Theodore Dreiser American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3743

Dreiser is best known as a leading American naturalist writer. Naturalism, a literary trend which began in France and reached the United States in the 1880’s, depicted life realistically, often concentrating on the lower classes of society. Naturalism held that the lives of human beings were determined by circumstances and...

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Dreiser is best known as a leading American naturalist writer. Naturalism, a literary trend which began in France and reached the United States in the 1880’s, depicted life realistically, often concentrating on the lower classes of society. Naturalism held that the lives of human beings were determined by circumstances and inborn traits, or drives. Thus, people acted purely on instinct, had no free will, and were unable to change. This philosophy of human life consequently gave naturalistic writing a depressing and pessimistic tone.

The name most frequently associated with French naturalism isÉmile Zola, but when Dreiser wrote Sister Carrie, he had not read any of Zola’s work. Neither had he read McTeague (1899), the recently published novel of American naturalist Frank Norris, who acclaimed Sister Carrie as wonderful. Although Dreiser had read the works of such writers as Honoré de Balzac, Charles Darwin, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, and the British novelist Thomas Hardy, it is doubtful that his view of human nature derived as much from the theories of others as from his own observations of his family and the people he interviewed as a feature reporter.

Events of fate, such as the mill fire and the brain injury that had wiped out his father’s early ambition, had probably made it clear to Dreiser that people’s lives are not entirely under their own control. As three of his sisters had become mistresses or given birth to illegitimate children, he may have also reached the conclusion that human libido was a stronger force than any moral precepts established by church or society.

Nevertheless, Dreiser’s works do not follow the theory of naturalism to the letter. Although his characters’ lives and actions are strongly influenced by their youthful environments and their own innate personalities, he does not present them simply as animals or robots at the mercy of nature or outside forces; Dreiser’s characters are real. They make thoughtful and conscious decisions—proving the existence of free will—even though these decisions are often guided by outside events, and some characters show the potential for positive change. Moreover, while Dreiser’s works are somber, they are not totally pessimistic. Although the conclusions to Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, and An American Tragedy are far from happy, each contains a subtle hint of hope for the characters, provided the reader chooses to interpret them in that way.

Despite his deviations from theoretical naturalism, however, Dreiser still believed that most people are in the firm clutches of money and sex, which he considered the strongest and most basic of human drives. The drive toward money is obvious in all of Dreiser’s major novels. Sex is equally powerful, but Dreiser presents it as more than a simple physical instinct. To the male characters, sexual conquests imply possession and confidence. After Jennie Gerhardt has yielded to her first lover, for example, he tells her that she belongs to him. Clyde, in An American Tragedy, assures himself that as one young woman has given herself to him freely, there must be others willing to do the same.

Among Dreiser’s female characters (with the possible exception of Roberta Alden, in An American Tragedy, who appears to regard it as a genuine physical pleasure as well as an expression of deep love), sex is viewed either as the means to an end or as an instrument of control. Sex as the gateway to a higher standard of living is a major theme in both Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, but its controlling aspect comes forth more obviously in An American Tragedy, wherein Clyde becomes attracted to Roberta, a shop girl whose meager salary cannot afford an expensive fur coat she ardently desires. Not really caring for Clyde, but sensing his pliability regarding her wishes, she bribes him into buying the coat on the installment plan by promising sex once the coveted garment is in her possession.

Sondra Finchley uses sexual control in a more subtle form. She keeps Clyde at bay by insinuating that in the mores of her society—to which Clyde aspires to belong—sex does not occur before the wedding. While Dreiser had abandoned the practice of Catholicism quite early and no longer had faith in a personal God, his belief in the driving power of money and sex alienated him from all forms of organized religion. He believed that their moral teachings tried to change people from what nature intended them to be: sexual and material beings, enjoying the good, sensual things of life. Dreiser usually portrayed churches in a negative manner.

Many critics have objected that Dreiser’s writing is cumbersome and overly descriptive. His descriptions, however, can often be enlightening. His detailed portrayals of street scenes in Sister Carrie, for example, give realistic pictures of Chicago and New York in the 1890’s; his digression into the steps involved in shirt manufacturing in An American Tragedy provides information about that industry in the early twentieth century. Moreover, Dreiser’s minute descriptions of certain characters, from their broken shoes to their frayed cuffs, help the reader to feel compassion for these people in the unfortunate circumstances which are probably beyond their control.

At times, Dreiser does tend to tell about his characters instead of “showing” them through their own words and actions. Furthermore, he frequently interrupts his narrative to philosophize on human nature in general. While it may be annoying to some readers, this habit serves a purpose. Not only does it arouse empathy for fictional characters, but it also reminds the reader that the problems of these characters are those of the entire human race. Dreiser compensates for any heaviness in his style by producing tightly knit plots that move chronologically. Furthermore, while his novels contain a few symbols, he does not overload his writing with them. In some ways, therefore, his works are easier to read than modern novels. They continue to have value, for they treat human dramas that have always existed and will always exist.

Sister Carrie

First published: 1900

Type of work: Novel

A young woman uses her relationships with men as stepping-stones in her quest for material beauty.

Although Carrie Meeber, the protagonist of Sister Carrie, may seem somewhat shallow in her preoccupation with clothing and popular entertainment, she has been called a seeker of beauty. Carrie has grown up in an impoverished rural district, probably knowing only the essentials of life. To her, luxuries such as fashionable clothes, theaters, and elegant restaurants are beautiful things.

At first, Carrie plans to acquire material beauty through her own efforts, working in Chicago. She soon learns, however, that her lack of training and experience qualifies her only for factory work, which does not pay well. Following a bout of flu, Carrie loses her job in a shoe factory (sick leave did not exist in 1889) and cannot find another position. During one of her futile job searches, she chances to encounter Charles Drouet, a traveling salesman whom she had met on the train to Chicago. As Carrie is rather passive and pliable by nature, Charles easily persuades her to postpone her job search, have dinner with him, and let him buy her some nice clothes. Before long, Carrie has moved into this man’s cozy apartment, enjoying material comforts she has never known, without having to scrabble for work.

When Carrie meets George Hurstwood, the manager of a prosperous saloon, however, she realizes that this man is superior to her present lover. Not only is Hurstwood more intelligent, but also his clothes are finer in quality—a clear indication that he can provide her with a higher form of material beauty. Attracted to Carrie, Hurstwood plans an elopement to New York. In order to execute this plan, he needs a supply of ready cash—something he lacks because most of his money is in investments. This situation leads to a scene that exhibits Dreiser’s belief in one’s ability to weigh moral issues rather than only acting on impulse.

Closing the saloon one night, Hurstwood notices that the lock on the safe is not fastened. Tempted, he reaches in, takes out ten thousand dollars in bills, puts them back, then takes them out again. Aware that theft is intrinsically wrong as well as tremendously damaging to one’s reputation, he knows that he should replace the cash. Yet he hesitates, fondling the green paper that represents accessible spending power. Then an act of fate occurs that ends his conflict: The safe suddenly snaps shut, and he does not know the combination. Hurstwood decides to take the money but to send back most of it, retaining only enough to settle himself and Carrie in their new environment.

Once in New York, however, Hurstwood’s luck changes, as he cannot find steady employment. Carrie becomes a chorus girl, eventually acquiring speaking parts in comedy shows. While her salary is modest, it is sufficient to cover essentials, such as rent, coal, and groceries. Resenting what she interprets as Hurstwood’s laziness, however, and still on her search for material beauty, she spends all of her earnings on her wardrobe, so that the couple rapidly falls into debt. Eventually, Carrie and Hurstwood separate, and the latter, now homeless, commits suicide by gas inhalation.

In Sister Carrie, Dreiser shows his faith in the ability to change, as opposed to remaining in the “trap” of one’s origin or inborn personality. Although Hurstwood’s life ends tragically, he had exhibited progress in his youth. Starting as a bartender with little money, he worked his way into increasingly better positions, finally becoming the well-paid manager of a fashionable saloon. Carrie also changes—she loses her emotional dependence on men. When she happens to meet Charles Drouet in New York, he asks her to dinner. In former days, Carrie would have followed along, flattered by his enduring interest in her. This time, however, she declines, using a theater engagement as an excuse. Subsequent invitations from Drouet are also refused.

Robert Ames, a friend of Carrie, sees in her even greater potential for change. Robert points out that there is more to life than the acquisition of material luxuries. Having seen Carrie in comedy shows, he believes that she is capable of acting in more serious drama—a form of beauty that can transform people’s lives and might bring true happiness to the actress. This gives Carrie something to think about, but whether she will act on Robert’s advice is questionable, for Carrie is more a dreamer than a doer. Her tendency to dream is symbolized by the rocking chair—a frequent image throughout the novel. It is Carrie’s wont to rock for hours, singing and dreaming of a rosy future. Hurstwood also uses the rocker, but to dream of his past.

While the rocking chair is the novel’s primary symbol, Dreiser uses another, which reflects his awareness of the gulf between economic classes. Each evening, a homeless man called the Captain stands on a corner in the wealthy theater district. Surrounded by other homeless men, he begs for money so that each man might rent a bed for the night. The Captain’s station emphasizes the great divergence between classes within the same vicinity.

Sister Carrie ends with an image of Carrie in her rocker, “dreaming of such happiness as [she] may never feel.” The word “may” suggests ambiguity as to Carrie’s future. She may remain a perpetual dreamer, or she may take Robert’s advice and seek a form of beauty that could bring her lasting satisfaction.

Jennie Gerhardt

First published: 1911

Type of work: Novel

Jennie, an unwed mother, becomes the mistress of an affluent man, who eventually leaves her to marry a wealthy widow.

Dreiser’s second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, is often considered his most popular, having sold more than five thousand copies in its first six months. Not only does the author show his characters through their own dialogue (rather than relying on description and narration), he also injects a bit of realistic humor in the “baby talk” conversations between a toddler and her grandfather. Moreover, he presents a heroine whose sexual liaisons stem not from a longing for possessions but from a sense of family responsibility.

Because Jennie’s father is an unemployed glassblower with six children, Jennie helps out by doing the laundry of George Brander, a senator who resides at a fashionable hotel. Having taken a fancy to Jennie, Brander tells her that if ever she or her family are in need, he will help. Thus, when Jennie’s brother gets into trouble with the law, Brander gives Jennie the ten dollars bail that her parents cannot afford. In her relief and gratitude, Jennie yields herself to him completely.

Shortly afterward, Brander dies of heart failure, and Jennie learns that she is pregnant. Although she is mortified by her condition, Jennie’s maternal instinct comes through. Her strength during the pregnancy comes largely from the supportiveness of her mother, Mrs. Gerhardt, whose behavior Dreiser probably modeled on that of his own mother throughout the pregnancy of his sister Maine.

When her daughter, Vesta, is six months old, Jennie meets Lester Kane, heir to his father’s flourishing carriage business. Lester is quickly attracted to Jennie and asks her to become his mistress, promising financial support to her family. This proposal throws Jennie into a conflict. Although the attraction is mutual, she has determined not to “fall” again—yet her family is always short of money. Finally, fate intervenes, helping her to make a decision. Gerhardt, who has since found work, seriously burns his hands in a factory accident, to the extent that he will no longer be able to use them in the glassblowing trade. Thus, the major portion of the family’s meager income is gone; knowing their need, Jennie accepts Lester’s offer, lying to her parents that they have been secretly married.

In Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser broaches two topics that he did not discuss in Sister Carrie. One is the issue of birth control: Dreading the idea of bearing another illegitimate child, Jennie tells Lester at the outset that she does not want a baby. Lester, who does not particularly want children himself, promises to protect her from this unwanted event. Dreiser also explores the compatibility of mates and the ability of partners to satisfy each other’s needs. Unquestionably, Jennie provides Lester with a comfortable home: For his part, Lester comes to care for Vesta, taking a genuine interest in this child of another man.

In time, however, fate disrupts their simple yet contented life. While traveling abroad with Jennie, Lester happens to encounter Letty Pace, a former girlfriend, now a rich widow. In his reunion with Letty, who comes from his own privileged background, Lester realizes how much he has missed high society, with its cultural interests and intellectual repartee. As his father has already threatened to cut him from his will if he continues living with Jennie (promising only a pittance if he marries her), Lester begins thinking. Letty can obviously provide more social and intellectual stimulation than Jennie. Therefore, it might be financially and socially advantageous to leave his mistress and marry a woman of his own kind.

Lester’s supposedly ideal marriage, however, does not bring him complete happiness, for despite her intelligence and social grace, Letty cannot offer Jennie’s warm companionship—a situation suggesting that no one can entirely fulfill the needs of another. Ironically, it is Jennie who comes to Lester at the time of his sudden death, Letty being on a cruise and arriving home only in time for the funeral.

As in Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s closing passage is somewhat ambiguous. After Vesta’s death from typhoid, Jennie has adopted two orphans who “would marry and leave after a while, and then what? Days and days in endless reiteration, and then—?” Depending on the view of the reader, this conclusion can imply endless futility for Jennie, or, in time, the advent of a whole new life—something, perhaps, of which she has not yet dreamed.

An American Tragedy

First published: 1925

Type of work: Novel

Infatuated with a wealthy young woman, Clyde Griffiths drowns his working-class lover, the mother of his unborn child, a crime which results in his execution.

An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s longest novel, has often been hailed as his masterpiece. It is divided into three books, the first of which foreshadows the events of the second, while the third describes Clyde’s trial. The protagonist is Clyde Griffiths, the son of street preachers who live in dire poverty. Thus, Clyde grows up longing for material things he can never attain except through his own efforts.

After a series of dead-end jobs, Clyde ventures to Lycurgus, New York, hoping for a place in his uncle’s prosperous shirt factory. Before long, he becomes supervisor of the stamping room, where he meets Roberta Alden, a hardworking, pretty, vivacious young woman whose attraction to him matches his interest in her. After a few months of casual dating, the two become lovers and Roberta gets pregnant. In the meantime, however, Clyde has met Sondra Finchley, a girl of wealth and social prestige, whose way of life represents everything of which he has ever dreamed. Infatuated with Sondra, but being pressured toward marriage by Roberta (who cannot obtain an abortion), Clyde feels himself in a trap. As in Dreiser’s previous novels, however, two incidents of fate influence his actions.

The first is a news report of a drowning, in which the woman’s body was found but not the man’s. Shortly after reading this, Clyde discovers a chain of isolated lakes north of the resort where the Finchleys have their summer home. It occurs to him that as Roberta cannot swim, an “accidental” drowning might be the way out of his predicament. Telling Roberta he will marry her, he plans a pre-wedding jaunt on one of these lonely lakes, choosing a boat that will easily overturn, When Roberta tries to draw closer to Clyde in the boat, he pushes her back, causing her to lose her balance and fall into the water. At this moment, Clyde experiences a fleeting change of heart. Reaching over to rescue Roberta, however, he upsets the boat, which hits her on the head, knocking her unconscious. Although Clyde might still have pulled Roberta from the water, a “voice” inside him says that fate has acted in his favor. Therefore, he lets her sink and heads back to Sondra.

When compared with Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, An American Tragedy seems closest to the spirit of naturalism, for Clyde appears to have no conscience. Dreiser foreshadows Clyde’s indifference to murder in book 1. Clyde and some other youths are involved in an automobile crash which kills a child. No one, including Clyde, seems to care about the child. Their only concern is to get the car out of sight and then hide from the police, like hunted animals.

Dreiser also refers several times to Clyde’s “thin, sensitive hands,” a symbolic reminder of his innate weakness that makes him run from a crisis. Finally, the author foreshadows Clyde’s tendency to place his own needs over those of others. When his unwed sister Esta becomes pregnant, Mrs. Griffiths asks him for some money toward the “confinement.” Although Clyde has fifty dollars in his pocket, he contributes a mere five, keeping the rest to buy his girlfriend a coat in return for her sexual favors.

In An American Tragedy, Dreiser strongly implies his own attitude toward religion. Before she can sleep with Clyde, Roberta must overcome the scruples of her church, which say that she will be a “bad girl” if she yields. Through Roberta’s moral struggle, Dreiser suggests that the ethical teachings of organized religion are not in accord with the drives of human nature. Furthermore, he implies that religion is ineffective in bringing about desired results. In prison, some of the men condemned to die chant the prayers of their faiths, hoping for a favor from God; they still end up in the electric chair. Clyde’s mother, who prays for her son’s acquittal and tries to raise money for a second trial, fails in her efforts, and Clyde dies, doubtful of God’s existence and peace in the hereafter.

Nevertheless, Dreiser suggests that for some, religion is a source of strength. Clyde’s mother is an example, as is the Reverend Mr. McMillan, who visits Clyde in prison. Although Clyde cannot fully believe what McMillan tells him about making peace with God, he is drawn to the man’s personal magnetism. McMillan’s magnetism may derive, in part, from his deep religious faith.

The title of the novel is significant. Besides the youthful deaths of Roberta and Clyde, it is a tragedy that no one can really understand the yearnings of another’s heart. Clyde confesses to McMillan the true motive behind his crime: the material deprivation that drove him to an obsession with Sondra and her glittering world. McMillan, who has never experienced such strong longing for wealth, cannot understand, and he is unable to offer the court this evidence in Clyde’s favor. Clyde’s obsession with wealth also leads him to forfeit his chance for a warm and companionable marriage with Roberta. His matrimonial tragedy is particularly “American,” for during the 1920’s, the United States was still recovering economically from World War I, and many saw wealth as their highest goal, sacrificing other joys.

The conclusion to this novel, like those of the others, is open to interpretation. An American Tragedy ends the way it begins, with the Griffiths preaching on a street corner. Now, however, they are accompanied by Esta’s son, Russell, and two converts. In one sense, it looks as if everything is hopelessly the same. On the other hand, there is a glimmer of hope in Mrs. Griffiths’s reflections concerning Russell. Before returning to the mission, Russell asks for money to buy an ice-cream cone. As he runs to the vendor, Mrs. Griffiths tells herself, “she must be kind to him, more liberal with him, not restrain him too much, as maybe, maybe, she had. . . . ’For his sake.’” It is possible, then, that she has learned something from her son’s ordeal and that Russell’s fate will not be a repetition of his Uncle Clyde’s.

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