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16 Sep 2014

Book Review: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser


Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
Publisher: New Amer Library Classics (2009)
Genre: Realistic fiction
Buy from Amazon
Sinopsis: A great American novel about a young girl who leaves her small hometown in the Midwest to Chicago where she climbs her way up, successfully realizing the American Dream at the cost of sacrificing her humanity.

To begin with, Theodore Dreiser is one of my most favourite authors. He writes in the genre of realistic fiction, which at first glance is as simplistic as it gets. On the contrary, however, it requires vast imagination, incredible talent and big scrupulosity for details. In addition to all that, Dreiser has an ability to emphatize with the main characters yet remaining objective and impartial at the same time, letting us, readers, be the judge. Which, reading Sister Carrie, can be quite difficult as this story is a true double-edged weapon. You can condemn Carrie's actions, labeling them as "immoral". And yet, giving it another thought, taking a closer look at her situation, you wonder whether you too wouldn't choose her choices... 

When reading Sister Carrie, the thing that always amazed me was Dreiser's skill to describe boring little details of the everyday life. Routine, littleness, dullness is suddenly interesting. And thinking together with the main character about how to survive on four and a half dollars per week, how to settle accounts with the baker whom you've been owing money for months, how to pay for rent, where to buy food cheap and how to still look presentable when you are completely drowning into poverty, is everything BUT boring. So I'm sure that, even if you won't like the story itself, you will definitely enjoy the novel's flow and Dreiser's writing style.

The story, however, is very enjoyable, too and, most importantly, requires some soul-searching. It opens with Carrie - a typical material girl. She wants to have lots of shoes and dresses, and she doesn't want to break her back working in a sweatshop to get that. Fortunatelly, almost as soon as she comes to Chicago, she meets Charlie Drouet, the salesperson, who liberates Carrie from financial difficulites and makes her his lover. This "deal" makes Carrie feel guilty and uncomfortable... at first. But when Drouet surrounds her with commodities and she gets a taste of nice clothing, she forgets about her shame and asks more and more from Drouet. And when her lover is suddenly not able to satisfy her appetite, Carrie dumps him for another - Hurstwood, a family man. For Carrie, Hurstwood ruines his marriage, ruins his career, ruins his life and is finally left as a broken man. Meanwhile, Carrie becomes a successful self-made woman, who has everything she ever dreamt of: money, clothing, admirers, public acclaim, her own house...  Dreiser ends the novel with a final paragraph that characterizes her "success":
"Oh Carrie, Carrie! <...> Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In you rocking-chair, by your window dreadming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel."
So are they really worth it, those materialist dreams? This is one of the numerous never-ending questions that Dreiser raises in his novel. 

Is Carrie really a horrible person for using men and living at their expense? What about those men, though - aren't they horrible too for using a young woman's youth for their own pleasure and comfort? Considering that all Carrie's lovers were always older than her and had more life experience, one can argue who really takes advantage of whom.

Is it really wrong to leave your man for another one? Do you really have to stay with a man merely out of gratitude for everything he's done to you, even when the romance is dead and you've become strangers to each other?

Is it really wrong to leave a man, who sacrificed his life for you, but who has then spiritually degraded, stopped taking care of himself, doesn't wish to look for a job and is ready to live at a woman's expense? Coming from work home to a pathetic, peevish man dissapointed in life just because you feel sorry for him? Would you choose that?

Carrie answered "no" to all of these questions, and, as reprehensible as one may find her actions, let's ask ourselves whether we could always remain noble and heroic when life is breaking us down. This is already a different story that begins as soon as the novel ends. 

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