Like the gritty, metropolitan angst of a Dickens tale, such as Little Dorrit: the dark, cobbled streets and the beguiling characters of a large city, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie portrays how an unkind and apathetic city can engulf and hide a person under a wave of indifference, but will eventually lift her up to societal success and even stardom. But unlike Dickens, in Drieser, the driving human force becomes self-ambition instead of love.
Carrie’s focus begins with the material – on the train bound for Chicago, when she notices a passenger, the young man, Charles Drouet, who is gorgeously dressed, and this, along with Drouet’s flowing and dazzling conversation, impresses Carrie. Yet she also sees and appreciates the beauty of the landscape rushing by outside – the author keeps a sense of hope tethered in this beauty. There is always some sad nostalgia lingering in Carrie’s face, around her sad, expressive lips.
Dreiser’s genius is in these details, as at the beginning of Carrie’s assent when still a neophyte searching for a job in the big city: As she contemplated the wide windows and imposing signs, she became conscious of being gazed upon and understood for what she was – a wage-seeker. The writer remains consistent in surprising his reader with such precise descriptions of the inner world of his characters. These finer points render the characters captivating, and thus, we care about their lives.
Though beauty and sensitivity persevere in this tale, real love, other than for success, seems disappointingly absent. As the story falls short of depicting any true love, true hatred is also just as absent, apart from that of the ubiquitous hatred in the mean, city streets. Only Drouet hints at feeling any genuine passion when he becomes jealous of Hurstwood and Carrie. Yet, the author implies that Drouet never really intends to marry her. Sadly, instead of love, or even hatred, overall indifference and self-centered gratification are the driving human qualities.
Still, Drouet’s eternal good nature makes him a true protector of Carrie, though he is extremely superficial and lacks the subtlety and sensitivity that Carrie needs; she is far beyond him in the intuitive senses. However, Drouet has introduced Carrie to the theater, and so a small desire to act has secretly blossomed. She loved to modulate her voice after the conventional manner of the distressed heroine, and repeat such pathetic fragments as appealed most to her sympathies.
Hurstwood’s kidnapping of Carrie, as appalling as it is, eventually brings her to New York City. As if destiny had finally provided the means to secure her success. As he stealthily abducts her and leads her onto a train under the darkness of night, Hurstwood is very cordial and sensitive to her comfort. He wants her, but one wonders whether he truly loves her or just the idea of escaping his wife and family to be with someone young and beautiful like Carrie
So earnest an effort was well deserving of a better reward ~ This becomes a mental refrain of Carrie’s from the early days of her job-hunting in Chicago, through most of her relationships, and on up to her great success in New York City. From her beautiful suite at the Astoria, she lingers over this astonishing lack of fulfillment and reward as she gazes out on the city from her window, where below the homeless shiver on their street-corners, while: All about was the night, pulsating with the thoughts of pleasure and exhilaration – the curious enthusiasm of a great city bent upon finding joy in a thousand different ways.
Theodore Dreiser came from the Chicago school of Realism, in which the natural human responses to the environment are stressed, rather than romance. There seems to be a moral message in this story, yet Sister Carrie was deemed immoral and was not published right away upon its completion in 1900. The heroine, Carrie Meeber, was viewed as sexually loose, yet today the sexuality is only implied and is hardly perceptible. Dreiser was also a believer in the notion that art is an imitation of life, rather than life being an imitation of art. This philosophy is apparent in Carrie as she makes a study of human nature and turns it into art on the stage.