Theodore Dreiser began writing his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, in 1901, soon after the publication of Sister Carrie (1900). As in the earlier work, Dreiser’s main theme is the individual’s struggle to find happiness in an uncaring, often cruel world. In this struggle, all is chance. One might have a slight advantage if born into a wealthy family (as Lester Kane is), but this does not guarantee success. On the other hand, a person born without material advantages must struggle to make up for the lack.
From the beginning, Jennie faces obstacles that her brother Sebastian does not. The wages she receives from helping her mother as a scrubwoman in a fashionable hotel in downtown Columbus, Ohio, are much less than men receive for comparable work. She and her mother take in laundry to supplement their income. At the time, few honest jobs allow women to earn a living wage. This puts Jennie at a great risk because she has to enter Senator Brander’s hotel room to pick up and deliver his laundry. The beautiful eighteen-year-old Jennie is vulnerable to Brander not only because of her age and social class but also because of her gender. During the last half of the nineteenth century, women engaged in domestic work, whether in hotels or private homes, were often targeted by men with less than honorable intentions. Jennie soon learns that her sexuality has value and can be exchanged for trinkets, clothes, and, finally, money.
By exchanging her virginity for Sebastian’s bail, Jennie not only becomes pregnant but also becomes caught in a trap from which she never escapes. The possibility of marriage and a happy life with someone of her own class made impossible, she struggles as best she can. Given her situation, Jennie succeeds amazingly well. She lives comfortably in Chicago for several years with the man she loves, traveling extensively in America and Europe and enjoying the material comforts of wealth. Even after her separation from Lester, her basic needs are guaranteed by a trust fund he sets up for her. She has a nice house, food (she grows “stout”), and her daughter’s companionship. Fate rears its ugly head, and Vesta is taken away by typhoid fever. Still unwilling to surrender to despair, Jennie takes in two foster children.
Jennie’s constant struggle for survival makes this novel perhaps an even better example of literary naturalism than its predecessor, Sister Carrie, but Jennie’s is not the only struggle in the novel. Lester tries to find his place in life, balanced between his own happiness and the dictates of his family’s social position. Even when he seems successful (wealth, marriage to Letty Pace), his happiness is not guaranteed. In fact, his material success brings the cause of his demise. Lester’s rich lifestyle includes the finest foods and drinks. He becomes very obese and unhealthy. Symbolically, his material success overfills his physical body, stretching his form and clogging his arteries. Fate is unpredictable and can attack the individual in many ways. Lester dies not in a gutter but in a luxurious Chicago hotel, smothered to death by his own good fortune. Lester’s fondness for gambling during his marriage to Letty symbolizes fate’s role in life. His favorite game is roulette—spinning the wheel of fortune.
Dreiser uses a different set of images for Jennie, whom he describes as “a pale gentle flower,” “a rare flower,” or “like a rudderless boat on an endless sea.” Flower and boat metaphors are common in literary naturalism and echo Stephen Crane’s description of the title character in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), a girl who “blossomed in a mud puddle,” and the “rudderless” boat in his sixth poem from The Black Riders, and Other Lines (1895). Dreiser also refers to Jennie several times as a “wayfarer,” an image Crane uses in the poem “The Wayfarer” in War Is Kind (1899) to suggest that people have no control over their destinies and that even a seemingly...
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