Friday, 7 October 2011

Time proved the representation false

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) is a classic of American fiction and has been hailed as a must-read ‘novel of the century’. Writing in a journalistic fashion, Drieser describes in realistic detail the lives of his characters. He does not moralise or judge them, but presents in a factual manner their successes and failures. His style is welcoming and makes for an interesting read, but at 650 pages I admit I did find that it was a bit slow in parts and in need of an edit to hasten the pace.

The story focuses on Carrie Meeber who leaves her Wisconsin home to move to Chicago in the hopes of finding employment. Initially staying with her sister’s family, Carrie secures employment in a shoe factory for $4.50 a week, most of which is spent on room and board rather than the fine clothes and trinkets she covets. She meets salesman Charles Drouet who convinces Carrie to quit her job and move in with him, promising marriage once he is financially secure. Later Drouet introduces Carrie to Hurstwood, a socially respectable manager. Hurstwood is enamored by Carrie’s beauty and youth and begins to woo her away from his friend. Carrie, believing she is trading up, responds favourably to his attention. Determined to have Carrie at all costs, Hurstwood leaves his wife and children, steals money from his employer, and takes Carrie to New York. Over the next few years Hurstwood fails to earn enough money to keep Carrie in the style she wishes and they continually have to downgrade their lodgings and Carrie’s expectations. Their relationship strains and Carrie falls out of love. Eventually she asserts herself and becomes employed as an admired actress, while Hurstwood fails to secure work and is ruined.

The novel contrasts the fortunes of the three main characters: Carrie, Drouet and Hurstwood. Each one wants something unobtainable, lured by material things and the desire for upward mobility. Ultimately they will keep dreaming for happiness, while ending up lonely and longing for human connection.

The beauty of the novel is in its writing. I enjoyed reading Dreiser’s descriptions of the early days of Chicago and things like department stores that were just being developed. His depiction of homelessness and striking transport workers is compelling. The other thing I loved about this book were the random awesomeness of the chapter headings. For example:
·      The Spendings of Fancy: Facts Answered with Sneers
·      The Magnet Attracting: A Waif Amid Forces
·      His Credentials Accepted: A Babel of Tongues
·      The Lure of the Spirit: The Flesh in Pursuit
·      Ashes of Tinder: The Loosing of Stays
·      The Grind of the Millstones: A Sample of Chaff

Carrie was a frustrating character in many ways. She seemed to be a bit of a naïve and superficial doormat. It was hard to see what these men saw in her. She was continually waiting for them to give her what they promised. As Drieser puts it, ‘time proved the representation false’. She could have been a more rounded, deeper character. But Drouet and Hurstwood were interesting and delightful.

I was reminded of Madame Bovary, Effi Briest and Anna Karenina while reading this novel as each woman sought out happiness through the men around her and made poor choices resulting in tragedy. While Carrie’s tale ends with her triumph on stage rather than her death, she is unfulfilled and alone, reminding readers that fame and fortune do not necessarily bring happiness.