2007: 142. Sister Carrie


“When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.  It was in August, 1889.”

Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser

There aren’t so many Carrie’s in literature.  There is Stephen King’s Carrie, who is scary, and there is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s baby sister, who is pretty non-descript, and that is all I can think of, at least off the top of my head.  So, clearly as a Carrie myself, I had a duty to read Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.  Carrie solidarity, and all that.

Dorothy Parker famously said that “Theodore Dreiser/ought to write nicer,” and there is some truth to the quip.  His prose can be a little clunky - check out that first sentence, where he uses the world “small” twice in ten words - and dense.  That having been said, I thought that Sister Carrie was a pretty good book, and much better than I’d been expecting.  It tells the story of Carrie, who drifts into Chicago, looking for work, and instead finds herself living with one man, then another, and then becoming an actress in New York.  What I liked so much about the book is that Dreiser just tells the story of what happened to Carrie and to her paramours without judging her, or portraying her as a fallen woman.  Carrie isn’t the brightest bulb, and definitely lacks agency as she drifts through her life for a while (though she ultimately pulls it together and takes charge and becomes and actress), but she isn’t struck dead, or left in a gutter, or any of the other things that usually happen to fallen women.  She is a reasonably successful actress at the end, if perhaps a little sad at how her life isn’t as full as she might like.  Her second paramour, Hurstwood, comes to a bad end, but this doesn’t seem like judgement as much as a reasonable outcome from his actions.  I guess this is the famous “naturalist” school of writing, and I must say, I quite like it.  

Recommended for: People who want to read a moderately contemporary novel about a “fallen woman” who comes to a realistic and reasonable end, instead of a tragic moralistic one; people who want to know what life was like in the Gilded Age for non-millionaires

Date/Place Completed: 9/11/07; D.C.

Categories: Fiction; Commuting Book; Modern Library Top One Hundred

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017