Nature is so grim. The city, which represents it so effectively, is also so grim. It does not care at all. It is not conscious. The passing of so small an organism as that of a man or woman is nothing to it.
Carrie Meeber, or Sister Carrie as her family calls her, is a common type of her day—the small town girl, usually from the Midwest, who sets out to the big city to try her hand at independence before marriage, to send money home or to escape the strictures of domestic life altogether. Once in the city these young women are often rudely awakened and unprepared for the ruthlessness by which people exist, often falling into the temptation of making money at any cost.
New industries springing up lure young and inexperienced women with promises of a steady paycheck, the thing they came to the city for in the first place. But once on the payroll they are exploited by long hours and tedious work with no real prospects of change. The thought of going back home is humiliating after being sent off by enthusiastic hopeful families. The only recourse besides marriage, if she can find a good man, is to harden herself to the exploitation and accept the challenges to her sexual and moral values.
Published in 1900 and one of the best books I’ve read this year, Sister Carrie tells the story of Carrie Meeber, who is fresh off the train from a small town in Wisconsin. She has come to Chicago to live with her sister’s family and to find work and a better life.
She finds, however, that her enthusiasm and naivete for this new life has prevented her from realizing she has no skills, so she is only suited for the repetitive tedium and physical stress of factory work. A prolonged illness forces her to quit and her sister and brother-in-law threaten to send her home if she can’t financially contribute.
Life never really stabilizes for Carrie, even though she is rescued by a kindhearted salesman she meets on the train from Wisconsin, who sets her up in an apartment of her own. Though he is kind, it is assumed they will marry. But Carrie is swept off her feet by a wealthy sophisticated older, but married man, who promises her a secure loving future, although he keeps putting her off. In a moment of unpremeditated greed, he commits a crime and they escape from their obligations in Chicago.
Through several years on the run and with a deteriorating relationship and finances Carrie is fed up with being taken care of by others. Now in New York City, she tries her hand on the stage and in no time is the darling of the theater world with an income that gives her the material security she’s never known. Will she be happy and finally content?
Dreiser writes a gripping and realistic narrative, peopled by those affected by the drudgery and monotony of factory life as well as those whose wealth is second nature.
The cities, too, of Chicago and New York are like secondary characters with mood swings of temperature and climate, of a humanity of impersonality and uncaring hearts. Both direct the course of daily life when thread bare clothes and holey shoes are no match for winter and a trek to a job is impossible; they kill, literally, when flop houses are booked for the night, bodies packed tightly in dirty beds or when a man is just pennies short of the fee and forced to spend the night in the elements. To survive seems like a combination of determined grittiness and just plain luck. A memorable, sad and poignant story.
The inspiration for this novel comes from Dreiser’s own experience of coming to the city to make his fortune. Moving to New York to live with his sister, he experienced great difficulty in finding work. After a day of futility and disappointment—this was during the depression of 1893-94—he sat down on a park bench and found himself observing other men, the down and out, also looking for work. He had been introduced to the concept of social Darwinism and he began to imagine a society in which corporations and the control they had over workers, led to a City version of survival of the fittest. And Carrie Meeber was born.
“All men should be good, all women virtuous. Wherefore, villain, hast thou failed?”
“The long drizzle had begun. Pedestrians had turned up collars and trousers at the bottom. Hands were hidden in the pockets of the umbrella-less – umbrellas were up. The street looked like a sea of round, black-cloth roofs, twisting, bobbing, moving. Trucks and vans were rattling in a noisy line, and everywhere men were shielding themselves as best they could.”
“The nature of these vast retail combinations, should they ever permanently disappear, will form an interesting chapter in the commercial history of our nation.”
“She looked into her glass and saw a prettier Carrie than she had seen before; she looked into her mind, a mirror prepared of her own and the world’s opinions, and saw a worse. Between these two images she wavered, hesitating which to believe.”
Title: Sister Carrie
Author: Theodore Dreiser
Publisher: New American Library, Signet Classics
Challenge: Classics Club, Mount TBR