Theodore Dreiser Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1994 words.)