Theodore Dreiser - Sister Carrie, review

Theodore Dreiser - Sister Carrie, review

I. Theme,

Material world versus happiness - as a contradiction for a human being, living in the American society. It is hardly possible to achieve both at the same time.

The novel reveals the style of life in the U. S. A. during the 1890s and of its main character Caroline Meeber, her attitudes to life, her attempts to reach standards of higher society, based on money and material pleasures, and thus fulfil her dream about perfect life which brought her about to complete change. Even though it ended up in material success it also ended in mental failure and recognition what the real values of the human life are or better say are not.

II. Subject

Money – as a necessity for the life in the USA

III. Plot and structure

  1. Carrie leaves Columbia city and travels to Chicago in order to find better future.
  2. Lives in Chicago with her sister Minnie and tries to find a job.
  3. Leaves Hansons and lives with Drouet because she cannot bear her own and Hanson’s poverty.
  4. Runs away with Hurstwood to Detroit and Montreal, where they marry, then they escape to New York.
  5. They live in New York, where she becomes a housewife and he a liqueur tradesman.
  6. She witnesses Hurstwood’s revival in business and his bankruptcy.
  7. Suffers Hurstwood’s idleness then leaves him and becomes famous actress.
  8. Realizes what the real life is about.

Structure of the novel is set in chronological order, only at the end (when in N.Y.) often flashbacks of Carrie and Hurstwood – they regret what they did (Hurstwood left family, Carrie left Hurstwood and Drout)

Conflict: main conflict inside Carrie (person / person). She tries to be successful but is unable to do it herself and always needs help of another people. The conflict consists in contrast of material and mental. She is attempted by material pleasures many times and cannot find courage to become independent in her soul because of initial difficulties (pain after the work in a shoe company)

There can also be identified another conflicts crises and climaxes (explanation in a final paragraph).

  1. Exposition – Carrie travels from Columbia City, meets Charles Drouet, her sister Minnie, her husband. Introduced higher style of life of Drouet and his friend Hustwood with whom he talks about Carrie.
  2. Complication – Carrie is looking for a job, she finds one in a day but after a day in a work she realizes that she cannot stand such a style of life and writes letter to Drouet.
  3. Crises – Carrie meets Hurstwood and Compares him with Drouet, finds out he likes her and they become friends. Carrie discovers her ability to act on the stage (thanks Drouet). When Hurstwoods wife discovers that her husband has a lover and Drouet finds out that Hurstwood took him over Carrie, they decide to leave. Meanwhile Hurstwood steals, by chance from his employer 10.000 USD. Running away to Detroit, Montreal, New York. Living in New York, falling down in social ladder. Hurstwood becomes unemployed and idle.
  4. Climax – when Carrie discovered she is able to earn money herself, Hurstwood is huge load for her and she thinks of leaving him. She does so when he finally decided to take a job as a motorman during the strike. When Hurstwood comes home he finds only letter from Carrie and twenty dollars to pay the debts off – it is the amount, which gave her Drouet in Chicago in order to leave Hanson’s. (allegory
  5. Resolution – Hurstwood finds the life on the street and in hospices unbearable and commits suicide, using gas. Carrie on the other hand tries comedy drama and thinks Ames is interested in her but she realizes that she has only work, money, rocking chair and her dreams about perfect life. Pessimistic end about unhappiness.

IV. Setting

Manufactured things – buildings, rooms, but also natural - parks

Train from Columbia city, Waukesha, Chicago – flat of Minnie and Sven Hanson’s in West Van Buren Street, shoe making company, her own flat, Drouet’s Flat, Detroit, Hotel in Montreal where they got married, New York – 78 street, 14 street, 6th avenue - smaller flat, Brooklyn, Wellington – hotel on Broadway.

V. Characters

Main characters:

  1. Caroline Meeber, “Carrie”, supposed to be Carrie Drouet, Drouet nicknamed her Cad, Carrie Wheeler. Her actress name is Carrie Madenda. She is a round character, she profits from her experience of men and undergoes a change towards a “better life”. There can be seen many realistic traits. When she leaves to Chicago in 1889 she is 18 and is weak in socializing, rather uneducated but extremely dependent on pleasures of life and she is ambitious to gain material success. According to this she is always dependent on someone else and takes her long time to do some action. At first she is dependant on Hanson’s, then on Drouet, Hurstwood and Vance’s. Only when her source for dreamt living is almost dried up and there is nobody who could help her she starts to realize her own forces, which stood hidden except two examples in Chicago. 1) she tried to find a job and found it in a shoe factory 2) she tried acting on the stage in Elks. Then her potential started to develop only when the last fifty dollars remained and she didn’t want to suffer more. She is pretty and uses it in her career.
  2. Charles H. Drouet – travelling salesman for manufacturing house, good looking and well dressed with jewellery, at first sight with good manners, sexually attracted by Carrie’s appearance. He likes higher style of life too. When contacted by Carrie he gave her 20 dollars in order to leave Hanson’s but it looks as if he wanted to buy her and indirectly he shows her she is of a low society unless she has nice clothes. On the other hand he learns Carrie too much: she must stay in and not run away if she wants to make success p. 66. As much is Carrie dependent on material things, Drouet is dependent on her as a symbol of something in his life and he is unable to understand her departure also when they meet in New York. The same however much more stronger dependence on Carrie fits to Hurstwood.
  3. George W. Hurstwood – manager of Fitzerald and Moys in Chicago, very famous, under forty of a good stout constitution, active, capable of creating good impression, especially on Carrie, well dressed with jewellery. Married with two children and stable position in society, which he lost when he ran away with Carrie and lost his liquor trade in New York to which he invested 1.000 USD. He stared his business with partner Shaugnessy in Warren Street but was unsatisfied because was unknown and couldn’t move in his position. When their company is closed down Hurstwood is constantly falling down in social hierarchy. He tries to revive many times but without any effect. Once he tries a job as a motorman during the strike. When he comes back Carrie is away. In the end he commits suicide. As a character he underwent opposite change to Carrie’s. He lost everything in his life. Furthermore he lost his vitality to live and find new solutions. Extremely dependent on Carrie.


Minor  - stereotype (flat) characters:

  1. Minnie Hanson – Carrie’s sister – 27 years-old who lost sense for humour from youth and does what her husband wants. No entertainment, but she helps Carrie as much as possible. Carrie earns only 4.50 but she takes for board only 4 even if her husband said Carrie must pay 5 USD per week for board and food.
  2. Sven Hanson – Minnie’s husband, a stock-yard-worker, very patient, paying number of monthly instalments. The reason why he is so saving. Except for this he likes looking after their child and reading news. Otherwise he leads dull uninteresting life. He dreams of building his own house. In this sense he resembles later Hurstwood from N.Y. Carrie doesn’t like Minnie’s and Sven’s attitude to life, both of them accept their social position and when she apologises about her job she finds only misapprehension.
  3. Jessica Hurstwood – Hurstwood’s daughter, 17 years old, attending high school, bigheaded, she usually gets what she wants (nice clothes)
  4. George Hurstwood jr. – 19 years old, appears to be working in a real estate firm
  5. Julia Hurstwood – typical wife living in the circles of small society supporting her children and suspecting her husband, very cold and eager for revenge
  6. Mrs. Vanes – handsome young woman, very rich and dependent on beauty and material world
  7. Mr. Ames – Bob Ames - cousin of Mrs. Vance, concerned with electrical company. He is different from others. He thinks that the rich pay too much for nothing. He doesn’t like all the luxury and has different outlook on life. It is he who persuades Carrie to try comedy drama and it is he who discovers in her musical heart. He reminds Carrie advanced Hurstwood in his former days.
  8. Miss Osbourne (Lola) – colleague of Carrie, she admires her and helps her how to behave in negotiation for salary, she also says when to stay in New York because of work and why. She is her flat mate.
  9. And others managers who employed her, agents etc.

VI. Point of view

3rd person camera eye, only facts are introduced, nothing more.

VII. Style

Middle or neutral every day English. In the part (N. Y.), when they are living separately also slang words of low colloquial style are used.

VIII. Tone

Tone - uniqueness, spontaneity, sadness ( especially at the end )

Irony - situational irony: chapter VI. Carrie spent all her money on new umbrella and hat, got sick, lost work and could not find new one analogous to Hurstwood in the end when he lost money in gambling and could not find work. Uneducated did the same as ex-manager with life experiences. Both fall in this example in social ladder.

Irony – Hurstwood never gave a pence to a poor man and at the end he is a beggar himself and there is hardly anybody going to give him some money.

IX. Symbolism, allegory

Hat – symbol for higher rank in society

Theatre – symbol, place where higher society meets

Carrie – symbol of material world she depends on material things nd pleasures Carrie is a symbol of American dream – a dream of being rich

Drouet and Hurstwood – symbol of mental dependence in relation to Carrie.

Allegory - Hurstwood cannot be given a job because his clothes look too fine and everybody considers him to be successful businessman.

X. Genre (type) - fiction

It is naturalistic novel, there is truthful reproduction of facts. There is described how people suffer on the streets, in factories, bad working conditions are vividly depicted p. 37, when Carrie was employed in a shoe factory or Hurstwood’s life on the street in New York. On the other hand there are realistic views into the higher society (theatres, feasts, etc.) There are described instincts and passions after material while lacking the human side of the world and everything ends in failure and disorders. It is also pessimistic in its core because Hurstwood, who loves Carrie but is unable to find himself in new setting commits suicide and Carrie after gaining the desired success feels alone, she has nobody who to share all the money and fame with.

XI. Own interpretation

In my opinion the novel should be divided at least into two parts of which each should be considered partly independently to understand the development (dissolution) of the main characters. In both these parts there could be analysed slightly different complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions that are concerned with their personal lives, however, are built on the same conflict and have the same subject.

Thus the novel can be roughly divided into the one part: from beginning to the sudden escape from Chicago, and the second part: from the arrival of Carrie and Hurstwood to New York. In my opinion second part represents inverted image of the first part of the novel.

1st part

    1. complications – Carrie is introduced to Hurstwood, they like each other, Drouet is out of game
    2. crises – Hurstwood spends too much time out of home, Carrie cannot resist, she tries stage - Elf
    3. climax – Hurstwood’s family reveals his secret, Drouet finds out Hurstwood is her lover
    4. resolution – Hurstwood is threatened with divorce, he steals money – not deliberately – the lock on the safe has just began to work… Hurstwood and Carrie ran away.

2nd part

  1. complications – there are complications predominantly of material character, they must save, Hurstwood starts to be selfish and to himself he gets what he wants, however occurs complications between partners, age difference, different maturity of both partners and different expectations of the future.
  2. crises – Carrie asks Hurstwood how to get on the stage, but he laughs at her, and tries to discourage her, but she thinks it is better to play than stay hungry, somewhere here she started to hate him.
  3. climax – she started in the theatre (comedy) as a chorus girl. As soon as she realizes she needs new clothes and that she could afford them she starts to save and not tell Hurstwood how much she earns. When her salary rises she thinks of leaving Hurstwood
  4. resolution – Hurstwood commits suicide, Carrie alone finds out that money without partner are useless.

In my opinion the novel reveals two important social facts which are not connected only with the American society of that time but which are actual in any society and also now in Slovakia.

The first one concerns of the existence in the world and society, which is based on economy and the cash flow. It is impossible to do anything without money. Any eating, dressing, going to the theatres or finding a job is based on money. Survival of the person depends on his ins and outs (receipts and expenses) In the first instance of job searching, Carrie was required to bring her own apron (it requires money), in second example agents asked her for 50 USD to get a place on the stage (p. 345).

The second problem is whether man can support woman that he likes and not ask for help in case of emergency, when social roles are exchanged? (p.364 - 365)

To answer this question generally is difficult, but it depends on the state of love, age distinction of partners, social situation, discreetness and money (according to the novel). However, in the case of Carrie and Hurstwood, I think, it wouldn’t be right if Carrie supported Hurstwood because, he resigned too early in his situation and hadn’t tried to continue in finding a job and wouldn’t mind hurt Carrie if she didn’t do something.

On the other hand although Carrie was supported by Drouet and later by Hurstwood she tried to find job or do something (Drouet halted it as much as possible from finding a job) and when hard times came she managed to find something. However, Hurstwood, fell into self-regretting and dreaming about the past.

Theodor Dreiser was born on 27 August 1871, in Terre Haute, Indiana as the eleventh of twelve children in the family of the poor German immigrant and his Moravian wife. After the death of their mother the family disintegrated. The oldest child, Paul, leaves home and becomes a famous songwriter. Before attending Indiana University he worked in restaurants and as a news reporter in different cities (Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York). Reading Balzac probably influenced his career most.

His first published novel was Sister Carrie (1900). He continued in its publishing until 1912 in spite of being regarded as immoral. Although his receipts were not high, the novel became famous. Another publications of his include Jennie Gerhard (1911) thanks to this he became financially independent, The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), The Stoic (1947) a trilogy about a scrupulous business manager, Twelve Men and others.

His first marriage with Sara Osborne White ended in separation and after her death he married his cousin Helen Richardson. Dreiser died in Hollywood in 1945.