Review: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 33

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is perhaps the perfect example of American Naturalism.  In it, a small-town Wisconsin girl, Carrie Meeber, moves to Chicago to live with her sister and brother-in-law.  While on the train into the city, she meets a man named Charles Drouet, and this encounter (characterized by Carrie’s adoration of his fancy clothes and well-to-do appearance) will set in motion Carrie’s entire future.  Carrie’s life is filled with example after example of good fortune and coincidence, so that, without taking any real agency of her own, she finds herself elevated from the lowest levels of society (once forced to work in the harshest of factory conditions) to the ranks of wealth and stardom, on Broadway.  Concurrently, the life of her second lover, Hurstwood, begins to deteriorate as of the day he meets her.  At the start, he is a powerful, charming, and accomplished business man.  His wife and children are normal and healthy, although rather self-absorbed.  Soon, the powers of fate and destiny converge on Hurstwood & Carrie – their lives are linked and their livelihoods inverted.  Hurstwood falls tragically and cannot seem to find his way back, while Carrie rises ever higher, without ever putting in much effort of her own.  But, though she ultimately achieves her dreams, she is never happy, never satisfied.  She is lost in a world of “cosmopolitan morality,” where success is defined by things and where possessions are consumed at an ever-growing rate, in an attempt to fill an un-fillable void.

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

There are two main characters in Sister Carrie, including Carrier herself, as well as George Hurstwood.  Although the story’s title would lead readers to believe that the story is all about Carrie, it is not hard to argue that the true main character ends up being Hurstwood (whose decline is ultimately much more interesting than Carrie’s rise).  Carrie is naïve, but not inept.  She is not exactly a coquette – not immoral, by any means, but she is quite possibly amoral.  For most of the book, she lacks completely any agency – she allows others to guide her and care for her.  Fortunately, this ultimately works for her, and it is not until near the end of the story, where her relationship with Hurstwood has become interchanged (Carrie becoming the powerful and wealth partner), when she takes a firm action of her own and leaves him to his poverty.  The fact that her one self-guided action is to leave Hurstwood when he is down says much about her character, as does the fact that, though she becomes increasingly wealthy and famous, she remains wholly unsatisfied and lonely. 

In addition to these main two, there is Drouet, a prominent secondary character.  Without Drouet, Carrie’s story could not exist.  He is a constant throughout – never changing much, never learning or growing.  He does eventually come to love Carrie, but only after she has gone out of his reach (becoming desirable to him after it is impossible for him to have her).  Drouet’s constancy allows for the inversion of Carrie and Hurstwood’s situation to be put into perspective – their changes are made clearer in relation to Drouet’s stationary presence.  Finally, there are a few prominent tertiary characters, such as Mr. Ames, who is the one person Carrie seems to love and respect most in the world and the one person she wishes most to be like (and be with), but who is also the one person Carrie could never truly understand.  Ames is an intellectual – a philosopher and he is entirely without need for commercial things.  Carrie is in awe of his ability to be content with whatever he has, because she can never seem to get enough.  In addition to those, there are quite a few minor characters (such as Carrie’s sister and Mrs. Vance’s brother).  Dreiser’s characterization is brilliant, in that each cast member has a clear and necessary purpose to the story.

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

The only downfall of this novel, for me, was the prose.  Dreiser’s writing was heavily criticized as being pedantic, ungrammatical, and long-winded (even elephantine).  Take, for example, the following passages:

“The, to Carrie, very important theatrical performance was to take place at the Avery on conditions which were to make it more noteworthy than was at first anticipated.” 

“They had young men of the kind whom she, since her experience with Drouet, felt above, who took them out.”

Clearly, Dreiser was not a master of the poetic.  His prose is often clunky and, some would say, cheap or common.  Dreiser himself, as well as some of his defendants, assert that his style is actually presented this way as artistic choice – that he was seeking to present “an accurate description of life as it is,” which means narrating in the way common people would think and talk.  A poetic or graceful prose, then, would be unrealistic of the circumstances described within Sister Carrie and thus his style makes perfect sense.

Whether or not it was true artistic choice, it comes across as sub-par prose from a journalist-turned-novelist who still had much to learn about writing style.  Fortunately, his descriptions and dialogue were generally solid, and his use of concrete and purposeful themes/symbols (the rocking chair, the sea, etc.) throughout help raise the overall tone and value of the prose.  

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

William Dean Howells, critic and novelist (and the one man, other than Mark Twain, who was responsible for the success of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) is considered by most to be the father of Realism.  In his explanation of Realism, he stated that it is “nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.”  There should be nothing sensational, nothing inexplicable in a story, if it is to be considered of literary consequence.  (This is, perhaps, why I found his book The Rise of Silas Lapham so incredibly boring, but I digress!).  He and other Realists believed that the following principles of life were truth, and thus make up the doctrine of Realism in literature.

–       That the world is amoral.
–       The men/women have no free will. 
–       That lives are controlled by heredity and environment.
–       That religion’s truths are illusory.
–       That the destiny of humanity was misery and oblivion in death.

If one takes these principles into account when reading Sister Carrie, then it becomes clear that not only is Dreiser a practitioner of Realism, but this text might be one of the best examples of theory-in-practice.  Each of these five thoughts about life are clearly present in the novel.  Dreiser was a true Naturalist, in that he believed we were all drifting along on a sea of pre-determination, destined to end up wherever life would have us end up.  The choices we make have very little bearing on what we will be or where we will go, because all of that has been decided for us already (not by God, but by a confluence of fate and chance). 

In addition to Sister Carrie being a brilliant example of Realism (if not the best written example), there is also much to examine in regards to the themes of morality, materialism, fate/fortune, cosmopolitan (city) life and even romance.  Its place in the canon of American literature is well-deserved, both as an example of a shift in the treatment of women (previous to Dreiser, most “lost” women would end up dead) and in the shift from American Romanticism to Naturalism.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Determinism/Fatalism, Naturalism, Realism, American History, Rural-City dichotomy.

Notable Quotes:

“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.”

“People in general attach too much importance to words. They are under the illusion that talking effects great results. As a matter of fact, words are, as a rule, the shallowest portion of all the argument. They but dimly represent the great surging feelings and desires which lie behind. When the distraction of the tongue is removed, the heart listens.” 

“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” 

“A real flame of love is a subtle thing. It burns as a will-o’-the-wisp, dancing onward to fairy lands of delight. It roars as a furnace. Too often jealousy is the quality upon which it feeds.” 

“Men are still led by instinct before they are regulated by knowledge.”

12 Comments on “Review: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

  1. “The, to Carrie, very important theatrical performance…” made me cringe-who would ever say anything like that? I still want to give some of Dreiser’s writing a chance though.


    • This was actually my second time reading it. I enjoyed it the first time and appreciated it on a much deeper level the second time around. My Professor, this year, assigned it to be read before the first seminar meeting and, when doing so, called it “the most boring book you will ever read.” I definitely wouldn’t go that far, but quite a few of the students in my course seemed to agree.


    • Oh please! Anyone getting a PhD will read entire shelves of books far more boring than Sister Carrie. Reading crushingly boring books is one of the primary activities of the PhD-to-be. Then at the end of the process, you write one of ’em!


      • HAHA! Well, I don’t find this one boring, personally, but I can see how people would. She’s a bit of a feisty professor.

        There isn’t much fiction that I find boring (except William Dean Howells… good grief) but the critical texts, theory & such… THOSE are definitely a struggle.


      • I struggle with parts of Sister Carrie myself – that scene where Carrie makes her theatrical debut, and Dreiser gives us a scene-by-scene summary of the entire play, that’s pretty rough.

        But the streetcar strike – who finds that boring? It’s genuinely exciting.

        I like the implicit warning your professor gave you – it may be boring, but that is now irrelevant. Give the book as much attention as you would anything else.


      • I think part of her point, too, was that Realism in general is just kind of boring. It’s supposed to be wholly believable – no sense of fantasy; no mythology; no higher morality. Just look at life as it is. When most of us do this, denying all wishes and dreams, well… we’re left with a pretty bland vision.


  2. I enjoyed mostly the atmosphere / setting of this book. The writing was a little difficult to get used to but it was worth it.


  3. That sentence that Bookworm quotes could probably work in Dutch. Was he maybe bilingual (English – Dutch/German or related?).

    It sounds like a difficult read and I’m not sure if it’s worth reading outside a must-read class situation. But as with many books, sometimes it’s nice to be able to say, “I read this, I have an opinion about this book”.


  4. This was one of those books that I didn’t love while I was reading it. It’s a bit dry and depressing. I tend to favor British writers over Americans, the 18th and 19th centuries over the 20th. But. Once I finished, I loved it. I’m so glad I read it, and that I read it in an academic setting where I got to discuss it (this was way before I started blogging). I have An American Tragedy and need to read it as well. That might be a good one for a readalong at some point, so I don’t have to get through it alone!


  5. You know, I’ve never really gotten why Dreiser is criticized for his writing. I mean, I guess it’s a little more blunt and maybe less elegant than a lot of his contemporaries, but I felt like it worked. True, it’s not poetic, as you say, but I never felt like it brought down the quality of Sister Carrie


    • I definitely see how people might claim that it brings down the “quality” of the text (but what is quality? who defines it?) – however, the question for me is, did he truly craft his prose to mimic the point and purpose of Realism, or did he just write the way he wrote, naturally (which, in itself, is technically a quality of Realism anyway, I guess). For me, if he did craft his prose carefully to reflect the raw and real quality the text, as well as the theory he was expounding, then I think it’s a job well done. But if he said that only as a rebuttal to rejections of his “bad” writing, well then, that stinks.


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