Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

First read: 7/2003
Reviewed on: 7/14/2003

Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

This is a story you've probably experienced, from one perspective or the other. Two friends of mine in high school were best friends with each other. One was classically beautiful, and one was not. Let's call them Ceecee and Clara. Long story short, Ceecee, the "pretty one", got away with stuff that Clara couldn't hope to. A friend had some people over to teach everyone how to carve busts from ivory soap. (No, nobody in my high school had ivory soap carving parties - I cleverly am disguising the storyline to grant anonymity.) Ceecee and Clara were bored instantly, and threw soap arrowheads at people for most of the time. He got mad at Clara, and invited Ceecee back, because she clearly "had some interest."

When Ceecee found herself out of work, there were plenty of offers, from women and men, platonic or hopeful, to give her places to stay, dinners out, etc. She was (and presumably still is) a smart person, and she definitely tried to get jobs and things, but there was always that safety net. She always knew that if she didn't wind up succeeding at employment, there would always be people to take care of her.

"Isn't the same true for attractive men, DJ?" Umm... no, not really. Not to the same extent. Attractive men certainly have things easier than unattractive men. But except in rare cases, they pretty much know that they are going to have to work for a living, or inherit money. People aren't going to find it a privilege supporting them.

I don't resent pretty women for this - it's just the way it is. A stunningly beautiful student of mine and I were talking about driving on I-35, and what it's like to get pulled over. We both have been pulled over on that road, and she was surprised that I actually got tickets. "All you need to do is just keep the policeman conversing, and then he'll eventually let you off." I gave her the look I often give students when they are making a bit of a logical leap and she caught it. "Oh, I suppose the way I look has something to do with it" and she laughed.

Here's the story of Sister Carrie: You have three people. A poor, pretty young woman, an attractive young man, and an older man who doesn't have to be that attractive because he is rich. The older man loses his money. Then we see the attractive young man do fairly well for himself, even though he is a lazy selfish gadabout, the pretty woman become rich and famous, even though she is a lazy selfish gadabout, and the older man starve to death.

I didn't mind this - it wasn't that unrealistic. What was weird was I didn't know whether I was supposed to like or care about these characters. I never liked Carrie. Not even a little bit. Was I supposed to? She was poor, stayed with her sister in Chicago, and couldn't find a good job. So she found a guy to take care of her, found a richer guy to take care of her better, left him when he couldn't take care of her anymore, and got really wealthy. She never sent her poor sister a dime. And the tragic ending was that she was thinking of becoming even richer, yet she still wasn't happy. My heart bleeds. It is like when you see some very wealthy rock star complaining about the price of incredible wealth, intense fame, and non-stop sex-on-demand. I think, "Stop complaining. Get out of the biz, if you want, and let one of the millions of people who would appreciate your life take your spot in the sun." I don't begrudge them their success, but I don't really have a lot of pity for how hard they have it. At one point, when Carrie was bemoaning her fate, she was sad she only had one servant. (This was before she got really rich). Alas, cruel fate. But one servant!

Another weird thing. When Carrie was being kept by Droulet, I assumed they weren't having sex, because he hadn't "yet" married her. And then when she was with Hurstwood I assumed the same thing. But then they were married and sex was not mentioned. And I realized, "Ah. This was written over 100 years ago. Got it. Ixnay on the exsay." But that was kind of a major point for me - when Carrie was being kept by Droulet, was he having sex with her or not. If she was, that would put certain of his actions in one light, and if she was not, it would put them in a different light.

My edition of the novel had an afterword, which explained why this was called the First Modern Novel and why it was so controversial upon its release. That was fun to read, because I had no clue what was so "revolutionary" about this book. According to the preface, before Sister Carrie people who sinned in books got punished for their sins. In this book, bad people don't get punished, and good people don't get - well there aren't really a lot of "good" people in this book.

One other interesting thing - I've noticed a kind of fun difference in books that were written a hundred years ago, and books written more recently that take place in that time period. It's hard to put a finger on - you can't just point to a paragraph and say, "HERE is what ol' Doug is talking about" - it is more of an overtone. Books written now have the attitude of, "Back then there were no phones or automobiles." Books written then? The author isn't even thinking of those concepts. So the older books are filled with people dropping by, leaving notes for people, making arraignments through intermediaries, etc. The newer ones sometimes have that sort of thing, but it is more - forced? emphasized? Something just isn't as true. Many of the aspects of 19th century life that are the most interesting to me are handled so casually in the century-old books.

Maybe that's the one-sentence synopsis: In books written 100 years ago, the things that are the most interesting to me are often completely uninteresting to the author.

Back to The whole list
Back to Main


hits since July, 2003