A review of Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

I’ve just finished reading Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Normally, I read a “worthwhile” book such as this on my daily commute, and devote the wearier late-evening hours to a potboiler; but SC got me so hooked that it became my one-and- only read for a couple of weeks; quite a tribute to this tome!

My edition was the Signet paperback. Though in general I find this series almost indispensable, I was in this case put off by the number of “typos” that I found. Not only were there quite a few misspellings — which at least one can deal with without help — but there was also, in one instance, an entire line missing! Fortunately, since SC is in the public domain, I was able to find an online copy easily, and transcribe the missing line into my edition.

SC, written in 1900, was Dreiser’s first novel. Since I don’t like either giving or getting “spoilers”, I’ll just summarize the plot in a very general way. The story, set in the late nineteenth century, concerns Caroline Meeber, who at the age of 18 leaves her small-town home and heads for Chicago, to seek her fortune, as they say. We see Carrie trying to deal with difficulties (e.g. finding work) and temptations (e.g. men). Will she remain on the straight-and-narrow, or will she succumb to the easy morality (or lack thereof) of the Big City? That’s all I’ll tell you; you’ll have to read the book to find out. 🙂 Except, I will say that although I don’t know that much about the literature of the period, the book seems daring, for its time, in its treatment of man-woman relationships … anyone know if this is the case?

I thought that there were at least two basic themes that SC dealt with. One is “The woman as passive, reactive”. Carrie (whom it is hard not to see as representative of her gender) is depicted in this way, whereas the men around her make the decisions and to a large extent shape her life for her. Is Dreiser making a general comment on the state of society? Without having read any of his other books, this is hard for me to say. I must add, however, that at some point in the story, Carrie does manage to “realize” herself … and interestingly, in a way that well capitalizes on her receptive, self-effacing nature.

The other theme is simply: “The big city”. Or rather, one should say “cities”; for I will reveal that New York becomes a locale for the action at some point. Dreiser shows us everything from Bowery bums to high society; from the city as chewer-up of people to the city as elevating some to the highest stations. Both these cities are shown as sharing many characteristics, but the differences are also notable. In one passage I enjoyed greatly, Carrie is arriving in New York for the first time. As she first travels the streets of Manhattan, she asks the man she is with, where all the people actually live. “Why, right here”, the man answers, pointing to all the brownstones that line the street. “You mean, they haven’t any lawns?” asks Carrie. This gives such a vivid glimpse at a first-timer’s view of my city!

If I may briefly digress here: This is undoubtedly because I am a big novel reader, but: paradoxical as it may sound, I never feel I have gotten to know a place (or a historical period) well, until I have read a literary treatment of it. This is why I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first real writer in … space! One writer I might choose to send is Norman Mailer (though I admittedly don’t know if he’d accept my nomination). I’d just love to read his first-hand account (either in essay form, or embodied in fiction) of floating weightless in the space shuttle …

Now for the down-side. I won’t deny that some things did bother me about SC. The book can be long-winded; I found myself at times wishing that the editor had applied a more aggressive hand to the text. And then, Dreiser loves to interrupt the action so that he can deliver general comments on what is going on. I also found some anti-Semitism, though it’s not nearly as pervasive as it is in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (from the same era), which I finished recently. At one point in SC we have the phrase: “Burnstein, a regular hook-nosed sheeny”. Since this line is spoken by one of the characters, it’s hard to say if this in any way represents the author’s own view …

I suppose all the above negative points could be regarded as representative of literature of the time in general (am I correct?); somehow this makes them less bothersome to me. But perhaps specific to Dreiser is a bit of crudeness in his writing style. He doesn’t seem to be a “natural-born” writer. But the funny thing is, this awkwardness somehow makes me respect him more. This leads to what really made the book work for me: a sense of tremendous conviction and strength in back of everything. Dreiser makes me feel, in no uncertain terms, that this is a tale worth telling — even though the writing of it might not come easily to him. He makes the story, as it follows the social, economic, and moral paths traced by the characters — and as it follows Carrie’s long search for fulfillment — absolutely compelling. Maybe some of this even comes from those interpretive interruptions I was complaining about; I’m not sure. All I know is that after a difficult beginning stage (which often happens to me with worthwhile books), I found myself totally committed to this novel.

Well — I hope that there are some out there who would like to respond to my comments. It can become wearying to bring up my latest “classic” with friends, only to hear: “Hmm … I might have read that book back in high school”, or: “Didn’t they make a movie out of that?” 🙂

Tom Frenkel

frethoa AT aol DOT com

11 Mar 1999