Monday, September 8, 2008

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

It has taken me a couple days to collect my thoughts on Theodore Dreiser’s first and notoriously controversial novel, Sister Carrie.

Sister Carrie is the story of Caroline “Carrie” Meeber, an 18-year old young woman who, as the story opens, is traveling from her home in the country to the bustling metropolis of Chicago where she is to live with her married sister and find a job. During her train ride the shy and naive Carrie meets a very handsome and attentive salesman, Charles Drouer. It is through Drouer that Carrie’s life changes. After little success finding steady work Carrie is forced to come to the realization she cannot stay in Chicago, she must return home... unless she makes a rather unconventional choice... Which she does. Carrie moves in with Drouer under the false pretense that they are married. And so with that one choice Carrie sets down a road that forever changes her life and eventually herself as a person.

Each choice, each decision takes Carrie further from her former life and her child-like innocence and each leads her closer to what she thinks will bring ultimate happiness. But as anyone who has a Christian worldview must guess, it does not. Carrie, her lovers, her friends and other side-line characters in the story do not demonstrate unconditional love. They have only self-love and the desire to find pleasure for themselves -- be it money, fashion, travel, attention, or travel.

Looking at Sister Carrie from the perspective of someone living in the 21st century nothing is surprising -- it's pretty normal to see people lead the life that Carrie does in this book, but for it's time at the dawn of the 20th century when social morality was at a higher level it must have been very scandalous and unthinkable. And apparently it was, for when Dreiser brought Sister Carrie to publishers no one would print it. And when one finally did it was a slightly altered ending and even then the publisher did little to advertise the book.

What was so scandalous? It was more than the fact that Carrie begins her life of style in Chicago as a “kept woman” (note: no details are included, mostly you get the gist if you read between the lines). The book begins with that but pretty soon Carrie's desire for fashion and attention lead her to an affair with a married man and eventually to a life that focuses only on what she wants to make herself happy regardless the cost to others. Also when confronted with something unpleasant it was quite common for the characters to justify their actions and make excuses rather than show humility and repentance. Apparently the greatest objection by readers over a hundred years ago was the lack of repentance by Carrie and those surrounding her. The author made an effort at the "poetic justice" which readers sought, but it was a half-hearted effort.

Eighty years after it's first publication Dreiser's original work was republished, this time without the "poetic justice" ending. Apparently society in the 1980s was at last ready to welcome such a book. Critics today believe Sister Carrie was a turning point in literature, not really surprising when you look at some of the supposed "great" books turned out during the 20th century.

From what I’ve read of Theodore Dreiser as a person, he had very a secular and socialistic worldview and yet I think in spite of this Dreiser was still able to portray a study of character in a way that often escapes modern writers, including Christians.

The story of Carrie, her lovers and friends was not depressing, but it was pitiful. And yet, I was compelled to finish this book. It is argued by critics whether Dreiser was a good writer. While he's certainly no Dickens or Austen, he's also no Steinbeck or Hemingway. I didn't hate the book, I never was attached enough to any of the characters to have any emotions. Instead I felt like an outside observer.

What I took from this book was this: In our lives we all make choices. For those who choose to reject God and set their own life-code, for those who choose to live for pleasure regardless of the consequences they may succeed in gaining material goods, but in the end they have only truly succeeded in hurting others and hurting themselves. There is no true happiness, no life-joy. There is no fulfillment.

This could be a story told today; the choices they made then are not very much unlike choices made every day by those around us. I would recommend Sister Carrie, but with some footnotes to that recommendation. First, this may be a great story for anyone interested in a story set in a different era, it's good for that. Second, it's a good story for those wanting a book that reflects character and lack of character in people. Third and last, I would remind the reader that this is not a happy story. It is not filled with heroes, heroines, true love and knights in shining armor. But it's still not a complete waste.

The copy I read was 557 pages, a copy I stumbled upon while browsing the shelves in my local library. My favorite aspect of this book was its age. Published in 1920 the book smelled deliciously its age. Call me strange, but whenever I picked up the book to commence reading I had to first take a whiff. I love the smell of old books.


Carrie said...

Somehow I missed this review earlier in the week (not sure how). Thanks for a very insightful and informative review. (And I think it's great that you sniff books. I smell them as a I read them. My copy of Jane Eyre was very dusty though so I sneezed through most of that book!)

At any rate, I think I told you that my MIL read this book long ago but couldn't remember very much about it and therefore wasn't sure if she would recommend it to me. I've never checked into what it was about so I really appreciated your review. I can't say I'd read it but I AM very glad to know about it - and why it has relevance in literary history.


Terri B. said...

Good review! I read this book for a university course eons ago. I remember it leaving quite an impression at the time, but it has been so long ago now that I'll need to re-read it. I didn't know about the reprint. I wonder what edition I read? Something interesting to look into!

Amanda said...

I like Theodore Dreiser, though I preferred An American Tragedy to this one. It really is amazing to see what was "shocking" at one point in our history.

5-Squared (a book review blog)

Amanda said...

oh, and I meant to say, the reason I found your blog in the first place was because of the title - we use that quote on our book review blog! :)