Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

Dreiser wrote successfully for years as a newspaper reporter. Yet readers appreciated his stories not for their exact reporting of the events, but for their relating of personal impressions about people, places, and happenings. Dreiser grew to understand that providing his readers with realistic impressions was his strength and began to cultivate it. When critics read his early fiction, they did not at first appreciate his truthful portrayal of life in America. Only later did they applaud this in Dreiser’s writing. Critics did, however, immediately praise his sensitivity and viewed it as a powerful storytelling tool. While reviewers did not particularly like his style of writing, they did like the content.

The very characteristic that disturbed the public about Sister Carrie when the book first came out is the same characteristic that critics now recognize as a strength in Dreiser’s work. That characteristic is Dreiser’s realistic treatment of real-life occurrences. At the time that Sister Carrie appeared, fiction seldom touched upon the darker side of human endeavors and relationships. Prostitution, for example, might occur in the real world, but authors did not make it an overt part of their plots. For Dreiser’s Carrie, though, prostitution was a way of life. She would not have been able to survive without using men to get to her next level of existence. Dreiser writes about Carrie’s lifestyle in a matter-of-fact manner. The public was appalled that Dreiser viewed it so lightly. Today, however, readers are not as shocked by Carrie’s way of life. While readers may not approve of it, they understand how a woman of that period might feel compelled to seek her independence in this manner.

In addition to being known for his realistic treatment of topics that most other writers of his time considered taboo, Dreiser also receives acclaim for his sensitivity to his characters’ predicaments. H. L. Mencken says in his Commentary in the 1999 Modern Library Edition of Sister Carrie that what Dreiser lacks in style in comparison to...

(The entire section is 841 words.)