Thursday, December 16, 2010
December 16, 2010: Pointed Sister
A beautiful and very naïve young country girl makes her way to the big city of Chicago for the first time, meeting a handsome but kind of rakish (and very well-dressed) salesman on the train. She goes to live with her still quite countrified sister and her quiet and simple husband, and tries dutifully to get a job, both at higher-end department stores and in much less ideal sweatshops, but none can stick. Eventually she gives in to the entreaties of the salesman and moves in with him, but she gradually grows tired of him and allows herself to be romanced by an older, married bar manager. The manager, in a moment of desperation, bad luck, and greed, steals a ton of money from the bar’s safe and more or less kidnaps the young girl and takes her to another, even bigger city (New York). There they drift apart as he falls more and more into lifelessness and she finds instead in the world of the theater a new life and passion and talent. By the story’s end he is homeless and destitute and dying alone while she has everything she has ever wanted, fame, money, admirers, all the stuff you can think of, the American Dream even. But is she any happier than she had been? Is she even any more successful, truly, than her dying ex? Should she have just stayed in the country, or gone to the city but stayed true to those roots and become her sister?
Sounds like any number of late 20th century made-for-TV movies, right? Or maybe a 21st century reality show? (Or possibly Showgirls, although that film’s main character is far from innocent or naïve by the time we meet her. But wait, I deny any knowledge of the specifics of that movie. Elizabeth Berkeley will always just be Jessie Spano to me. Full stop.) Nope, it’s Sister Carrie (1900), the first novel by the great American naturalist and social novelist Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser would go on to a multi-decade career as a novelist, a literary critic, and a journalist, and would be a hugely influential figure for a slightly younger generation of proto-modernist American writers, including Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. But while I haven’t read every one of his fourteen books of fiction, nor too many of his journalistic and non-fictional works, I think I can say with confidence that he never did it better than he did in Carrie. Certainly some of his faults, most noticeably a tendency to create preachy passages in which the narrator steps back both to lecture both characters and audience on certain social mistakes or problems and to convey his naturalistic philosophies, are already present in this first novel. But so too are his great strengths, including an ability to create incredibly complex and three-dimensional characters and to locate them in an equally rich, convincing, and vivid social setting and world. It’s also, I would argue, impossible to get to the end of Carrie without caring what happens to both Carrie and that older married lover, Hurstwood.
And in fact, I would go further and say that the novel’s greatest appeal is in precisely the combination of the latter strength and the aforementioned weakness. That is, the more we come to care about Carrie and Hurstwood, the more we can take to heart the novel’s central arguments and philosophies about identity, success, and our human purposes and goals. Despite Dreiser’s pedantic tone at times, these are deeply human and sensitive themes, and he explores very fully the ways in which we are pulled in (at times) the wrong directions by entirely understandable and sympathetic impulses and influences. Never is that more evident than in the crucial scene where Hurstwood steals—or perhaps just accidentally takes, he himself is not quite clear on the sequence of events as they play out over this amazingly narrated and constructed couple of pages—the money from the bar’s safe. It’s a turning point not only in the novel, and certainly soon thereafter for its heroine, but also and with the most complexity for this man himself, as we watch his descent from a successful, married middle-aged man with children and a comfortable home to, by the end, a homeless vagrant dying in a New York City flophouse. Dreiser certainly does not withhold his criticisms of the man’s choices and arc, but neither can we read a scene like this one without wondering, very directly and centrally, what we would do in the same circumstance, why we would do it, and what it might reveal about us, our era and its priorities, and even ongoing narratives like those of the American Dream.
Naturalism has been defined at times as a literary movement that portrayed individuals as powerless in the face of larger social and natural forces, of destiny and similar inevitablities, and so on, and there is perhaps a bit of that in Carrie for sure. But I would argue that the more accurate definition of the movement is that it seeks to understand how individuals live and act within those larger social settings and worlds, to analyze (among many other things) both the choices and the accidents that influence our arcs, and to consider for what we live and strive and why we do so (and to what effect). And all within a plot that sounds like it could be Showgirls! Can’t go wrong with that. More tomorrow, on the creation of a unique historical landmark and its often unknown cultural moment and context.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The full text of Carrie (but don’t try to read it all right now, it’s like 500 pages long!; the safe theft scene is in Chapter XXVII ): http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DREISER/carrie.html
2) The e-text of Twelve Men (1919), a book of short stories (if you want to start smaller!): http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14717