Please analyze Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser. This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Your literary analysis may touch on a variety of topics, including (but not limited to) discussions of the author’s style, the use of symbols or motifs, or the broader historical or literary context in which the work was written.
Jennie Gerhardt, by Theodore Dreiser, was published in 1911. In it, the eponymous protagonist, Jennie Gerhardt, travels from country life with her family to city life, moving from destitution to a higher social class, as she takes up relationships with first a senator and then the son of a manufacturer. Though Dreiser admitted that Jennie Gerhardt was not his favorite novel in his body of work, it is a strong example of his intensely naturalistic writing style, and its stories dramatize his socialist and humanist viewpoint.
As the story begins, Jennie’s German immigrant family has fallen onto hard times. Her hardworking father has fallen ill; he is behind on the mortgage of his home; and the large family has begun to starve. Everyone who is old enough to work is pulling their weight and finding jobs. Jennie’s mother finds work for herself and Jennie in a fancy hotel in downtown Columbus, Ohio, where they live. As they are polishing and cleaning the ornate staircase, Jennie sees George Brander, a middle-aged junior senator, as he enters the hotel. George is charmed by Jennie.
Jennie and her mother go up to Brander's rooms to collect the laundry, and Brander turns out to a very genial and easy-going man. He puts them at their ease and is very respectful, though when they leave, he privately worries that there is something “pathetic” about them. He cannot stop thinking about Jennie. For her part, Jennie thinks, "It must be nice to be famous."
The scene is an apt example of how deftly Dreiser paints situations and characters, showing people from many walks of life interacting and affecting one another. Trained as a journalist, Dreiser employs a style of writing that often goes directly to who, what, when, where and why. He is not concerned with poetic style and graceful writing, but he is a keen observer of fine details and human behavior, and this is how he creates such powerful stories and characters, as well as incredible scenes full of cinematic atmosphere.
The infatuated senator helps Jennie and her family financially. She becomes his lover and becomes pregnant. Brander truthfully promises to marry her and then heads out to a political engagement in Arlington, and all seems well. But Brander contracts typhoid on his trip, and he suddenly dies of heart failure.
Still Jennie stood there, and now, as the real significance of the news began to formulate itself into consecutive thought, she began to realize the wretchedness of her position, its helplessness. She went into her bedroom and sat down upon the side of the bed, from which position she saw a very pale, distraught face staring at her from out of the small mirror. She looked at it uncertainly; could that really be her own countenance? “I’ll have to go away,” she thought, and began, with the courage of despair, to wonder what refuge would be open to her.
Jennie’s father shuts her out of the family, calling her a street-walker, and she must leave her home with the clothes on her back and a quickly packed bag. Before she knows it, Jennie is thrust into a new life. Her brother Sebastian helps set her up temporarily in a boarding house. Their father decides to move to another city, where he has found work, and Jennie can return to her family home for the duration of her pregnancy. Her brother also leaves home to pursue work in another city. In these times of great and frightening change, Dreiser points out, as if guiding Jennie’s soul,
It is in such supreme moments that growth is greatest. It comes as with a vast surge, this feeling of strength and sufficiency. We may still tremble, the fear of doing wretchedly may linger, but we grow. Flashes of inspiration come to guide the soul.
After her daughter, whom she names Vesta, is born, Jennie moves to Cleveland, Ohio, following her brother, who is now working there. She wants to find a good job and improve her station and to take care of her family, especially her mother and her younger sisters. Jennie is well aware of her appearance, especially after her pregnancy, and how she needs to look and act:
She was a model of neatness. Her clothes, all newly cleaned and ironed before leaving home, gave her a fresh and inviting appearance. There was growth coming to her in the matter of height, but already in appearance and intelligence she looked to be a young woman of twenty. Best of all, she was of that naturally sunny disposition, which, in spite of toil and privation, kept her always cheerful.
Jennie finds work as a lady’s maid in a household. She moves her family to Cleveland, setting up her mother, her sisters, her brother, and herself. Before too long, they are struggling once again to make ends meet. Dreiser is happy to stop the narrative for a moment and wag his finger at his audience:
How it was done, those comfortable individuals, who frequently discuss the social aspects of poverty, might well trouble to inform themselves. Rent, coal, and light alone consumed the goodly sum of twenty dollars a month; food, another unfortunately necessary item, used up twenty-five more; clothes, instalments, dues, occasional items of medicine and the like, were met out of the remaining eleven dollars — how, the ardent imagination of the comfortable reader can guess. It was done, however, and for a time the hopeful members considered that they were doing fairly well.
The narrative resumes. Jennie continues to work for Mrs. Bracebridge as her personal maid, and it is through this family that Jennie meets Lester Kane. Jennie hears all about him as the family gossips about him and his very rich family, and in short order he comes to visit. Jennie is impressed and magnetically attracted to the young man. But she is well aware that she is slipping into yet another “wretched, unsanctified relationship.”
Lester knows nothing about her at all—nothing about her daughter, her family, or Brander—but he senses that if he does not convince her to act at once, she will not act at all. He sits down with her and begs her to be with him, telling her he is “crazy about her.” She refuses and tells him about her family (though not about her daughter just yet). He offers to give her money, for her family, and she refuses. Their interview is inconclusive, but they both know their affair is going to continue.
Lester returns to his parents' home and writes Jennie a love letter. She does not answer, not knowing what to say. Then disaster strikes her family. Her father, who is a glassblower, has an accident and is severely burned on both hands. Disabled and unable to work, he must come join them in Cleveland. On their tight combined salaries, losing their father’s income is rough, and Jennie, after troubled soul-searching, decides to write to Lester and agree to meet him, perhaps to take him up at last on his offer of money for her family. Here is how Dreiser paints her turmoil at this moment:
The fatal Friday came, and Jennie stood face to face with this new and overwhelming complication in her modest scheme of existence. There was really no alternative, she thought. Her own life was a failure. Why go on fighting? If she could make her family happy, if she could give Vesta a good education, if she could conceal the true nature of this older story and keep Vesta in the background — perhaps, perhaps — well, rich men had married poor girls before this, and Lester was very kind, he certainly liked her.
They meet for lunch. Lester presses for exact details about her family’s finances and then hands Jennie some cash that can help them get along. But Jennie worries how she will explain it all to them. It is too much money to explain away as her salary. Lester counters that she should really just come and live with him—he will set her family up in a nice house, and they won’t have to worry any more. Jennie is tempted but will not commit. She cannot bring herself to tell him about Brander and Vesta, not yet. But she agrees to enter into a falsehood, to pretend to go on a trip with her employer, Mrs. Bracebridge, when she is really going to going off to live with Lester. She says good-bye to her family, for “two or three weeks,” as she lies to them, and she and Lester travel away together on a train:
As the train rolled out of the depot and the long reaches of the fields succeeded Jennie studied them wistfully. There were the forests, leafless and bare; the wide, brown fields, wet with the rains of winter; the low farm-houses sitting amid flat stretches of prairie, their low roofs making them look as if they were hugging the ground. The train roared past little hamlets, with cottages of white and yellow and drab, their roofs blackened by frost and rain. Jennie noted one in particular which seemed to recall the old neighborhood where they used to live at Columbus; she put her handkerchief to her eyes and began silently to cry.
This is the power of Dreiser’s prose: his dense description of the spare winter countryside captures how it affects Jennie’s mood as she leaves her family, heading off into the unknown with this man whom she loves yet hardly knows.
But it all goes well. Lester and Jennie become lovers. She begins to accompany him into upper-class society. She is seen, and she impresses people who see her. People turn and stare at her.
Despite her altered state Jennie did not lose her judgment of life or her sense of perspective or proportion. She felt as though life were tentatively loaning her something which would be taken away after a time. There was no pretty vanity in her bosom. Lester realized this as he watched her. “You’re a big woman, in your way,” he said. “You’ll amount to something. Life hasn’t given you much of a deal up to now.”
Jennie writes home and begins to prepare her family for Lester, telling her mother that she has met someone who likes her. But he never comes to visit the family. Years pass, and the strange, hidden relationship of Jennie and Lester proceeds. Jennie moves her family to a nicer home. Her mother passes away, and this breaks up the family somewhat. Her father ends up becoming the legal parent of Vesta, who is growing up. Jennie finally agrees to take Vesta and set her up in a flat that she and her mother can share. And still, incredibly, she has not told Lester about her child. But the trials of life force Jennie to admit the truth to Lester: when Vesta becomes terribly ill and Jennie must fly to her side, she finally admits the truth to Lester.
Vesta recovers from her illness and seems to be doing fine. Jennie returns to her flat and finally has the difficult conversation with Lester. She tells him the truth, without artifice. Lester is not sure what to do, so he leaves.
She looked after him, and as his footsteps sounded on the stair she felt as if she were doomed and hearing her own death-knell. What had she done? What would he do now? She stood there in a dissonance of despair, and when the lower door clicked moved her hand out of the agony of her suppressed hopelessness.
“Gone!” she thought. “Gone!”
In the light of a late dawn she was still sitting there pondering, her state far too urgent for idle tears.
But before too long, as Jennie and Vesta continue to live together, Lester comes back to visit. He is charmed by Vesta, just as he remains charmed by her mother. The relationship of Jennie and Lester survives, and they become a household. But there are still many pressures on the couple. Lester’s family despises Jennie and pressures him to leave her. And after Lester’s father dies, he finds out that his father’s will literally conditions that Lester leave Jennie—or he will receive virtually none of his inheritance. Jennie insists that they separate. It is not fair, but she cannot stand in the way of his family inheritance. Finally, Lester meets another woman, Letty Pace, while on a trip, and he likes her. Jennie finds herself in the strange position of agreeing with Lester’s family that he ought to marry Letty Pace—then his life can move forward as it should. Lester is torn, but he marries Letty.
Jennie and Vesta go off to live in a country town, Sandwood. They set up life there together, and Jennie is relatively happy, though she misses Lester. One day Vesta comes home from school complaining of a headache, and soon she falls sick again—with typhoid. The girl is dying:
No one can conceive the strain to which Jennie’s spirit was subjected by this intelligence, for it was deemed best that she should know. She hovered about white-faced — feeling intensely, but scarcely thinking. She seemed to vibrate consciously with Vesta’s altering states. If there was the least improvement she felt it physically. If there was a decline her barometric temperament registered the fact.
Jennie felt as if the earth had fallen. All ties were broken. There was no light anywhere in the immense darkness of her existence.
Jennie recovers eventually. She decides to adopt two children to raise, though Vesta regularly comes back to haunt her in her dreams.
She and Lester grow apart, as time passes, their lives evolving separately. Lester is now close to sixty. Letty goes on a trip to Europe with some friends, and Lester travels to Chicago, close to where Jennie lives, on business. He falls ill with intestinal trouble, which seems to be getting worse. He cables his wife, and by travel she is at least three weeks away. Lester senses impending trouble and decides to send someone to Sandwood to ask Jennie if she might come visit him. Jennie agrees and visits him.
Lester apologizes to Jennie for the way things ended between them. Jennie tells him he has nothing to apologize about. Nothing really worked out between them from the start, but it was no one’s fault.
“Well, I’ve told you now, and I feel better. You’re a good woman, Jennie, and you’re kind to come to me this way. I loved you. I love you now. I want to tell you that. It seems strange, but you’re the only woman I ever did love truly. We should never have parted.”
Jennie caught her breath. It was the one thing she had waited for all these years — this testimony. It was the one thing that could make everything right — this confession of spiritual if not material union. Now she could live happily. Now die so. “Oh, Lester,” she exclaimed with a sob, and pressed his hand. He returned the pressure. There was a little silence. Then he spoke again.
Lester dies four days later. Letty and his family will arrive soon, and Jennie must depart before they come, for she has never been part of their world.
No one had noticed it in the stress of excitement, but it was Thanksgiving Eve. Throughout the great railroad station there was a hum of anticipation, that curious ebullition of fancy which springs from the thought of pleasures to come. People were going away for the holiday. Carriages were at the station entries. Announcers were calling in stentorian voices the destination of each new train as the time of its departure drew near. Jennie heard with a desperate ache the description of a route which she and Lester had taken more than once, slowly and melodiously emphasized. “Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, and New York.” There were cries of trains for “Fort Wayne, Columbus, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, and points East,” and then finally for “Indianapolis, Louisville, Columbus, Cincinnati, and points South.” The hour had struck.
Jennie has just come from Lester’s funeral. The cries for the trains create an ache in Jennie’s heart as she thinks of Lester, and she has come here to try to see Lester one last time, as his coffin is pushed through the station toward the train that will take his body to its final burial place. As she watches the coffin, she comes to a realization:
Was not her life a patchwork of conditions made and affected by these things which she saw — wealth and force — which had found her unfit? She had evidently been born to yield, not seek. This panoply of power had been paraded before her since childhood. What could she do now but stare vaguely after it as it marched triumphantly by?
Jennie knows that while her lover Lester was part of the upper class, “of her, it knows nothing.” Though she has money, her home in Sandwood, and the children she has adopted, she is not really sure where her life is going to go beyond that—she feels she has no place in the world and, tragically, maybe she never did. Wealth has not worked for her, and she has discovered that in this class-driven society, she has never been accepted by the upper-class world that she always strove to join. As the novel ends, Jennie wonders what will happen to her next:
Jennie did not hear that or anything else of the chatter and bustle around her. Before her was stretching a vista of lonely years down which she was steadily gazing. Now what? She was not so old yet. There were those two orphan children to raise. They would marry and leave after a while, and then what? Days and days in endless reiteration, and then —?
Dreiser ends the novel inconclusively, at least for Jennie's future, but the tragedy of what she has tried to build in her life, and how it has all played out, is clear. The social context of how difficult, or perhaps impossible, it is for people to "jump class" in this world is keenly depicted in this epic novel. Were all the lies necessary? If she had told Lester about Vesta from the beginning, would it have played out any differently? Probably not. Jennie has done the best she can, dealt with terrible cards from the start. Dreiser's empathy for her is strongly depicted in Jennie Gerhardt.
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