Sometimes I’m just ready for a good old-fashioned classic and fortunately for me one of my reading groups has a goodie scheduled. I’m a bit behind in my reading already because I got confused but … Dreiser is not difficult reading and I’m primed.
It’s a fast read – the writing is very easy to track and the plot moves right along, complex, twisty and detailed. The characters are maybe a tad typed; poor, pretty, innocent young rural girl goes to the big city – two men fall in love with her.
Dreiser’s theme is more of a “message” and it’s loud and clear – money and sex are the root of all evil but only because of greed, envy and jealousy. The poor are vulnerable – especially the women. No one really has any choices to make, they are cast into situations and trapped by human and societal failures.
In many ways Dreiser’s Sister Carrie reminds me of some of Thomas Hardy’s later novels – Jude the Obscure was published only 5 years prior to Sister Carrie. In other ways they were different (Hardy used rural settings, Dreiser urban – Dreiser was influenced by Darwin and naturalism, Hardy not nearly so much although he tried for some serious realism. They both criticized society for its treatment of the poor and vulnerable, especially women.)
The plot of Sister Carrie: It’s 1889 and Carrie Meeber, a rural girl, moves to Chicago to live with her sister’s family and get a job. We’re not told why Carrie made this move but it was a time when many young people were leaving the rural areas for the glamor of the cities. On the train she meets a young man named Charles Drouet.
In Chicago she gets a job but loses it due to illness, then runs into Drouet again. He convinces her to move in with him so after some hesitation, it’s this or go home to her parents, she does. Drouet introduces Carrie to George Hurstwood, the manager of an upscale bar. Hurstwood, an unhappily married man, falls for Carrie, starts seeing her while Drouet is out of town, and doesn’t say anything about being married.
At some point Carrie gets an acting role in an amateur production and wows the crowd as well as Drouet and Hurstwood, but jealousy and revelations force Drouet to leave Carrie who now knows that Hurstwood is married. Surprise, Hurstwood’s wife finds out about Carrie.
Hurstwood then “accidentally” robs the bar safe and kidnaps Carrie relocating them Canada where they marry taking the name of Wheeler, and then on to New York City. The plot thickens – heh -Carrie is just as strong a character as Dreiser can make her considering she is very vulnerable, naive, powerless, envious of clothes and wealth, etc. Hurstood’s situation is not much better – he is basically addicted to his leisure (sloth).
From an historical point of view – Dreiser included many nonfictional places and a few people. That’s interesting, it pin-points the setting – provides food for research – creates an ambiance.
This book was soundly criticized and probably banned in a few places because of the illicit sex which does not seem to get punished.
Bottom line – if you’ve never read a book by Theodore Dreiser this is a good one to start with, if you’ve already read a book or two this is pretty much the same stuff – a new plot but plots are important in Dreiser.