It took me quite a while to finish Theodore Dreiser’s 1900-written tome, Sister Carrie. Theodore Dreiser’s masterpiece about a young country woman who finds fame and fortune—but not happiness—in the big city was largely ignored in its day, but has found its own renown in modern day.
Carrie Meeber, the novel’s heroine, moves from her Wisconsin home to the big city of Chicago. Chicago, with its rapidly urbanizing and luxuriating streets, is the real heroine of this story—and certainly the most persuasive reason to give up all notions of morality or honor, which Carrie promptly does. Carrie first moves in with her dowdy sister and her tight-laced husband, and secures dull work in a factory.
Soon after she becomes dissatisfied with her state, she meets her first lover, Charles Drouet, a traveling salesman. Drouet showers Carrie with attention, time and fine clothes—her most ardent attachment—and soon after the pair move in together. Nothing salacious is described in the book—as far as the novel itself is concerned, the pair don’t even kiss—but still, Carrie’s seemingly easy rejection of Victorian morality is surprising to modern readers, as well as readers contemporary to its publication.
Most significant to her eventual development, Carrie takes a turn on the stage because of Drouet’s urging. There, a casual acquitance of Drouet’s named George Hurstwood, a bar manager, takes more and more notice of her, eventually becoming infatuated with her. He begins to be dissatisfied with his life, and he and Carrie begin an affair. Partially by mistake, Hurstwood takes a large sum of money from his business, and has to flee, with Carrie in tow, to New York.
There, the pair have to live in shabbier and shabbier conditions until Hurstwood loses his work—and his will to find new work entirely. Eventually, Carrie leaves him, and he becomes a homeless bum. Dreiser’s first nod to the intersection between will, faith and persistence. Carrie achieves her dream of being a rich actress with fine clothes and accommodations, but as she gets what she wants, she no longer wants it.
This and Dreiser’s other well-known book, American Tragedy, are emblematic as early American naturalist novels. Moving away from Victorian melodramatics, these books focus instead on instinct and chance as the most influential elements in his characters’ lives. At its publication, Sister Carrie was deemed immoral because its main character lived in sin with two men. Dreiser’s writing style, as well, has been criticized throughout the decades for being a bit haphazard and unintelligent.