Theodore Dreiser’s first novel came out in 1900. At first, it did not receive any warm welcome with the public and the critics. “Sister Carrie” was rejected as it was considered immoral and discrepant to traditional American values. In America it was published in an edition of one thousand copies. In England “Sister Carrie” was accepted more favourably; after that, in 1907, it was republished in the USA and enjoyed first local and then global appreciation.
In his novel the American journalist (it was this very position that Dreiser began his literary activity from) raised a problem which was classical for the 90-ies of the XIX century in the USA – the problem of realization of ‘the American dream’. The main personage of the novel, Carrie Meeber, having become of age moves to Chicago from a small backward town of Columbia City. Like most Americans, the girl is driven by a single pursuit: to conquer this city, and if it appears impossible to be a stunning success there, then to become its integral part.
Carrie was brought up in the spirit of classical moral values, but she soon falls from grace. This is facilitated by unfavourable life circumstances (lack of working experience, hard work at a shoe factory, absence of warm clothes in winter, illness) and the attitude of insensitive relatives who led their ordered life full of work, belt-tightening and small house affairs. Being passive and dreamy by nature, the girl worships everything beautiful and lives in the hope of the happiness yet unknown; she easily gives herself up to the charms of young travelling salesman Charles Drouet. Driven into a corner and facing a dilemma – whether she should return to her parents or continue conquering Chicago – Carrie easily puts up with her new position of a lover, disguising her uncharacteristic unchastity by the hope to correct everything. At first the girl expects Drouet to marry her. Later she has similar hopes for Hurstwood. In her striving for living in comfort Carrie runs into accepting her church wedding to an already married man at its face value; but … she behaves in such a way up to the moment when this ceases to be favourable for her. As soon as Hurstwood goes bankrupt and Carrie receives money and fame in the footlights, she walks out on him immediately.
An imposing manager of the bar “Fitzgerald and Moy” George Hurstwood is a holder of a considerable money value of forty thousand dollars and a father of a respectable Chicago family. In the novel, he represents the idea of unsteadiness of American stability, delusiveness of success and wealth. Everything in his life goes well up to the moment when he begins to feel bored and develops fondness for young and charming Carrie. His high social standing and money do not make Hurstwood happy. Love is the only thing which brings sense into his life. It is for love’s sake that he commits a crime (“He would be happy, by the Lord, if it cost all honesty of statement, all abandonment of truth”), for its sake he is ready to put up with the loss of influential acquaintances and with a modest life mode. But the break with his customary surroundings and his age creeping up on him preclude Hurstwood from a fresh take off; as soon as he loses his share in a New York bar, which he had obtained for a thousand dollars, and faces unemployment, the only thing left for Hurstwood is sitting in Carrie’s rocking-chair, reading newspapers and dreaming about the past.
A young travelling salesman Charles Drouet represents a characteristic American type of people of the late XIX century called ‘mashers’. He is fluttering about his life as easily as a butterfly (as Dreiser says): he makes his career, debauches women, enjoys all accessible pleasures: love, money, fashionable clothes, good food, influential acquaintances and so on. Neither Charles Drouet’s destiny, nor his character undergoes any alternations. He fails to take anything seriously, that is why he is incapable of making the Hurstwood’s mistake. Not striving for anything in particular, he does not feel bitter, unlike Carrie.
The denouement of the novel draws the line to the author’s considerations on the value of “the American dream”. Having received fame and wealth, Carrie has no idea what to do with her money, she has no faith in men and contents herself by acting in entertaining comedy shows. She has not gained happiness, she has not become a better person. She has her whole life in front of her; and she will spend it (thanks to her inner traits) in endless soul searching. Hurstwood has nothing to search for. His life is over. He has taken his own life having lost everything: his family, social standing, money, love and self-respect.
Success offers no happiness to anybody – neither to Carrie, nor to Hurstwood. “The Ameracan dream” is good only for the likes of Charles Drouet, those who live a day-to-day existence and do not experience complicated spiritual striving. Material gains are good only for “earthborn” hearts. “Heavenborn” natures nearly always lose when confronting them.
In his first novel Theodore Dreiser proved to be a real master of word genre. He took the realization of his artistic conception carefully and seriously, having given two titles to each chapter. In “Sister Carrie” the writer’s artistic manner is characterized by distinct, laconic descriptions which are full of bright metaphors, simple and clear dialogues, his own short narratives on this or that problem or character. In the novel, one can come across many philosophical ideas with journalist-like direct and artless presentation. For instance, when depicting Herstwood’s and Carrie’s flight to Montreal, Dreiser dwells upon a curative impact of travelling – “Thus lovers are forgotten, sorrows laid aside, death hidden from view”; when telling about Carrie’s first success on the stage, the writer remarks: “There is nothing so inspiring in life as the sight of a legitimate ambition, no matter how incipient. It gives colour, force, and beauty to the possessor”.
The chronotope of the novel is connected with two big American cities – Chicago and New York – fast developing, noisy, and marked by “peculiar indifference”. Dreiser introduces into the narrative a number of historical details, characteristic of the USA in late XIX century: disorderliness of dirty factory work, the urge of big corporations for cost reduction, strikes breaking out from time to time (the tram-workers’ strike in Brooklyn), unemployment and beggars, social division into the rich and the poor. At the same time, he mentions the development of theatrical art in America, Broadway’s beauty and bright lights, as well as the first department stores opening throughout the country.