Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

I bought this book many months ago and it has sat on my shelf, looking a bit imposing and slightly alarming. I was expecting a difficult, Henry James-ish sort of read but it is not like that at all. in fact, its simplicity is probably a weakness.

It is the story of a young woman who comes to Chicago from rural America. She meets men and becomes the live-in lover (partner, we might say today) of one of them and, later, the wife of another. She becomes a stage actress and, in the end, becomes materially comfortable. Her desire for material comfort and her measurement of a person’s worth by that yardstick are themes of the book.

The book is written in a very naturalistic, matter of fact style. The characters are quite simply drawn and are presented as the objects of deterministic forces, that shape their lives and their thoughts. Occasionally the writer will step back and declaim as some sort of distant, Olympian observer on the action. But there is little, if any, sense that the characters are truly free or able to escape their fates.

The descent of Carrie’s husband into extreme poverty is a little hard to believe in. It happens before our eyes but it is unconvincing. The modern explanation would be that he collapses into depression and simply cannot break out of it. But he seems to fall into a daze of some kind and it drags on a few pages too many.

To the modern reader, the absence of any reference to sex is noteworthy. Carrie lives with two men, separately, in the book. But the first time people sleep together is a big deal in most sexual relationships and that is not even alluded to.It is only late in the narrative when they decide to sleep apart that their sexual relationship is confirmed.

I suspect to Dreiser’s contemporary readers, this would all have been clear without it being stated. But I was confused for a bit.

The naturalistic style was new and unsettling in its day and it is a precursor to Hemingway. But his limpid language reveals what is hidden and unmentioned while Dreiser’s is not so fine an instrument.

This is a good book but it drags at a few places. I would recommend it but only if other options were for some reason limited.


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