While working as a freelance journalist, Theodore Dreiser wrote his first novel, Sister Carrie, which was accepted for publication by Frank Norris, the author of McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899) and an editor for Frank Doubleday, but Frank Doubleday objected to the novel. Bound to a contract, Doubleday printed, but did not distribute or advertise, one thousand copies; few sold, a fact that crushed Dreiser. The book was ahead of its time—readers were not ready for the realism and frank language that Dreiser championed.
Carrie Meeber, the main character, is a young woman from a small town in the Midwest who leaves her family to attempt to make her own way in Chicago. Her excitement at this prospect soon changes to sorrow when she realizes that the life she will lead working in a factory is not glamorous. In a state of despair, she accepts money from a traveling salesman, Drouet, and she moves to his apartment, where she lives in comfort without working. Later, she is tricked into leaving Chicago for New York with another man, Hurstwood, who is more successful than Drouet, but who soon fails. It is hard to read this novel and fully understand the objections that Frank Doubleday and other readers had. One must remind oneself that Carrie, according to the standards of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a fallen woman. She lives with a man, Drouet, without first marrying him. If that were not scandalous enough, Hurstwood leaves his wife and family for Carrie. Furthermore, she likes money and what it can buy. Finally, rather than suffer for her sinful nature, Carrie becomes successful in New York. While American fiction had previously depicted fallen women, these women were punished— they were dead by the end of the novel. Carrie does not die; instead, Dreiser depicts her sympathetically and honestly, having her succeed as an actress. In part Dreiser based Carrie’s actions on the lives of his sisters, capturing realistically the motives that prompt actual young people. Not only does Carrie succeed but also she feels no remorse, which further shocked the novel’s contemporary readers.
Frank Doubleday and other American readers objected to the novel for another reason: Despite the fact that Carrie is, by the end of the novel, wealthy, she is not happy, not married, and not redeemed. There is no happy ending; her restless nature continues to urge her to new experiences. Dreiser broke a cardinal rule of American fiction: He avoided the happy ending. Not only does Dreiser end the novel with Carrie longing for happiness, but also he ends it with Hurstwood’s suicide. Within a few years Sister Carrie was republished, and Dreiser had written Jenny Gerhardt (1911), another novel that sympathetically depicts the struggles of a working woman. By this time the American public was ready for these works. Dreiser became the champion of a new realism that honestly depicted conditions in American cities.
When Carrie Meeber leaves her hometown in Wisconsin, she has nothing but a few dollars and a certain unspoiled beauty and charm. Young and inexperienced, she is going to Chicago to live with her sister and find work. While on the train, she meets Charles Drouet, a genial, flashy traveling salesman. Before the train pulls into the station, the two exchange addresses, and Drouet promises to call on Carrie at her sister’s house.
When she arrives at her sister’s home, Carrie discovers that her life there would be far from the happy, carefree existence of which she had dreamed. The Hansons are hardworking people, grim and penny-pinching; they allow themselves no pleasures and live a dull, conventional life. It is clear to Carrie that Drouet cannot possibly call there, not only because of the unattractive atmosphere but also because the Hansons are sure to object to him. She writes and tells him not to call, and that she will get in touch with him later.
Carrie goes job-hunting and finally finds work in a small shoe factory. Of her first...
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