Classics · Review

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Sister Carrie by Theodore DreiserPublisher: The Modern Library

Pub. Date: 1900, 1999

Genre: Classic, Realistic Fiction

Pages: 659

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

Carrie Meeber, a young woman from Wisconsin, moves to Chicago in the 19th Century in hopes of finding work and becoming successful in whatever she does. When she finally gets to her sister’s, she has trouble finding and keeping work as an inexperienced worker. She meets a dandy traveling salesman on the train who helps her find her way in Chicago—for a price. What ensues is materialism, love affairs, and a fight for survival. Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser, is a critique on capitalism and a spectacle of power and industry.

This classic novel was required reading for the course I am taking about American Realism. As I recall from the introduction, Dreiser was the first post-Civil War author to write about the experience instead of the spectacle of poverty. Apparently, Sister Carrie was largely inspired by one of his sister’s lives. The book was controversial for the turn of the century, and that made it difficult for Dreiser to get it published. It had to be edited a great deal to make it palatable for readers because of certain risqué behaviors and scenes.

I was surprised how easily I dived into the novel for class. It grabbed my attention, and it was easy to follow what was happening. I’m at the edge of loving the novel. The major problem for me was that I had to read six hundred fifty-nine pages in a week and a half. The forced time limit made it a chore to read when I might have enjoyed reading it to the end in two or three weeks.

Dreiser’s writing style is readable like the fiction published today, which I’m surprised to find a lot of in the novels and short stories we have had to read for class. It isn’t dense with the flowery language and liberal use of punctuation that characterizes Henry James’ novels. The book was immediately interesting, and the beginning was not all exposition.  Each chapter felt like a short story in content and title, but they were still chapters.

There are several well-developed characters, including a few who are only present for a few chapters. With her materialistic desires, Carrie learns to work her way up in the world, starting as an unskilled factory worker and climbing her way up the social ladder. She wants to be equal to the polished women she sees on the streets, so she tries to find work and social connections that will help her get there. Her high emotional intelligence also helps her in her quest for success. Drouet, the dandy and salesman, woos women  For the characters who are present for a short time, I think of Carrie’s sister and George Hurstwood’s wife. Carrie’s sister changes over the course of Carrie’s stay in her home. Hurstwood’s wife gains a new strength in demanding what she wants and using blackmail to get it.

Most of the story is character-driven. The narrator clearly describes each character’s actions and motivations, and their actions clearly affect each other. Some events seem to happen out of the characters’ control, like an inability to buy weather-appropriate clothing.

Besides exemplifying all the traits of realism, the novel criticizes capitalism. It shows widespread poverty and the issue of finding employment. On this point, I saw the problem of trying to find work when everyone wants experienced workers with little opportunity to gain experience. The book shows how someone can reach major success and fall into chronic poverty and homelessness.

Sister Carrie shows life in the American city of the 19th Century. I recommend this novel if you want to read an American classic that reads similarly to novels published today.

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