I decided to go ahead and join the Books of the Century Challenge since I read three books from the first year of the century, 1900, while I was reading during Lent. Sister Carrie was published in 1900, but it wasn’t a best seller. In fact it almost didn’t get published at all. The novel was “excoriated by censors” who complained that the the title character, Carrie, was a sinner who seemed to benefit as a result of her fall from moral purity. “Why do the wicked prosper?” And, at least in fiction, according to the mores of the time, they shouldn’t.
At the beginning of the novel Carrie is “eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth.” She’s also poor, having only a few clothes and four dollars to her name.
“When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.”
By the end of the novel, Carrie is rich, celebrated, famous, and unhappy—but neverthless filled with dreams and longing for beauty and delight.
In between, she stumbles from bad decision to another and wreaks havoc wherever she goes. In particular, Carrie is the ruin of one man who seduces her, and I suppose that the critics complained that for once the man is ruined by an illicit relationship rather than the woman. But Carrie isn’t really a scheming, designing gold digger. She’s a lamb, sort of, pushed into an illicit relationship by poverty, laziness, pride, and vanity. This essential weakness doesn’t justify her actions, but it does explain them.
Some of the situations in the novel were so well described: the slow descent into destitution of an unemployed man, the dissolution by degrees of a loveless marriage, the seduction of a young, vain girl, the enticement of life in the fast lane, and the emptiness of such a life. I thought this aspect of Dreiser’s novel, the realistic depiction of human weakness, was was quite well written. The jacket notes in my book say that critics disagree about the merits of Dreiser’s work. Some think him “the most important realist since Zola.” Others find him unskilled as a writer and his fatalistic view of man, depressing.
Sister Carrie reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates’ them (Semicolon review here), partly because of the Chicago setting, but also because of the cheap, degraded lives of both Oates’s and Dreiser’s characters. However, I found Carrie and her suitors and lovers much more believable and interesting than Oates’s “them”. Carrie may be a drifter and irredeemable by the end of the novel, but Dreiser nails the whole progression of sin and ruination, while Oates’s novel just felt like a rich/middle class girl going slumming. On the other hand, sin does make you stupid, but no one stays quite as innocently obtuse as Carrie does in this book. Maybe we just don’t get to read about the part where Carrie actually wakes up in the pigpen.