(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...

(The entire section is 728 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Jennie Gerhardt, a beautiful and virtuous eighteen-year-old, is one of six children of a poor, hard-working German family in Columbus, Ohio, in 1880. Her father, a glassblower, is ill, and Jennie and her mother are forced to work at a local hotel in order to provide for the younger children in the family. Jennie does the laundry for the kind and handsome Senator Brander (he is fifty-two at the time) and attracts his eye. Senator Brander is kind to Jennie and her family. When he is able to keep Jennie’s brother Sebastian out of jail for stealing some needed coal from the railroad, Jennie, full of gratitude, allows him to sleep with her. Senator Brander, struck by Jennie’s beauty, charm, and goodness, promises to marry her. He dies suddenly, however, while on a trip to Washington.

Left alone, Jennie discovers that she is pregnant. Her father, a stern Lutheran, insists that she leave the house, but her more understanding mother allows her to return when her father, once in better health, leaves to find work in Youngstown. Jennie’s child is a girl, whom she names Vesta. At Sebastian’s suggestion, the family moves to Cleveland to find work. While her mother looks after Vesta, Jennie finds a job as a maid in the home of Mrs. Bracebridge. One of Mrs. Bracebridge’s guests, Lester Kane, the son of a rich carriage manufacturer, finds Jennie temptingly attractive. When he tries to seduce Jennie, the girl, though greatly attracted to him, manages to put off his advances.

Mr. Gerhardt is injured in a glassblowing accident and loses the use of both of his hands. Again, the family needs money badly, and Jennie decides to accept Lester’s offer of aid for her family. The price is that she become his mistress, go on a trip to New York with him, and then allow him to establish her in an apartment in Chicago. Although Jennie loves Lester, she knows that he does not intend to marry her because his family will be horrified at such an alliance, but, once again, she sacrifices her virtue because she feels that her family needs the offered aid. After Jennie becomes Lester’s mistress, he gives her family money for a house. Jennie is afraid, however, to tell Lester about the existence of her daughter Vesta.

Jennie and Lester move to Chicago and live there. Her family begins to suspect that, contrary to what Jennie told them, she and Lester are not married. When Mrs. Gerhardt dies several years later, Jennie moves Vesta to Chicago and boards the child in another woman’s house. One night, Jennie is called because Vesta is seriously ill, and Lester discovers Vesta’s existence. Although upset at first, when Jennie tells him the story, Lester understands and agrees to allow Vesta to live with them. Some time later, while Lester is staying at the apartment to recover from an illness, his sister Louise visits and discovers the relationship, which she reports to the Kane family upon her return to Cincinnati. Lester and Jennie soon move to a house in Hyde Park, a middle-class residential district in Chicago. Mr. Gerhardt, now old and ill and willing to accept the situation between Jennie and...

(The entire section is 1272 words.)