Sister Carrie: Theme Analysis
Lack of communication
The failure of the characters to communicate with words is a recurring theme in this novel. This is most evident in the relationship between Hurstwood and Carrie as only the readers are made privy to their thought processes. They are unable to express their full views of each other and this may be interpreted as an attempt to reflect how little we know of our friends, partners and ourselves. A useful example of this may be found when Hurstwood fishes for words when trying to express his affection for Carrie, and finds instead that words fail him. Language is seen to be an inadequate means to articulate emotions.
By contrasting the characters’ thoughts with what they say, the narrative also exposes the gap between expression and the unconscious. By recording what they are thinking, it is also possible to see, on a simplified level, an echo of how quickly we change our minds.
Carrie’s fear of poverty and desire for material possessions are the only two factors which disturb her from her passivity. Consumerism often dominates her decisions as she is mainly characterized by her love of new clothes and need for comfort.
Interestingly, the narrative does not condemn her for this predilection. She and Drouet represent polar opposites of the puritan work ethic as they prefer finery and living for the moment. Although she is not punished by the author for her extravagant tastes, and is a likeable figure at times, she is never given a great amount of depth. Her encounters with Ames teach her that desire for wealth will lead to dissatisfaction, and she considers him as wise for holding such views, but it is not until the end that she appears to ponder these thoughts more closely. For this reason, it is possible to see that through Carrie Dreiser is attempting to convey a convincing human rather than a good or evil main protagonist. Carrie’s desires are recognizable, as is her sense of melancholy when the desires are fulfilled.
It is suggested in the narrative that Hurstwood’s fall from grace into eventual suicide has partially come about because of his loss of social standing. In a society that overvalues appearance and the appearance of money, he gradually becomes ousted from his position of respectability. Through necessity and apathy he begins to wear his old clothes whilst living with Carrie and this symbolizes his decline into being a nonentity.
As his position weakens, Carrie’s is seen to strengthen as she acquires independence and a level of wealth and is metaphorically accepted back into the fold when Mrs Vance visits her in her dressing room. It is of interest that Carrie is allowed to succeed and achieve such acceptance, as a so-called fallen woman, because such women are traditionally punished in literature (remembering Eve, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina). This novel may be regarded, therefore, as challenging the moral codes of the late nineteenth century because of she is depicted as rising, rather than declining, in perceived value.
By contrasting Carrie and Hurstwood’s change in fortune, their separate lives become all the more pronounced. Her newly acquired fame is emphasized in relation to his eventual suicide. The novel’s use of contrasts depends on the relativity of meaning, and so employs the same technique of defining by comparison as the city dwellers who are under observation.