What are the themes in Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser? This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Please clearly identify at least 3 themes and devote a separate paragraph to a discussion of each one
Men Are Unwilling to Surrender Power and Privilege
Dreiser's novel explores several themes related to social conditions during the Gilded Age in the United States, including this aspect of male privilege. Both Senator Brander and Lester Kane are wealthy, powerful white men who effectively "purchase" Jennie's companionship. While Kane's affection for Jennie may be genuine, his inability (or unwillingness) to abandon his class to marry Jennie is testament to his subservience to the pursuit of money and, ultimately, his cowardice.
Sexual Objectification Drastically Changes Young Women's Lives
Objectified by men for her beauty, Jennie comes to understand the transactional nature of her sexual relationships and even, to an extent, is able to transcend it. Her love for Kane is genuine, and her care for him on his deathbed shows that she is his wife in all ways (except the one that counts: the legal way).
Families Will Do Anything to Escape Poverty
The book serves to highlight the vast economic gap between rich and poor; Jennie's transformation into a "kept woman" begins for the want of ten dollars' bail money for her brother, who was caught stealing coal.
The Quest for Meaning in Life
Dreiser's handling of this theme is ambiguous at best. His male characters, particularly Kane, are hollow and cowardly but also capable of real love. Jennie's life is changed by the birth of her daughter, Vesta, fathered by the senator, but Vesta's death at fourteen would seem to suggest the randomness or meaninglessness of life. Jennie's faithfulness to Kane is "rewarded" by his requiring her care on his death bed; once Kane dies, Jennie is left alone, contemplating the end of her days. While Jennie's capacity for love is ennobling, the novel would seem to conclude that human feeling is subordinate to the social forces that work to prevent emotional connection.
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