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Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie

When this book was first published, it had quite an impact. It was a”big” novel, it was set (partially) in Chicago, a then fast-growing city and it was, by contemporary standards, considered risqué, dealing openly, as it did, with extra-marital sex. The Sister Carrie of the title is Carrie Meeber, a young woman from Columbia City, travelling to Chicago to stay with her older (and married) sister, Minnie. On the train she meets a travelling salesman, Charlie Drouet, who impresses her with his smooth talk and who is clearly interested in her. He suggests calling on her in Chicago and she reluctantly agrees.

In Chicago, Carrie soon realises life is going to be hard. Minnie, her husband and their young son do not have an easy life. When she tries to find work, she has a lot of difficulty, as she has no experience and she is also shy. She does find work in a shoe factory but it is hard work and badly paid, not least because Minnie and her husband take most of her wages for their expenses. Things get worse when Carrie gets ill and cannot work and then loses her job. She is thinking of returning home, when she meets Drouet. He buys her a meal and gives her money for clothes and, the next day, sets her up in a flat. Carrie becomes Drouet’s mistress and leaves Minnie. It is through Drouet that she meets George Hurstwood, a saloon manager and a married man and father. Drouet and Carrie pretend to be married. Eventually, Hurstwood gets to know Carrie better and takes advantage of Drouet’s frequent absences to visit her more. Carrie is impressed with his smart clothes and confidential manner. She does not, however, know that he is married.

With his marriage falling apart, Hurstwood increasingly falls for Carrie and when an opportunity comes to steal $10,000 from his employers, he does and tricks Carrie into eloping. They head to Canada where they marry but a detective catches up with them and Hurstwood has to give back most of the money. They go on to New York and Dreiser skilfully changes the tone from a Chicago novel to a New York novel. Hurstwood finds it difficult to get work and ends up buying a share of a bar which works for a while but then fails. Hurstwood can find no other work, which leaves Carrie discontented, as she can no longer have the things she wants. While in Chicago, she had acted in amateur dramatics at Drouet’s lodge and she is now determined to resume this as a career. The rest of the novel is about her rise and his fall.

Dreiser’s skill in this novel is, firstly, to show the marked distinction between Chicago and New York. In Chicago, Hurstwood is a big man in a relatively small town. In New York, he is a small man in a big town. This distinction is brought up constantly. In both towns the contrast between rich and poor, between labour and employer is emphasised but it is stronger in New York, where we see it more forcefully as Hurstwood falls down the social and financial ladder and where the benefits of the rich – as seen with Carrie as a successful actress – and the sufferings of the poor are spelled out in no uncertain terms. The story of the rise of one person contrasted with the fall of another is not an original theme but Dreiser handles it superbly, showing it against the background of the rise of capitalism and the turn of the century. This novel may not be much read now but it is a key novel in the American canon.

Publishing history

First published 1900 by Doubleday, Page & Co.