Literature, with the naughty bits

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sister Carrie

Author: Theodore Dreiser

First Published: 1900

What Happens (Here Be Spoilers): Carrie Meeber, in her late teens, forsakes her small-town life to come to Chicago, hoping for work. She stays with her sister and her sister's husband in their humble apartment, and immediately realizes she wants a life less shoddy than theirs. She hopes for a comfortable position as a shop girl in one of the new department stores, but can't afford the stylish clothes that would secure such a job, and finds grueling, underpaid work in a shoe factory instead. Eventually she loses even that.

However, she catches the eye of Charles Drouet, an up-and-coming salesman. Drouet showers her with gifts and whisks her away from her sister. Soon they are living together. Carrie no longer needs to work at all; she spends her days reading. Drouet promises to marry her as soon as he makes a big enough sale to cover the expenses. He introduces her to friends as his wife.

He makes the mistake of introducing her to Hurstwood, who resolves to win Carrie away from Drouet. Carrie--who now has the luxury of time to think--has begun to recognize Drouet's shortcomings, particularly the hollowness of his promises of marriage. She admires Hurstwood's intelligence, extravagance, social connections and superior taste. She refuses to leave Drouet unless Hurstwood marries her. Hurstwood agrees, neglecting to inform her that he is already married.

Hurstwood's wife susses out her husband's duplicity and threatens divorce, a move that would leave him without property. It's safe to say Hurstwood does not respond well: He steals $10,000 from work, lies to Carrie, and flees with her to Canada, where he marries her in a ceremony that he only later reveals is a sham.

White-collar crime has apparently not changed much over the years. Hurstwood's employers fire him but agree not to press charges if he returns the money. But he is in too much disgrace to return to Chicago, or to work in the elevated social circles to which he is accustomed. He and Carrie move to New York. There, he struggles to find work. For the first time in his life, he must pay attention to a budget. Carrie, for her part, discovers the essential poverty of spirit that underlay all his previous generosity. When he does work, he neglects her in much the same way he neglected his first wife. Their resources dwindle.

Finally Carrie is fed up. She gets work as a chorus girl. In the past she has shown some talent as an actor, and the theater begins to recognize it. As her income grows, she leaves Hurstwood. Gradually she becomes a recognized star; the shows are trifling comedies, but she earns a handsome income. She also earns legions of male admirers but--to the bewilderment of her castmates--remains indifferent to their offers of wealth and wedded bliss. Drouet, now quite affluent, seeks her out; they reconcile civilly but she is no more interested in him than in the other suitors. She has discovered independence.

Hurstwood, on the other hand, continues his decline into poverty. The book ends with him, a ruined man, in the waning twilight of his life.

Censorship History: Sister Carrie was condemned early and often; like Ulysses it was censored and bowdlerized enough that we no longer have a single authoritative edition. (Bowdlerizing--named for the Reverend Thomas Bowdler--originally meant removing content "unfit to be read by a gentleman in the company of ladies." It has come to imply "withholding certain details and thereby weakening the whole," in much the same way that future generations will speak of Rumsfelding an invasion.)

Most censorship, of course, is less a comment on the work than on its times. Many early descriptions of Sister Carrie refer to Carrie as "a woman of loose morals." Given that she is the dupe of both Drouet and Hurstwood, neither of whom thinks anything of a little casual philandering on the side (and one of whom steals a great deal of money), it's pretty appalling that Carrie gets the blame. But I'm afraid it presents an accurate picture of just how circumscribed women's lives were in the 1890s. Poverty, not baseness, drives Carrie to accept Drouet's gifts and attentions. Her insistence on marriage reveals her awareness of social code; unfortunately, she is also more or less powerless to enforce her wishes, and at first she's too ignorant to to recognize the men's deceit. It's plain that she is not unique in her ignorance. Drouet and Hurstwood both expect her to believe their lies; women in their world do not ask questions. Carrie's society--the same society that sought to ban this book--kept women ignorant in the name of preserving their innocence.

Carrie's moral slips occur when she becomes aware of the differences between her material wealth and the wealth of others. This is a tragedy of capitalism more than anything else. The plot shows the natural consequences of income disparity. When Drouet first offers Carrie gifts, she is too poor to afford a winter coat (and that's a serious problem in Chicago). It's hard to blame her for choosing the comfort and surface respectability of life with him. Plenty of women make the same decision today. If the arbitrary lack of a ring is all that makes Carrie immoral, that proves Dreiser's point rather better than it proves the point of his censors. Of course, I'm making these observations from the perspective of a century, but Dreiser is always quite clear about Carrie's circumstances and motivations, and I imagine many women of Carrie's time read this and wondered what, exactly, was so terrible about her efforts to survive.

In any case, no amount of Bowdlerization can remove the implications of the plot, which remain quite radical: that capitalism is amoral; that wealth is neither always deserved nor always a reflection of moral character; that poverty is not noble; that we cannot always pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; that pay does not always accurately reflect the difficulty of the job; that women are not innately moral and innocent but rather gain judgment from their experiences in the world.

It says plenty about the character of the times that Dreiser could be censored for implying extramarital sex but that the casual sexism of some of his commentary--the broad observations about women's consciousness of fashion--could go unremarked. (As for the accuracy of these generalizations, all I can say is, Go to a literacy conference, Theodore, and discover the depths of frumpiness to which women can sink when they give most of their effort to meaningful work.) And as far as I can tell no one has found much issue with Drouet's description of a client as "a regular hook-nosed sheeny." These biases are allowable, I think, because the occasional sexism of the commentary pales next to the near-revolutionary independence of the female character, and because the "sheeny" comment serves to illustrate Drouet's small-mindedness. (Or, sadly, perhaps it was the sort of thing people said all the time then, and no one noticed anything amiss.)

Off-the-cuff anti-Semitism notwithstanding, the Nazis banned Sister Carrie in 1933. It's a safe assumption that if your work is banned by a fanatical dictatorship, you're doing something right.

What Else: Dreiser has taken a lot of lumps over the years for his writing style. Dorothy Parker notably opined,

Theodore Dreiser
Should ought to write nicer.

But it's not as though Dreiser is unlettered, or his sentences are artless in the same way that, say, Dan Brown's are artless. One gets the sense that Dreiser is wrestling constantly with the language to make it do his bidding. He has examined all the available words and found them lacking; none is quite precise enough. Where some writers would go for the word that comes nearest the point, and others would try for a metaphor that would transcend the words, Dreiser just keeps cramming words into the sentence, hoping that in combination they will refine his meaning as singly they cannot.

That said, his syntax is far more complicated than most American writers would even attempt today. And it's not just that long, complicated sentences have gone out of vogue; it's that must of us don't know how to string together clauses and phrases the way even second-rate hacks did in the 19th century. (Take a good hard look at some of Poe's sentences, for example, and remember that he was considered inferior in his day. Then imagine a roomful of MFA students being asked to parse a sentence, and blanching in unison.)

Anyway, I think what's really happening here, stylistically, is that Dreiser is ushering in the era of American modernism. (This is not itself a modernist book--it's naturalism--but it's a giant departure from what had come before.) He wrote at a turning point in American literature, a turning point he helped to cause, and Sister Carrie--his first novel--sometimes justaposes the flowery 19th-century high style he must have grown up reading with the cleaner, harder modern lines and ideas he was starting to choose for himself. The last sentence--which will haunt you--leaves no doubt that Dreiser ultimately comes down on the side of the modern.

For all the jabs at Dreiser's language, there is real craft in the images he chooses--for example, the bum Hurstwood ignores early in the action, who foreshadows Hurstwood's own fall. And when Dreiser gets it, he nails it. Describing Hurstwood on the social scene: "It was greatness in a way, small as it was." Describing a community theater production: "The applause and good nature of the its surprise at not being tortured, went to the extreme of hilarious commendation."

May I Suggest a Nice White to Accompany That: Devil in the White City takes place in the same Chicago. Larsen's architectural history will give you a thorough idea of the backdrop of Carrie's life. Dreiser's description of Carrie's relative poverty and artlessness will help you understand how the killer in White City was able to prey on so many similar young women.

And perhaps you could follow with The Jungle as a nice digestif, for further meditations on income disparity, or A Room of One's Own, for thoughts on women's independence. Carrie's trajectory is essentially that of Woolf's hypothetical Judith Shakespeare.

And on a Personal Note: As the Field Guide grows, my life seems to mirror the books to a degree that is sometimes alarming. I had to borrow a hacksaw for a home improvement project the week I was reading American Psycho, and found myself walking into a crowded bar with the saw concealed in a shopping bag. But with this book it was less creepy. Dreiser knows Chicago very well. Carrie sees Joseph Jefferson on stage, for example; and here I was, a woman who came to Chicago to act, reading this novel the week of the Jeff Awards. The utter realness of Carrie's world lingers with me.

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