Sister Carrie: Abandon Hope

Sister Carrie, the American classic by Theodore Dreiser, is the perfect antidote for any lingering shred of hope for humanity you might possess.

Image provided by Amazon/Signet

Set in the late 19th century, the novel is allegedly an account of the struggles of Carrie Meeber, a small town girl who tries to build a new life for herself in Chicago, and later New York. In actuality, Sister Carrie is the story of a pretty cipher and the succession of terrible people she meets.

That parade begins with Carrie’s sister and brother-in-law (the Hansons) with whom she lives initially. They may as well be Amish, so dedicated are they to the concept of hard work to the exclusion of all else. And yes, working hard and saving one’s money for the future are noble traits in the abstract. But acting as though any impulse toward enjoyment is a character flaw makes the Hansons rather dull and irksome. Carrie is absolutely too focused on trivial things, but as compared to her brother-in-law’s ascetic fetish, Carrie seems downright functional. Plus, the Hansons insist on calling the 18-year-old by her inane childhood nickname “Sister Carrie,” so clearly they are the worst. They exit early on, apparently to go be morally condescending elsewhere.

In fairness, Carrie is willing to work. Sister Carrie spends an inordinate amount of time showing Carrie getting denied at one place after another. Because how dare businesses prefer experienced applicants? When Carrie finally lands a job in a shoe factory, she can’t help but look down on the “coarse” girls who work there. You know, the ones who can hack the job that turns out to be too much for Carrie. Girls who don’t lose their jobs to illness contracted via stupidity, i.e. frittering away limited savings instead of using it to buy a winter coat and shoes. Of course, that a Wisconsin native like Carrie has no cold weather gear is one of many unconvincing plot points in Sister Carrie.

Jobless, broke and facing the apparently unthinkable prospect of moving home to live with her parents, Carrie takes up with Charles Drouet, a rakish young salesman she once met on a train. Drouet plies Carrie with good meals, clothes and cash. Carrie devotes but a moment to agonizing over the very obvious strings attached to this generosity. Dreiser pushes the exceedingly odd notion that, because of her natural beauty and grace, dressing well and having a nice place to live somehow amounts to a moral improvement on Carrie’s part. At this point, you might find Sister Carrie rather anti-female. Only later does one realize that Dreiser hated all his characters equally.

Drouet and Carrie set up living together as a faux married couple, not because Carrie seems to have any particular moral objection of her own, but because of how it looks to others. Yes, in the world of Sister Carrie, morality is nothing more than an extension of the lead character’s aesthetic sense.

Drouet dangles the promise of putting a ring on it for some time. Dreiser spares little sympathy for him, depicting him as an overgrown brat with zero impulse control. The best that Dreiser can spare is that Drouet isn’t intentionally malicious, just weak in the face of Carrie’s incapacitating beauty or something.

Then we meet Hurstwood, Drouet’s older, prosperous and married friend. We’re meant to pity Hurstwood, despite his material success. He has a shrewish, status-obsessed wife; a vapid, materialistic daughter; and a callow, pleasure-loving son. And his family is pretty terrible. That still doesn’t explain how Hurstwood somehow falls madly in love with Carrie, because of the “grace” she’s achieved via fashion and being able to afford make-up and a cream rinse. He proves himself the bigger asshole by concealing his marital status and urging his friend’s fake wife to run off with him.

Dreiser admits that Carrie doesn’t really give a shit about either man. Her interest in either basically rises and falls by how ardently he’s reflecting back appreciation of Carrie’s devastating prettiness. So Hurstwood’s pathetic desperation wins out.

Hurstwood thinks it’s a good idea to utterly ruin his own life and kidnap Carrie to get her to run away with him. That she agrees to accept this after he dangles a fake marriage in front of her does not speak well for the “heroine.” It’s at this point in Sister Carrie that the average reader begins to wish for some kind of cataclysm to do in all these wretched morons.

In New York, Hurstwood predictably slides into the gutter. Carrie, because she’s beautiful, embarks on a successful stage career. Of course, she only discovered a passion for acting after Drouet had pushed her into an amateur production. So like everything else in her life, this “passion” was something that someone else basically handed to Carrie. Because God forbid that she ever own a choice or be responsible for anything. A couple of friends Carrie makes in New York, harmless women who just want to have fun, are probably the least objectionable characters in the book.

By the end, with her acting success, Carrie seems to at least have developed a healthy skepticism for male attention. Of course, her incremental character growth seems motivated by the opinions of yet another man. Because why abandon a character-demeaning theme?

The nihilism with which Dreiser conceived and wrote the characters of Sister Carrie makes sympathizing with them impossible. Indeed, after a time, the reader will likely start to actively root against them. Casting a book as a “tragedy” doesn’t mean abandoning plot and character logic in service of making the reader hate every single personality that sweeps across the page. It’s a rather “scorched earth” approach to the genre and works to diminishing returns.

If you take up Sister Carrie, abandon hope. It will not be rewarded.

Originally published at on June 8, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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