A Comment on Sister Carrie

Today is the birthday of Theodore Dreiser, author of Sister Carrie, and one of the most underrated novelists in American literary history.

As I’ve said before, Dreiser really didn’t know how to write, but he had a story to tell.  It was the story of us, the story of America at the turn toward the twentieth century, shorn of the jingoistic praise of the press and dime-store novels, and shorn even of the occasional admiring glances at capitalism we might find in John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy.  The America Dreiser saw and felt was darker, grittier, more microscopically-dirty than what most of his contemporaries saw.  The old term for it was “naturalism,” a kind of grim, Darwinian fatalism in which human beings were swept about by social and even biological forces they could not control, forces that often made a mockery of their attempts to pursue happiness.

Sister Carrie in its broadest strokes exemplifies this Darwinian struggle, as Caroline Meeber realizes that her sex and her looks can take her further in life than being merely the lover of Charles Drouet.  But every bit of struggle has its price, and biology alone cannot guarantee happiness.  A week’s worth of reading the tabloids might tell us that, but Dreiser’s narrator was there, sounding the warning long before the National Enquirer.  Think of his words about Carrie, as she sits alone, possessor at last of everything she’s ever wanted:

Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.”

That’s one of the best endings to a novel anybody ever wrote.  It gets underneath the action of the book to that action’s genuine meaning in just a few words, and it extends the effect of Carrie’s emptiness and unhappiness into an indefinite future.  Only a reading of the whole novel can help anybody determine whether the ending is justified, for Carrie or for her former lover, but I believe you’ll find the ending is justified, whether you believe in the power of Darwinian evolution as a social force or not.

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2 thoughts on “A Comment on Sister Carrie

  1. Boy, John, there’s a book that opened up a whole new train of thought for me in college! Later, I found it very hard to read any of Dreiser’s other work, but Sister Carrie was illuminating–maybe a case of the right book at exactly the right time. Thanks for a wonderful reminder.

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