Theodore Dreiser Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1994

A number of Theodore Dreiser’s short stories reveal skills not found in the longer works. The reader who comes to the short fiction after reading Dreiser’s novels is frequently surprised by both the whimsy and humor of some of the tales, and by their concise clarity of style, hardly a...

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A number of Theodore Dreiser’s short stories reveal skills not found in the longer works. The reader who comes to the short fiction after reading Dreiser’s novels is frequently surprised by both the whimsy and humor of some of the tales, and by their concise clarity of style, hardly a prominent feature of the novels. Nevertheless, the subject matter, techniques, and especially the tone of Dreiser’s short fiction more often than not mirror the novels.

Some exceptions may be noted first. “When the Old Century Was New,” set in New York in 1801, presents a day in the life of William Walton, a gentleman merchant “of Colonial prestige.” Although Walton does propose to, and is accepted by, the fair Mistress Beppie Cruger, very little actually happens in the sketch; its interest arises from the historical verisimilitude that Dreiser gives to the commonplace. Even further removed from the modern reality which Dreiser customarily treats are two stories, “Khat” and “The Prince Who Was a Thief,” set in an indefinite time in Arabia, the first focusing on the misfortunes of Ibn Abdullah, an aged beggar, the second, subtitled “An Improvisation on the Oldest Oriental Theme,” being a kind of pastiche of a tale from The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. A different sort of fantasy is “McEwen of the Shining Slave Makers,” Dreiser’s first story, in which the title figure dreams that he is a black ant engaged in a titanic struggle against red ant tribes.

Dreiser’s imagination takes another turn in “The Cruise of the Idlewild.” “Idlewild” is the name assigned to a railroad shop by the workers in it, who pretend that, rather than toiling in a stationary, unromantic workplace, they are sailing on a yacht, taking on imaginary roles as captain, bos’n, able seaman, and so forth. This is a curious tale of a kind of collective escapism, told with somewhat ponderous, but genial, humor. Finally, of Dreiser’s various atypical stories, two related to his newspaper days should be noted: “A Story of Stories” and “Nigger Jeff.” In both these works there is a strong emphasis on plot; the first tale involves the competition of two reporters in covering the story of a train robber; the second uses a lynching to describe the maturation of a young newspaperman. Focused on action, neither of these stories contains much of the awkward wording and sentence structure often thought characteristic of Dreiser’s style. Indeed, the only aspect common to all these miscellaneous stories, by which their author does something to put his own mark on them, is the sense of the difficult, competitive nature of human existence. This sense appears even in the light sketch “When the Old Century Was New,” which ends: “The crush and stress and wretchedness fast treading upon this path of loveliness he could not see”; it surfaces in “The Cruise of the ‘Idlewild’” when one character, “little Ike,” becomes the butt of the other men, and the humorous fantasy temporarily threatens to turn nasty.

Dreiser’s fundamental view of life is more naturally expressed, however, in stories in which humor, fantasy, or action for its own sake do not dominate. His subject matter is, typically, contemporary and serious; his interest is more in character than in plot. This material and interest can be seen in “Sanctuary,” a story more representative of Dreiser’s work. It traces the life history of its “heroine” (the short fiction, like the novels, sometimes has a woman as protagonist), Madeline, from her upbringing in the slums through her arrest for prostitution, after which she is “turned over to the care of the Sisterhood of the Good Shepherd.” After serving her time, she works at a variety of “honest” jobs, is married and abandoned by her husband, and returns, voluntarily, to find, with the Sisters, a permanent “Sanctuary.” The resemblances between this tale and a famous work of naturalism, Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), are obvious, but superficial. While both stories chronologically trace the inescapable influences of environment in warping the development of a girl not lacking sensitivity, Dreiser’s tone, one of Olympian pity, differs from the ironic detachment of Crane. It is Dreiser’s sense of “there but for the grace of God go I” that keeps his focus, and his reader’s, on the character, whereas Crane, with his remarkable descriptive style that contrasts with Dreiser’s flatness, emphasizes the background and setting.

While suggesting greater empathy with his characters than does a more typically naturalistic writer, such as Crane in Maggie or Frank Norris in McTeague (1899), Dreiser does employ techniques which produce “aesthetic distance.” These techniques operate so that the reader, while reacting to the often pathetic situation of a story’s protagonist, is able to see that situation in a larger “philosophic” perspective. A believer in the educational importance of literature, Dreiser had little use for the idea of “art for art’s sake.” His stories, while not crudely didactic, are meant to teach.

“The Old Neighborhood”

“The Old Neighborhood,” quite representative of Dreiser’s technique, has a point to make, even if that point may ultimately reduce to a sad sigh offered in recognition of life’s inescapable sorrow. This story, first appearing in 1918, but collected in Dreiser’s second book of stories, Chains, can be seen as a dehydrated novel, in that the protagonist’s whole life story is present in a relatively few pages. Unlike Dreiser’s actual novels, however, which proceed in basically straightforward chronological order, this story is “framed.” The central character has returned to visit his “old neighborhood”; the story begins with his walking from his car to his old apartment; it ends, shortly thereafter, with his returning to his car. Within this frame, through a series of flashbacks (a time scheme employed in a number of Dreiser’s stories) which are described in the third person but limited to the protagonist’s memory (also a typical device in Dreiser’s short fiction), the reader learns of all the major events in the protagonist’s life. The reader learns the character’s reaction to these events, what his reactions were when the events occurred, and what his overall view is in retrospectively considering a life that is drawing toward a close. The reader discovers that the unnamed protagonist has struggled out of poverty, marrying a department store clerk, Marie, when they are still both young and he has little education or apparent prospects; but he has talent as an inventor and visions of a better life. In spite of the economic pressure occasioned by fathering two children, the protagonist studies at night and on Sundays, and eventually, through his inventions, achieves fame and money. In the course of his rise, however, his two children die, and he becomes increasingly estranged from his wife, whose simple loyalty no longer satisfies him.

Driven by his ambition, he leaves his wife, and she does not share in his material success. After her death he remarries, but at the time of the story, he has returned to the scene of his earlier married days—the old neighborhood of struggle, poverty, loss, and dreams—in an attempt to lay to rest the ghosts of the past that still haunt him. In the insight that ends the story, however, he realizes “how futile this errand was” and how his actions were “not right, not fair,” and that “there is something cruel and evil in it all, in all wealth, all ambition, in love of fame.” He returns to his car, a symbol of “power and success,” to be “whirled swiftly and gloomily away.”

The moral which is drawn by the protagonist is one which the audience has been prepared by the author to accept. By means of the complex time scheme, in which the inventor’s memories occur in roughly, but by no means exactly, an order corresponding to the order of the past events of his life, readers are partially “distanced” from the protagonist’s attitudes, recognizing their selfishness before he does, yet maintaining some sympathy for him all the while. When, at last, he expresses a view that the audience has already approached, there is a satisfactory sense of conclusion which allows the reader to judge and pity the central figure simultaneously. A kind of catharsis that depends on “philosophical” acceptance of “the pity of it all” occurs. In some ways the story resembles James Joyce’s famous work “The Dead,” in which irony is also employed to lead toward an “epiphany” or revelation of a significant insight gained by both the central figure and the reader.

While Dreiser in his consistent use of imagery is certainly less impressive than is Joyce, it is worth noting that the former, often attacked for being a clumsy craftsman, does make effective use throughout the story of symbolic references to the bridge and to water. It seems that Dreiser must have decided to play with, and revitalize, the cliché “it’s all water under the bridge,” just as Charles Chesnutt, in his story “Baxter’s Procrustes,” did with the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

If “The Old Neighborhood” is, on balance, a relatively successful story, it suffers from the attempt to cover too many events in too few pages, so that, with his novelist’s inclination bound within the limitations of short fiction, Dreiser resorts to “telling” rather than “showing,” and the tale produces a certain unfortunate impression of stasis. Two other stories by Dreiser, notable for avoiding this impression while still being, unlike the atypical works noted earlier, representative of his general thought and method, should be briefly mentioned. In them, Dreiser successfully integrates his philosophy of life with writing techniques adjusted to the requirements of short fiction.

“The Lost Phoebe”

“The Lost Phoebe,” which may owe something to Norris’s story, in The Octopus (1901), of Vanamee and his lost love, tells of an old man who, refusing to accept the death of his wife of many years, wanders over the countryside imagining her return until at last he sees her in a vision which he follows over a cliff to his death. In this work, Dreiser’s view of the “terror and beauty of life” emerges through an effective balance of action, setting, and character.

“St. Columba and the River”

Finally, “St. Columba and the River,” developed from an earlier nonfiction piece Dreiser had written concerning the work of “sand-hogs,” those construction workers who build underwater tunnels, may well be the author’s most successful work of short fiction. The story tells of the tribulations of one such worker, McGlathery, who, driven by the need for something approaching a living wage, develops real courage in his dangerous occupation, finally surviving a cave-in through a freak of good fortune. In this work, Dreiser’s naturalistic details are never tedious, because the material, involving an unusual occupation, requires them. Dreiser’s frequently ponderous tone, more out of place in short fiction than in novels, is avoided; the story is lightened with humor. Character, appropriately in a short story, is exposed more than developed, and the plot reaches a definite climax, and yet the theme is not made subservient to the plot; rather, it is integrated with it. If, as always, Dreiser teaches the reader about the strange kaleidoscope of life, here he does it while simultaneously being entertaining. With Horace, the reader can, in this story, accept the idea that art’s function may be to at once delight and instruct.

In spite of such notable successes, Dreiser’s short fiction remains secondary in interest to his novels, on which his reputation correctly rests. Nevertheless, not only are his short stories valuable when used to help understand his more significant work, but also they are interesting in demonstrating other sides of his remarkable talent. Most importantly, there are those successes that are, in their own right, valuable works of art.

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