Jennie Gerhardt Summary
by Theodore Dreiser

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Jennie Gerhardt Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Dreiser’s second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, is often considered his most popular, having sold more than five thousand copies in its first six months. Not only does the author show his characters through their own dialogue (rather than relying on description and narration), he also injects a bit of realistic humor in the “baby talk” conversations between a toddler and her grandfather. Moreover, he presents a heroine whose sexual liaisons stem not from a longing for possessions but from a sense of family responsibility.

Because Jennie’s father is an unemployed glassblower with six children, Jennie helps out by doing the laundry of George Brander, a senator who resides at a fashionable hotel. Having taken a fancy to Jennie, Brander tells her that if ever she or her family are in need, he will help. Thus, when Jennie’s brother gets into trouble with the law, Brander gives Jennie the ten dollars bail that her parents cannot afford. In her relief and gratitude, Jennie yields herself to him completely.

Shortly afterward, Brander dies of heart failure, and Jennie learns that she is pregnant. Although she is mortified by her condition, Jennie’s maternal instinct comes through. Her strength during the pregnancy comes largely from the supportiveness of her mother, Mrs. Gerhardt, whose behavior Dreiser probably modeled on that of his own mother throughout the pregnancy of his sister Maine.

When her daughter, Vesta, is six months old, Jennie meets Lester Kane, heir to his father’s flourishing carriage business. Lester is quickly attracted to Jennie and asks her to become his mistress, promising financial support to her family. This proposal throws Jennie into a conflict. Although the attraction is mutual, she has determined not to “fall” again—yet her family is always short of money. Finally, fate intervenes, helping her to make a decision. Gerhardt, who has since found work, seriously burns his hands in a factory accident, to the extent that he will no longer be able to use them in the glassblowing trade. Thus, the major portion of the family’s meager income is gone; knowing their need, Jennie accepts Lester’s offer, lying to her parents that they have been secretly married.

In Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser broaches two topics that he did not discuss in Sister Carrie. One is the issue of birth control: Dreading the idea of bearing another illegitimate child, Jennie tells Lester at the outset that she does not want a baby. Lester, who does not particularly want children himself, promises to protect her from this unwanted event. Dreiser also explores the compatibility of mates and the ability of partners to satisfy each other’s needs. Unquestionably, Jennie provides Lester with a comfortable home: For his part, Lester comes to care for Vesta, taking a genuine interest in this child of another man.

In time, however, fate disrupts their simple yet contented life. While traveling abroad with Jennie, Lester happens to encounter Letty Pace, a former girlfriend, now a rich widow. In his reunion with Letty, who comes from his own privileged background, Lester realizes how much he has missed high society, with its cultural interests and intellectual repartee. As his father has already threatened to cut him from his will if he continues living with Jennie (promising only a pittance if he marries her), Lester begins thinking. Letty can obviously provide more social and intellectual stimulation than Jennie. Therefore, it might be financially and socially advantageous to leave his mistress and marry a woman of his own kind.

Lester’s supposedly ideal marriage, however, does not bring him complete happiness, for despite her intelligence and social grace, Letty cannot offer Jennie’s warm companionship—a situation suggesting that no one can entirely fulfill the needs of another. Ironically, it is Jennie who comes to Lester at the time of his sudden death, Letty being on a cruise and arriving home only in time for the funeral.

As in Sister...

(The entire section is 2,000 words.)