Literary Depictions of Urban Life Analysis

Portrayals of Cities

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Herman Melville, although most famous as the writer of novels about whaling and sea voyages, describes the whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts in Moby Dick (1851). Ishmael, the narrator, visits an inn that specializes in serving meals and providing rooms for sailors and a chapel that whaling people attended while ashore. The chapel is carved in the shape of a ship, with the preacher standing within, and around the chapel are memorials to all the men from the area who have died while whaling. The identity of the people in the town is linked primarily with its economic purpose.

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), set in Chicago and New York at the end of the nineteenth century, is an American novel in which cities are not merely a backdrop for a story that could occur anywhere but a guiding force in the development of the characters and the events that shape their lives. The novel is in the tradition of naturalism, which is a literary style devoted to objective description and interpretation of human actions. Naturalism allowed novelists such as Dreiser to portray city life with unprecedented frankness. Carrie, a young woman from a farming community, leaves home for Chicago to find work and a fulfilling life. There are many scenes of city life in Chicago in the novel, and Carrie meets two men whose destinies become linked with hers. The ambivalence of Dreiser toward the city can be seen in his descriptions of Chicago and New...

(The entire section is 486 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Berman, Hans. God in the Street: New York Writing from the Penny Press to Melville. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.

Brand, Dana. The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Elliott, Emory, et al., eds. Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.