking refuge in homeless shelters. While upper- and middle-class Americans are envisioning a future full of...
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Dreiser uses symbolism throughout his novel to advance his Darwinistic views. The city itself is the most dominant symbol, and it represents the jungle that necessitates a constant struggle for survival. It represents corruption, moral decline, and the savage nature of industrial capitalism. Dreiser's city appears to represent his universe, a universe he considers merciless and unfeeling. It grips people like a vice and propels them into survival mode.
Carrie, as the protagonist of Dreiser's story, must navigate this savage city and, in doing so, she, in essence, becomes the city. Dreiser creates a heroine whose qualities parallel those of her environment. Carrie has a dual nature and so does the city. They are both seductive and destructive, deceptively attractive and capable of metaphorically castrating the men who fall for their charms. Carrie is no doubt a temptress, and Dreiser uses the language of prostitution to help define her as such. She seduces men and then destroys them, she uses them for her own benefit and then leaves them to move on. The city also uses men for its own benefit, and Dreiser's city thus becomes a living, breathing entity. It shows its glittery side and entices men to work. But the city and capitalism alone benefit; the workers themselves do not. They are swallowed up by the city, castrated by the temptress. They become isolated and disheartened and spend their lives in a futile search for happiness.
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Sexual and moral questions arise in an analysis of Sister Carrie because the novel's heroine leads an immoral life yet is never punished in any way. In fact, her moral decline is accompanied by increasing wealth, giving readers the message that Carrie's behavior is necessary for her survival and for her success. Dreiser's message that people are motivated by instinct, in the eyes of critics, makes Carrie's behavior appear justifiable. Though the novel is certainly mild by today's standards, Carrie's decisions to become the mistress of Drouet and then of Hurstwood shows her lack of virtue and moral judgment. She essentially prostitutes herself to these men for material gain, and Dreiser creates a recurring image of Carrie as prostitute through his use of language and metaphor.
Neither Drouet nor Hurstwood has more admirable motives than Carrie; therefore, their characters come into question as well. Though Charles Drouet is basically kind, he is flashy and egotistical and no more a moral exemplar than Carrie. It is he, in fact, who entices Carrie and introduces her to the superficial life. He meets Carrie on the train on her way to Chicago and gives her a taste of a life where money comes before values. Upon arriving at her sister's house, Carrie is ashamed of her sister's socio-economic status and realizes that she could never allow Drouet to call on her there. Dreiser's heroine becomes increasingly superficial as her story progresses. She falls...
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Compare and Contrast
Late 1800s: Women’s fashions favor Victorian styles. Dress indicates a woman’s status. Upperand middle-class women wear constrictive underclothing (corsets), high-heeled shoes, and elaborate, vividly colored dresses made of luxurious fabrics.
Early 1900s: As women become more involved in leisure activities, such as sports, and take on new roles in society, such as office workers and students, their fashions evolve to freer, less structured styles. The styles include loose bloomers instead of corsets, less bulky skirts, and shirtwaist blouses. Shoes are flatter and more feminine.
Late 1900s: Women become more health conscious and involved in professional careers; they begin to define their own unique styles of fashion. Clothing varies from jeans to pants to short and full-length skirts. Form-fitting clothes that show off a woman’s figure are popular.
Late 1800s: The arts become a popular form of entertainment. Drama, musical comedy, and vaudeville acts proliferate. Modern art and architecture reflect simplicity and realism. A movement from tradition and gentility begins.
Early 1900s: The Progressive Era begins. Artists bring social relevancy to their work. Blacks, immigrants and women contribute in unprecedented ways, breaking color, cultural, and gender barriers.
Late 1900s: Art becomes a bigger cultural presence: bigger in scope, ambition, theme, budget, and...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Does Dreiser portray Carrie as a talented actress? Does talent have anything to do with her successful career?
2. Do you think Drouet in any way contributes to Carrie's moral downfall? Why or why not?
3. What decisions, if any, does Hurstwood make in the novel?
4. How much influence does Bod Ames have on Carrie?
5. Do any of the characters exhibit strength in the novel, and, if so, how?
6. Do you consider Carrie a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
7. Does Carrie change after she begins her affair with Hurstwood? Does Hurstwood change?
8. When do you see the first inkling of Carrie's obsession with material gain?
9. Do you believe Carrie intentionally destroys Drouet and Hurstwood? Why or why not?
10. The image of a window recurs throughout the novel. What does this signify to you?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Read An American Tragedy, and look for themes that surface in Sister Carrie as well. Discuss the conflict between morality and the pursuit of the American dream as presented in both novels.
2. Choose one of Dreiser's primary themes, either the necessity of instinct or the lack of control humans have over their fate, and discuss how Dreiser develops that theme.
3. Discuss the theme of isolation in the novel and how it applies to Dreiser's beliefs.
4. Identify two or three turning points in the novel, and discuss how these events affect Carrie's course of action.
5. Mrs. Hurstwood does not figure as a major character in the novel, though she plays a significant role. Discuss the character of Mrs. Hurstwood, detailing her actions and describing what they represent.
6. Trace the character changes Carrie undergoes throughout the novel.
7. Discuss the metaphorical representation of Carrie as prostitute.
8. Compare the character of Carrie with the image of the city. How does Carrie represent Dreiser's city?
9. Several of the references below discuss Sister Carrie as a naturalistic novel. Define the naturalistic novel, and detail how Sister Carrie conforms to this definition.
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Topics for Further Study
Andrew Delbanco notes in his introduction to the 1999 Modern Library’s Edition of Sister Carrie that “Carrie’s fate … has been set in motion … by her failure to understand … that a woman does not look a strange man steadily in the eye without signaling to him that she is ready to be included in the system of exchange.” Psychologists today would call Carrie’s eye contact a form of nonverbal communication. Research the forms of nonverbal communication psychologists have identified. Give examples of the types of messages psychologists believe people are sending when they use different nonverbal clues. What kind of nonverbal clue could Carrie have sent if she did not want to interact with Drouet?
Today, critics credit Dreiser with paving the way for writers who came after him to write realistically about life in America. Research late nineteenth-century life in America. Make at least three comparisons between Carrie’s life and the life of a typical nineteenth-century American that would support critics’ view of Dreiser’s realistic portrayal of the American way of life.
Carrie was most impressed by the clothes people wore. During the late 1800s, fashions actually did make a statement about a person’s socioeconomic status. Read about fashion and social status in the late nineteenth century. Write a paper that discusses the differences in clothes among lower, middle, and upper class people; the changes in the clothing...
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An American Tragedy is another of Dreiser's works that is classified both as a naturalistic novel and as a classic example of American realism. Its protagonist, Clyde Griffiths, comes from a Midwestern town and sets out for a life of pleasure and success. Like Carrie, Clyde is shallow, self-centered, entirely without scope, and incapable of reason. The book, based on an actual crime, is a tragedy that depicts the day-to-day struggle of existence, one that reveals Dreiser's fatalistic views.
Critics have likened Sister Carrie to a novel entitled Fanny Essler, by Frederick Philip Groves. The main character of Groves's work, like Carrie, is also an actress who is compared to the city. Images of the city and the heroine as seductress define the theme in both of these works.
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What Do I Read Next?
Like Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, draws from experiences in Dreiser’s sisters’ lives. Published in 1911, the story centers on Jennie, the poor and immoral daughter of an immigrant who detests the methods by which his daughter tries to achieve happiness.
Jennie Gerhardt has been compared to Thomas Hardy’s 1919 classic, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, if only because of the similarities between their main characters. Like Jennie, Tess comes from a common background. She admits to her husband that she has had a child out of wedlock, who died in infancy. Her husband leaves her. In order to save her family, she goes to live as the mistress of the wealthy Alec D’Urberville, the father of the dead child.
Jude the Obscure, another of Thomas Hardy’s books, is similar to Sister Carrie. Published in 1919, the story is about a young man and his unhappy experiences with love, sex, destiny, and social status.
The Awakening, Kate Chopin’s highly controversial novel published in 1899, tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a married woman who experiences a summer romance and returns to the city a changed woman. She turns her back on her old life—family, social involvement, and traditional morals—to search for self-fulfillment through new love, life ventures, and sexual activity.
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For Further Reference
Gerber, Philip. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. This biography of Dreiser analyzes his major works. A discussion of Sister Carrie centers on its identification as a naturalistic novel.
Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. Pizer, a noted Dreiser scholar, discusses in length the themes in Sister Carrie. He also discusses Dreiser's creation of the work and the influences, both literary and personal, that compelled him to create it.
Sloane, David E. Sister Carrie: Theodore Dreiser's Sociological Tragedy. New York: Twayne, 1992. This in-depth study of the plot of Sister Carrie places it in social and literary history. Sloane discusses Dreiser's literary style, his characterization, and his use of metaphor and symbol.
"Theodore Dreiser." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 9. Detroit: Gale, 1981. Presents an in-depth discussion of the author and his works. Discusses Dreiser as an American realist and naturalist and presents an analysis of his works in this context.
"Theodore Dreiser." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 12. Detroit: Gale, 1982. Presents an in-depth discussion of the author and his works. Presents a general view of Dreiser as an American novelist.
"Theodore Dreiser." In Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, vols. 10 and 18. Gale Group, 1983;...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception, edited by Jack Salzman, David Lewis, 1972.
H. L. Mencken, Commentary in Sister Carrie, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 1999, pp. xxxvii-lxxx.
H. L. Mencken, “The Dreiser Bugaboo,” in The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Alfred Kazin and Charles Shapiro, Indiana University Press, 1955, pp. 84-91.
“Naturalism,” in The Harper Handbook to Literature, edited by Northrup Frye, et. al., Longman, 1997, pp. 313-14.
Stuart P. Sherman, “The Barbaric Naturalism of Mr. Dreiser,” in The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Alfred Kazin and Charles Shapiro, Indiana University Press, 1955, pp. 71-80.
Karl F. Zender, “Walking Away from the Impossible Thing: Identity and Denial in Sister Carrie,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 63-76.
For Further Study
Theodore Dreiser, Letters of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Robert H. Elias, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959. Contains Dreiser’s communications with friends over the years. Especially pertinent are the references to Doubleday’s suppression of Sister Carrie after it was already in print.
Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. This work expands characters Carrie and Hurstwood through a research team’s efforts to...
(The entire section is 394 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Gerber, Philip. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. A biographical and thematic analysis of Dreiser’s major works, which interprets Sister Carrie as a naturalistic novel in the tradition of Émile Zola in France and Stephen Crane and Frank Norris in the United States.
Kaplan, Amy. “The Sentimental Revolt of Sister Carrie.” In The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Excellent discussion of the novel within the framework of American realism. Juxtaposes Dreiser’s power as a realist—challenging moral and literary conventions—with his simultaneous reliance on sentimental codes. A second chapter, “Theodore Dreiser’s Promotion of Authorship,” explores Dreiser’s conception of the realist within the literary marketplace.
Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. A classic treatment of Dreiser’s novels by one of the most important Dreiser scholars. Discusses the composition history of Sister Carrie, its biographical and literary sources, and provides an excellent general introduction to the novel’s themes.
Pizer, Donald. New Essays on “Sister Carrie.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Contains, in addition to...
(The entire section is 267 words.)