Sister Carrie: Essay Q&A
1. To what extent are wealth and its trappings critiqued by Dreiser?
Throughout the novel, Carrie is seen to have the occasional anxiety about falling into poverty, but her overriding concern is often based on the desire to improve her wardrobe. The standard of her clothing in comparison to others is a constant cause of melancholia before she finds fame as an actress and the reiteration of her desire for finery shapes her as an avid consumer. She desires material possessions and is dissatisfied with her lot if she feels she does not match up the standards she aspires to. At the same time, she detests the thought of her sister’s ‘humdrum’ life of toil, which is the traditional way that someone of Carrie’s class would earn the money to pay for her prized objects.
It is only through the voice of the minor character Bob Ames, who eschews the opulence of the restaurant they dine in, that Carrie glimpses another way of seeing the world. It is also through Ames that the consuming life of the bourgeois shopper comes under stronger scrutiny. For the most part, this novel avoids using outright moral condemnation (of sex outside marriage or of consumerism) to drive the narrative and prefers instead to represent rather than criticize. Through the suicide of Hurstwood, the readers also see a damning of the social order that values appearance over humanity, but, of course, Carrie never learns of his demise.
2. Analyze how morality is criticized in this novel.
If Dreiser had obeyed the rules of Western literature, where the disgraced woman is punished when she breaks the moral codes (of having sex outside marriage and being Hurstwood’s mistress), Carrie would never have been allowed to succeed. By allowing her to not only live a life of comfort, but also to find the wealth and fame she craves, she becomes a triumphant literary symbol that undermines implicit moral codes. From Eve onwards, the fallen woman had rarely been given a happy ending, in either society or literature.
Further to this refusal to condemn Carrie by making her live in penury or commit suicide by the novel’s end, the narrative remains uncritical of her decision to live with Drouet and her illegal marriage to Hurstwood. She is seen to want to marry both men at different times, for conformity and economic reasons, and so hopes to be respectable in the eyes of others, but this is not portrayed as her only or main concern. As she matures, she becomes less dependent on the admiration of men and is more interested in developing her own career. This aspect of Carrie may now be seen as proto-feminist as she is rewarded rather than punished for refusing to be constrained by traditional morality.
3. Examine the parallels drawn between Hurstwood and Carrie once their relationship breaks down.
To some degree Hurstwood and Carrie’s lives become mirror images in New York as he unsuccessfully hunts for work and she attains a level of respectability and status. Their roles are swapped and Hurstwood suffers the indignities of searching for work with limited experience.
Further parallels between their differing positions may be seen in the places they live when Hurstwood slips out of the middle-class and ends at the bottom of the hierarchy. He stays in the cheapest lodging houses in the Bowery, whilst she is invited to live in fashionable and expensive hotels. On the surface, they both live transient lives without roots; however, they are now at the opposite ends of the social scale. This contrast in fortunes demonstrates an understanding of how easy it is to fall into the cracks of oblivion, as with Hurstwood’s plight. The effect of comparing their new lives also emphasizes how marked the difference is between them.
4. Consider how words are seen to fail the main protagonists.
The narrative is littered with silences and misunderstandings and passivity is one of Carrie’s most memorable (and forgettable) characteristics before she is employed in the chorus line. Rather than being an aid to help communication, language becomes another obstacle to overcome for Carrie, Hurstwood and Drouet as at different times all three find it impossible to say what they are thinking.
Words are often inadequate, then, and this may also have been pointed up in order to magnify how our thought processes flicker and change in an instant. Sister Carrie becomes a demonstration, therefore, of how it is impossible to pin thoughts down exactly with language. Giving voice to one’s inner world is shown to be an impossible task.
5. How do Hurstwood and Carrie think of the past, present and future?
There is little exploration of Carrie’s views of the present and future, apart from her occasional fears of sinking into poverty. The past is a more obvious absence as she is barely ever seen to consider her previous actions.
Hurstwood, on the other hand, cannot bear to think of the future when his decline begins and he becomes locked in regrets of his past actions. It is as though he has forgotten the rules of the society he used to belong to and this is indicated when he shaves less and wears his old clothes out of comfort. Remembering the past and reading the newspapers become transgressive acts as he is distanced from his respectable life. By living in the past, he no longer conforms to the consumer American dream of living for the moment.
The contrast between the way Carrie and Hurstwood reflect on the past is a useful indicator of how (and perhaps why) one succeeds in a society that values material wealth over capability or humanity even. Carrie may be seen to thrive because she reflects the values of the audience and the wider society.