Friday, 5 May 2017

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

 
published 1900



[1889: Carrie Meeber is travelling to the big city on a train]
 
Sister CarrieA woman should some day write the complete philosophy of clothes. No matter how young, it is one of the things she wholly comprehends. There is an indescribably faint line in the matter of man’s apparel which somehow divides for her those who are worth glancing at and those who are not. 

Once an individual has passed this faint line on the way downward he will get no glance from her. There is another line at which the dress of a man will cause her to study her own. This line the individual at her elbow now marked for Carrie. She became conscious of an inequality. Her own plain blue dress, with its black cotton tape trimmings, now seemed to her shabby. She felt the worn state of her shoes.



 
commentary: I read this book because my friend Prashant Trikkanad, of the blog Chess Comics and Crosswords, recommended it to me, as a picture of Chicago and New York as the 19th century turned into the 20th.

It is a great read, full of authentic details of life, and I enjoyed it in its way, though it is rather a sad and doomy view of the world, and there were certain things that puzzled me. ‘Sister Carrie’ seems like a strange title – I don’t know why it’s called that, her role as a sister (and this is not indicating that she is a nun or a nurse) is almost non-existent.

It is true that she moves from a small town to stay with her sister Minnie, but this lasts a very short time. She searches for work, finds a job she doesn’t like, then runs off with the man she first met on the train, as in the above extract. She lives with him for a while, then when he introduces her to his friend, Hurstwood, she starts an affair with him. Eventually they leave Chicago for New York, under rather dubious circumstances. Hurstwood is now on a slow decline, and eventually Carrie gives up on him and makes her own way in the world, in a rather surprising way.

She is an interesting heroine, in that she doesn’t have many qualms about her behaviour – she worries occasionally, but really not that much. This is a refreshing change from the heroines of so many male writers of the era, who would have had her suffering agonies of shame and self-recrimination. The line of the narrative is unusual too – many incidents that would be a major calamity and climax in another book are dealt with in a very calm way. I just looked the author up on Wikipedia, and it says he was of the naturalist school, and then there is this description of his work:
His novels often featured main characters who succeeded at their objectives despite a lack of a firm moral code, and literary situations that more closely resemble studies of nature than tales of choice and agency.
-- which is a much better version of what I was trying to say in my description.

One thing that did strike me was that Carrie was very lucky that she did not become pregnant at any point in her various adventures.

Her first lover is described as ‘a drummer’ which I learned meant he was a salesman (drumming up trade I suppose), and there is also a mention of a bunco-steerer – someone who lures the innocent to dubious clubs and card games. Her second lover runs what sound like big gin palaces – they are called ‘resorts’ in the book, although they are city centre operations – I’m not sure if they are bars, clubs, restaurants or some combination of those, with their ‘Elegant back rooms and private drinking booths on the second floor’.

Dreiser calls Carrie a ‘little soldier of fortune’, which is a great description, and her friend is a ‘gaslight soldier’. And then soldiers come up again in a different context: There is a detailed description of how someone I would guess to be from the Salvation Army works to raise money to get beds for the night for homeless people: it’s not a key part of the book, but is horrifying and compelling. Dreiser passes over some incidents in a very glancing way – time will pass between sentences – but then other matters will be dealt with in great detail. He gives very exact accounts for the budgeting of a household and how the money disappears.

It was a pity that Dreiser was very judgemental and dismissive of Carrie and her thoughts and ambitions – he refrained from punishing for her actions (as so many contemporary writers would have done) but couldn’t resist condemning her in the end, telling her she will never have the love she dreams of.

In the book, there is supercilious talk of a kind of book called Dora Thorne – I read the original Dora Thorne, and wrote about how it became a byword for a certain kind of literature. The resulting blogpost is here.

The picture is from the National Library of Ireland, around 1889-90.

















18 comments:

  1. Carrie sounds like a strong character in her way, Moira. And I can see why you enjoyed the novel. I'll admit that this is one of those novels I've heard of for a long time, but never read. Glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. You never know with classics, those books you feel you ought to have read. But this one was a winner.

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  2. I love visiting your blog just so I can reaquant myself with the depths of my ignorance and ... I think, yonks ago, that I saw the movie but all a bit of a blur. Not sure I have ever actually read Dreiser - I think this was his debut as a novelist, right?

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    1. That made me laugh! I'm not sure if I've read anything else by him: I'm always convinced I've read American Tragedy, but I think I've just seen the film Place in the Sun! - you've probably seen that too? I had to look it up, but you at right, this was his first.

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  3. Another to avoid...sorry, just not me.

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    1. Miserable without the benefit of a crime plot - you are let off.

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  4. One of my English teachers pointed me towards this. I've not read any Dreiser since, and it was a long time ago, but my recollection of it was that SISTER CARRIE was rather unusual. The basic plot (young woman bounces from lover to lover and becomes big on the stage) almost feels like a prototype Jackie Collins novel, although if she had written it the heroine would be called Dominique Santanna and be played on film by her sister. Howver, the book is almost Dickensian way in the way that it looks at conditions in the Big City, although it lacks Dicken's sentimentality. Dreiser was a rather combative, fiery, rather seious-minded character, and that does come over in his rather judgemental attitude to Carrie. There's a touch of Mary Whitehouse to him. In conclusion, then, this reads aa if Charles Dickens and Mary Whitehouse had collaborated on a Jackie Collins novel (which is a slightly weird combination to produce the Great American Novel, but there youi are...)

    ggary

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    1. That made me giggle! But yes, I know what you mean, he did manage to entwine social comment with some hot stuff and a heroine on-the-make. Touch of Valley of the Dolls too...

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  5. I read it so long ago I can't remember any details. I also read "An American Tragedy," and I found it a more memorable book. Interestingly, I was thinking "The Octopus" was Dreiser's, too, but it was written by Frank Norris. It had an unforgettable early scene describing an incident on the train tracks,

    Guess these social interest books run together in my mind a bit. Norris also wrote "McTeague" which was unforgettably made into a movie called "Greed" by Eric von Stroheim -- the movie that pretty much ended his directing career.

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    1. I imagine you were more likely to have read these in school or college than us Brits were. Frank Norris I haven't come across and will look up - though I have heard of Greed.

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    2. Yes, I read "Sister Carrie" and "The Octopus" for school, but I read "An American Tragedy" on my own. Speaking of the latter, the movie was spoiled a bit for me by Shelly Winters. I just wanted Montgomery Clift to just shove her over the side of the boat already she annoyed me so much.

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    3. That made me laugh! They did set out to make her unsympathetic I think. I will get round to some more Dreiser one day. Don't know when I'll get to NOrris!

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    4. Start with "The Octopus" with Norris. It stuck in my mind more than most books I had to read in high school.

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  6. I read "Jennie Gerhardt" and "An American Tragedy," while a teenager and not for school. Probably my parents' influence led me to these books.

    "An American Tragedy" has stayed with me for all these many years, the story of greed and ambition over humanity and respect for other people.

    It is a classic. Its lessons are important.

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    1. The story it tells is one that I think probably resounds in every culture and time, there is something basic about it.
      I am not familiar with Jennie Gerhardt.

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  7. I read an American Tragedy long ago, and I don't think it was for school either, although I probably read it when in high school or college. But I don't think I ever read this. You might have talked me into it, if it were shorter.

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    1. It is quite long, quite a commitment! And I did enjoy it - but I couldn't honestly say you should read it...

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