Author: Theodore Dreiser
Genre: Fiction, American Classic
Length: 489 pages
Setting: Chicago & New York, 1889
Plot: Unsatisfied with her life in rural Wisconsin, 18 year-old Caroline “Sister Carrie” Meeber took the train to Chicago to live with her elder sister and brother-in-law. On the train, Carrie met Charles Drouet, a traveling salesman, who was instantly attracted to her “simple beauty and unspoiled manner”.
Carrie’s life in Chicago took dramatics turns, from working in a shoe factory to becoming the mistress of Drouet, and finally to elope with the married Hurstwood. In New York, Hurstwood and Carrie rented a flat where they lived as George and Carrie Wheeler. But not for long, Carrie found the charms in Hurstwood evading; he no longer was the suave and opulent manager of his Chicago days.
After Hurstwood lost his partnership in a second-rate saloon, he was overcome with apathy and reduced to poverty. Forced to standing in line for bread and charity, Hurstwood finally committed suicide in a flophouse. Carrie, on the other hand, turned to New York’s theaters for employment and soon rose from a chorus girl to a celebrated star. But while her stardom had been attained, Carrie realized that money and fame could not satisfy her longings or bring her happiness. Nothing would.
Overall Impression: An enjoyable read that is at times insightful. I feel cheated of the synopsis provided on its book cover, however. It promises an “epic” of urban life starring a “heroine” and her “struggles”. Certainly, I must have grabbed the wrong novel! Epic? Try instead a personal journey. Heroine? A selfish lady who acts only according to her self-interests is our protagonist, not heroine. Struggles? Being entirely dependent upon men who doted her is cowardly, not struggling heroically. When Carrie achieved fame, she deserted the men who aided her when she was at rock bottom. Yet, I do not dislike her. Neither do I pity her unhappy and forlorn self for despite her acquired wealth and status, Carrie will always feel a drag of desiring better – a beauty she could never attain. Towards Carrie, I am rather indifferent. And I daringly believe this was Dreiser’s purpose. Through his simplistic and effective writing, he successfully painted the portrait of an indifferent city whose characters were either stripped of his illusory success (poor Hurstwood!) or continued pursuing illusions of contentment she will never find. The fall and rise of Hurstwood and Carrie, respectively, were the result of neither vice nor virtue. For this reason, Dreiser’s “immoral” work was initially heavily criticized. But for the same reason, it became an American Classic and is among the first novels to depict urban life as is back in 1889.