Thursday, February 19, 2015

Back to the Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

John Singer Sargent, Lady with Parasol, c. 1900

I had an opportunity to read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900) in January. I knew nothing about Sister Carrie, so I had no expectations. What I discovered was a fascinating study of Carrie and the two men in her life, Charles Drouet and George Hurstwood, and all their wants and desires, set against the backdrop of the Industrial Age in Chicago and later in New York City. Also, I wanted to read Sister Carrie for the Very Long Classic category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Karen over at Books and Chocolate

Beautiful eighteen year old Carrie wants an exciting life when she moves from her parents' farm in Wisconsin to Chicago and into the home of her sister and brother-in-law. She finds a job so that she can pay rent. Carrie works in a shoe factory of sorts but is unprepared for the appalling working conditions, not to mention the unsavory people she encounters. She also finds her sister's home to be dreary. 

She longs for another kind of life, the life that Drouet, a travelling salesman that she meets on the train at the beginning of the story, offers her. He buys her beautiful clothes and moves her into a large, fashionable apartment. Carrie gives a fleeting thought to the fact that she's Drouet's mistress, but that seems a minor detail. 

Influential, respected in the business community, and the manager of an upscale bar, Hurstwood, a friend of Drouet's, has connections in Chicago. Hurstwood's home life is a stark contrast--he's in a loveless marriage with an exacting, social climbing wife and grown children who barely give him a second thought. It's no surprise that Hurstwood becomes enchanted by Carrie.

The two have an affair. Drouet finds out, and soon Hurstwood's wife guesses what's happening while Carrie is surprised to learn that Hurstwood is married. Fate and a series of events are set in motion which result in Carrie and Hurstwood starting a new life together in New York City as husband and wife but under assumed names. Hurstwood struggles to find work and establish himself as he had in Chicago. 

Carrie finds herself once again in a situation that is not what she wants. Hurstwood is distant, and she knows that he's given up looking for work. With money running out, Carrie leaves Hurstwood and takes her chances as a chorus girl. She soon moves up, getting speaking parts in shows.

Without Hurstwood or Drouet, Carrie finds success, fame and fortune, but it doesn't make her happy. Meanwhile, Hurstwood falls far from where he was when he first met Carrie. This once proud and successful man now resorts to begging and depending on charity.

Dreiser writes about what life was like during the Industrial Revolution in a realistic way. I can't say that I blame Carrie for turning to Drouet when her work experience was so dismal. It was hard to put down the book because I wondered what would become of Carrie.

What was a bit tiresome about Sister Carrie was how long Dreiser went on about the fate of Hurstwood. Despite Hurstwood's faults, I wanted him to find a way to turn his life around. But the great detail Dreiser goes into about the depressing day to day existence of Hurstwood seemed to stall the story a bit.

An overriding theme of this story has to do with being careful what you wish for. Hurstwood wanted Carrie and saw himself in some kind of rivalry with Drouet that Hurstwood was determined to win. Without Drouet, would Hurstwood would have been so taken with Carrie? Once he had Carrie all to himself, Hurstwood wasn't happy with her and missed his old life as the man about town in Chicago. And once Carrie got the money and fame she desired, she wasn't happy either. 

It was interesting to read about the different aspects of what life was like, especially for a woman of limited means, in a big city at the turn of the twentieth century, and how money and class affected that experience. I recommend Sister Carrie.

Robert Henri, Snow in New York, c. 1902
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

I read the Kindle version of Sister Carrie and also listened to part of the audio book, narrated by C.M. Hebert. The narration was wonderful. And I had a great time reading Sister Carrie along with Care's Online Book Club 

If you've read Sister Carrie, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. I haven't read Sister Carrie yet but a couple of years ago I read An American Tragedy. I liked the first two-thirds but the last third just seemed to drag on and on -- it seemed like Dreiser didn't know when to stop making his point. From your review, it sounds like he does the same thing in Sister Carrie. I still want to read it someday. Thanks for linking your review to the Back to the Classics Challenge!

    1. Yes, you are right about the last third of the book. It did seem to drag on, but despite this, there is a lot to like about Sister Carrie. Thanks for stopping by. I'm really enjoying the Back to the Classics Challenge!

  2. I liked "Sister Carrie," although I thought Carrie was a bit self-centered and even heartless at times. I felt sorry for Hurstwood. I don't think justice was balanced in this case. I don't think his fate was justified, especially since she was no better than he was. BTW, I love the art you associated with this book! The John Singer Sargent painting is beautiful!