In My Antonia by Willa Cather and in Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser there are characters who are salesmen. How does their depiction by the two authors differ and how do the differences in these characters reflect the style and artistic vision of the authors?
This is a really wonderful assignment of comparison and will lend itself well to a comparison and contrast essay. Let's look at the salesmen first from Sister Carrie and then from My Antonia as characters and then relate them to the artistic visions of the authors.
The salesman in Sister Carrie is none other than Charles Drouet. Not only is he a salesman, but he is a "traveling salesman," often some of the most shifty characters around. Sure enough, Drouet lives up to the negative connotation of the salesman title. Drouet is also Carrie's first brush with city flashiness. She meets him on the train and is intrigued. Drouet's ability to sell himself to Carrie shows his deceit and dishonor. A good example of this is when Drouet pays for a room for Carrie, suggesting she keep her clothes there. This is the catalyst that starts the two living together... always with a promise that Drouet will marry her after his latest business deal is done. Ironically, lured by Hurstwood, Carrie dumps Drouet and tries to move up the ladder. Drouet is a very shallow character, quite full of himself. His focus is on pleasing himself and giving others some pleasure in the process. By the end of the book, Drouet is completely unchanged, a flat character with no depth and no perspective.
Considering that Sister Carrie is all about disillusionment with city life, it's not surprising that Drouet, as a salesman, seduces Carrie first and, even through the dejection of her moving on, remains the same. The artistic vision of Dreiser shows how the city, especially in regard to its seediest characters, will continue to lack goodness and light. Carrie is the ultimate culmination of that vision. Further, this vision is perfectly portrayed in the following quotation:
Many individuals are so constituted that their only thought is to obtain pleasure and shun responsibility. They would like, butterfly-like, to wing forever in a summer garden, flitting from flower to flower, and sipping honey for their sole delight. They have no feeling that any result which might flow from their action should concern them. They have no conception of the necessity of a well-organized society wherein all shall accept a certain quota of responsibility and all realize a reasonable amount of happiness. They think only of themselves because they have not yet been taught to think of society.
I must say that the salesman in My Antonia is not quite as clear as Drouet in Sister Carrie. In my opinion, the most prominent "salesman" in the novel is Peter Krajiek. He is the very first settler in Black Hawk from Bohemia and, as such, sells the Shimerdas both supplies and land. Where there was an opportunity for goodness here, none exists. Krajiek inflates all of his prices in order to extort money from the Shimerdas (despite their shared heritage). Krajiek continues to hoodwink the family in all different ways, cheating them out of almost all their money. What is significant about Krajiek, however, is that he is not a flat character. After Mr. Shimerda commits suicide, Krajiek blames himself (at least somewhat) for the event. The text says that Krajiek, in fact, "behaved like a guilty man." Showing at least some remorse is quite honorable and enough to make the character at least slightly round.
Willa Cather's interesting focus on the change in Krajiek's character is characteristic of her style. If you pushed the envelope, perhaps you could say that Krajiek is a character of at least slight redemption, drawing on the amiable qualities of his Bohemian past to bring out the true character that has been ravaged by the lure of the more urban job of being a salesman. Cather is focused on the beauties of a plain and simple life, not to be enticed by the flashy life of the city.
In conclusion, it's interesting to look at the differences in these two works of literature in regard to their salesmen. Cather's main character of Antonia chooses the "right road" ending up as the girl next door on the prairie.
But [Antonia] still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last.
Dreiser's main character is further enticed by the city and eventually achieves "success" as an actress while she remains completely depressed and unhappy. The plights of the two salesmen aren't so different. Where Cather's salesman Krajiek, originally lured by the deception of the city in cheating an immigrant family, eventually regrets his decision to cheat, Dreiser's salesman of Drouet regrets nothing, continuing as a traveling salesman (seduction included) without changing at all.