Great Books: Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie

  • Themes: Great Books

Theodore Dreiser’s no-frills, naturalist style puts the American dream at the turn of the century firmly under the microscope in this pointed novel about the futility of escaping one’s fate.

Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones star in Carrie, a 1952 adaptation of the novel Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.
Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones star in Carrie, a 1952 adaptation of the novel Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. Credit: Masheter Movie Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

I always was a sucker for naturalism, here defined as the battering wind of inexorable natural forces trained on punt humanity as it clings to the rockface. Think Hardy’s Tess, think Zola’s L’Assommoir, or the Steinbeck of The Grapes of Wrath, a triptych of long, passionately wrought and curiously untidy novels full of flagrant symbolism and unhappy endings, in which a suspicion that the principal characters will eventually drink themselves to death or wind up roasted in the electric chair declares itself almost from the opening page.

Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) wrote at a time when the first phase of the American machine age was in full swing, when huge swathes of the Midwest were being colonised by heavy industry, forests were disappearing beneath the woodman’s axe and the big cities of the north-eastern seaboard were expanding so rapidly that it was sometimes impossible to establish where they began and ended. Sister Carrie (1900) has a characteristic passage in which Hurstwood, the doomed hero, wanders through a burgeoning New York in the direction of the River Hudson.

‘He had seen some ships up there, the time he had called upon the brewers’, Dreiser explains. ‘He wondered how the territory thereabouts was growing.’ Heading west from Central Park, Hurstwood turns aside to look at the mass of new buildings that are under construction. Sure enough, ‘The great open spaces were filling up.’ Significantly, when Hurstwood tramps back home through darkening streets to the dingy apartment he shares with Carrie, the girl he has brought with him from Chicago in well-nigh criminal circumstances, it is to find her gone.

By this time, Hurstwood’s career is terminally on the slide. Like many a Dreiser creation, he has moved out of his comfort zone to find his best days gone, and himself fated to drift through a world whose demands he can no longer cope with. ‘I’ll get out of this,’ he tells himself as he sits in the darkened flat brooding over the farewell note his mistress has left on the table. The reader, by this stage is aware not only that he has no chance of overturning the odds stacked against him, but that his fall from grace is simply a result of the environment in which he has had the misfortune to fetch up. It is America that has done this to the one-time hotel manager, the America of sky-scrapered cities, hot money and newspaper millionaires: smaller fry can look out for themselves.

When it comes to the battering winds of inexorable natural forces, Dreiser’s treatment is substantially more pointed than his great contemporaries, as it tends to rely on scenes in which his characters’ decent instincts are frustrated by monstrous twists of fate. An American Tragedy (1925) contains an exceptional episode in which Clyde Griffiths, the socially ambitious hero, takes his pregnant, working-class girlfriend out on a boating trip with the not-quite fully-formed aim of sending her to her death. In the end, his conscience gets the better of him and he stays his hand, only for the girl to accidentally hit her head, fall into the lake and drown anyway.

Sister Carrie offers a preliminary sketch of Clyde’s moral anguish in a scene where Hurstwood, inspecting his office at the Chicago hotel he oversees before shutting up for the night, notices that the cashier has left the safe open. Driven by an ungovernable impulse, he takes out the money and counts it. The hotel’s takings amount to over $10,000. Momentarily chastened, Hurstwood returns the bills to the safe, only to repeat the procedure. Terrified, but also strangely excited by the danger he has plunged himself into, he decides once again to return the money, only for the safe’s knob to spring unexpectedly shut.

From that moment, with 200 pages of the novel to go, Hurstwood’s goose is cooked. Knowing he has made a mistake which no amount of pleading can redeem, he abandons his wife and family, tricks Carrie — a colleague with whom he has been conducting a flirtation — into accompanying him, and escapes via Canada to New York. Tracked down by private detectives, he eventually agrees to give most of the money back to his old employers, but enough remains for him to maintain a painfully diminished version of his old existence, running a downtown saloon and living with his sham wife in modest domestic comfort.

At which point, the novel begins to work in counterpoint. As Hurstwood’s fortunes go into irrevocable decline, Carrie, an aspiring actress since her Chicago days, starts to carve out a career for herself in the New York theatres. Pretty, engaging and talented, she is soon taking on leading roles and earning hundreds of dollars a week. Within a few months of her departure, Hurstwood can be found living in a Bowery flophouse and reading a paragraph in an evening newspaper about her latest engagement.

It doesn’t end well, but then, what naturalist novel ever did? On the other hand, Dreiser’s approach to his material can seem markedly different to Hardy or Zola. Tess’s demise is practically cosmic, a result of the ‘President of the Immortals’ wanting to have his ‘sport’ with her. Zola is always keener on heredity: we behave the way we do because our parents did. But Dreiser is merely matter of fact: the world is a cold, hard place, you infer; only irresistible fate can determine whether we triumph or fail.

In the end, Sister Carrie succeeds almost in spite of itself. Even at his most exalted moments, Dreiser is no stylist and much of the writing frankly clunks. And yet the scenes in which Hurstwood sits brooding over the lodging-house fire, cursing his luck and remembering happier times, have an altogether desperate intensity. A final verdict might echo what Virginia Woolf said of Hardy: ‘Genius but no talent.’


D. J. Taylor