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Theodore Dreiser: Jennie Gerhardt

She was never a master of her fate. Others invariably controlled. This quote, which appears a couple of pages before the end of this novel sums up Jennie Gerhardt’s life. She is a simple, honest woman but, somehow, ends up in difficult situations when trying only to do the best for her family. In some respects, her story parallels that of George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie though she is far more honest and less selfish than he. The main difference, however, is that Dreiser has endeavoured to tell the story of an honest woman without falling into trite sentimentality and, more or less, succeeds.

Jennie Gerhardt is the daughter of a honest German glass-blower, living in Columbus, Ohio. The Gerhardts have six children and are not well-off. When Gerhardt falls ill, his wife and his eldest daughter, Jennie, seek work and find it as cleaners in a hotel. They manage to get extra work doing laundry for some of the residents of the hotel including, in particular, Senator Brander, who stays in the hotel when he is in Ohio. Brander is single and older than Jennie but is clearly attracted to her and, before long, he seeks to help her, particularly when further problems befall the family. However, there is soon talk about their relationship and, when she becomes pregnant, she has to move away to have the baby. Brander is away when she realises her pregnancy and the matter is made worse when he unexpectedly dies without learning about her condition. She has a daughter, Vesta. Gerhardt is distraught but soon comes to love his granddaughter.

Jennie needs work and she goes to work as a lady’s maid for a family. There she meets Lester Kane, second (but favourite) son of a successful businessman. Again, the family is in difficulties and this time it is Lester who helps them out. Lester persuades Jennie to live with him, though she manages to keep the existence of Vesta secret from him. His family is distraught at the rumours they hear and her family is not very happy about the situation either. Finally considerable pressure is brought to bear on Lester and the inevitable happens though, unlike, George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, it is Jennie that survives.

Jennie’s morality might be called into question by the contemporaries of Dreiser and is, indeed, questioned by some of the characters. Pre-marital sex with one man and living in sin with another were clearly frowned on at that time. Yet Jennie is clearly far more moral than Brander, Lester Kane and his family and the others who condemn her. She does what she does to help her family and thinks only of them. When the time for sacrifice comes, she willingly makes the sacrifices. She alone looks after her aging father, her siblings – with one exception – not even coming to his funeral. Yet she is never seen as a mawkish, saintly woman, merely a poor woman struggling to survive in a period when it was difficult to do so, particularly for women. Not Dreiser’s best novel but certainly an interesting one.

Publishing history

First published 1911 by Harper and Bros.