Why is Sister Carrie worth reading?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Carrie is only eighteen years old. She grew up on a farm and is now traveling to the big city of Chicago to find a life for herself. This is a situation which should interest any young reader, because most young people are faced with that same problem when they are ready to leave home. The fact that Carrie is only eighteen shows that her education is limited. One potential employer asks if she is a "typewriter." That was what they called typists in those days. She doesn't even have any business skills, and so she has to take factory assembly work, the lowest-paying and most arduous work available to young women. She is like Roberta Alden in Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy. In fact, Carrie represents the thousands of American girls who were leaving the little subsistence farms for the opportunities and excitement available in the big cities. 

When a girls leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. 

Theodore Dreiser was an intelligent and talented man with exceptional worldly wisdom. His frequent interjections of his own opinions are part of what make his writing so interesting as well as edifying. One learns about the real world through reading Dreiser, and this is not always the case with other writers, regardless of how eloquent and talented they may be.

The character of George Hurstwood in Dreiser's novel is every bit as interesting as that of Carrie Meeber. While she is moving up in the world, he is moving relentlessly down. He falls in love with her and makes some terrible mistakes in the throes of his midlife crisis. He steals money from his employer to take Carrie away from Chicago. In doing this he forsakes his wife and family. He burns all his bridges behind him. We see how he slowly loses his capital, loses his distinguished appearance, and loses his nerve. He becomes a beggar on the streets of New York and finally commits suicide by turning on the gas in a flophouse.

No one but Dreiser has written about these subjects with such compassion and such understanding. He deserves to be much better known and appreciated than he is. People say he is not a graceful writer. They don't like his style. But he is capable of writing prose that is as moving as anything ever written by an English or American novelist. Here is a sample from his greatest novel, An American Tragedy.

And at one point it was that a wier-wier, one of the solitary water-birds of this region, uttered its ouphe and barghest cry, flying from somewhere near into some darker recess within the woods.

This is an excerpt from the long scene in which Clyde Griffiths takes the pregnant Robert Alden out on an isolated lake in a rowboat with the intention of drowning her to get out of having to marry her.

Any intelligent and discriminating person who starts reading Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy will soon find it hard to put it down. And it seems likely that anyone who reads Sister Carrie, which is shorter and easier, will want to read An American Tragedy.

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