Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sister Carrie - Theodore Dreiser

sister carrie
theodore dreiser
c. 1900
501 pages
completed 4/9/2010

read for: hstaa303 (modern american civilization), penguin classics, 1001 books

*may contain spoilers*

When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister's address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.

Sister Carrie is a small town girl who arrives in the big city of Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. As the country, especially in the cities, is becoming more defined by consumerism, Carrie is swept along with it, longing for the nicer things in life. With a constant increase in her desire food nice clothes, nice food, and a nice house as her driving force, Carrie rises up from the menial world of the working class to a life of security and luxury. Carrie has to learn what this material world is worth.

I am taking a modern American history class this quarter and we read this book as one of our primary sources which led to a very interesting discussion on whether fiction of whatever medium (literature, movies, etc) should be considered as reliable source material for historical study. In my opinion, I think it absolutely can. This book is a great example. Written about the time period it was written in, it gives an incredibly detailed look at a lot of different aspects of like in the 1890s and 1900s. Books like this can give the reader a lot of insight into how the public viewed certain social and political aspects of the day. Sure, you have to be careful and do your research on the author and who the audience was meant to be, but you need to do that with any primary source. And fiction that is not written about the time period it was written in or not written directly about the subject it's commenting on can give the same sorts of insights. Again, you need to be careful not to read too much into what you're reading (sometimes King Kong is just a big gorilla), but metaphorical and allegorical fiction can also provide incredible insight (sometimes King Kong is a reflection on Western imperialism and treatment of aboriginal peoples). So yes, in my opinion, fiction just as much as anything else produced in any given time period reflects on its society in a way people can learn from.

Anyway, onto the book itself. With a lack of any sympathetic characters, it was hard to root for anyone and I like a book where I can root for someone. All three main characters, Carrie and her two gentlemen friends Drouet and Hurstwood, are all obsessed with attaining and maintaining wealth and social status. They were interesting enough for me to want to know what was going to happen to them, especially after Carrie and Hurstwood relocated to New York, but for me the characters were not exactly what made this book enjoyable for me. Instead, I was pretty fascinated by the detail of daily life that was included and really enjoyed the addition of important currant events. There were intricate descriptions of factory work, what areas of the city were considered fashionable, how the poor were treated, and some kind of unorthodox relief services for the unemployed and a long segment on the Pullman car strikes that involved one of the characters as a scab.

This book provided a lot of commentary on many social aspects of the turn of the century, most especially the nation turning to be defined by consumerism. But also interesting was the way it kind of challenged ideas on what was morally acceptable for a woman and on gender roles in particular. For example, there was a lot of controversy when this book was first published. Carrie makes some decisions that were maybe not the moral norm of the time, but nowhere throughout the book is she censured for these decisions.

So to sum up, I definitely enjoyed this book and thought it was a great choice for a class studying the beginning of the twentieth century. The story is entertaining, the rise of Carrie and the decline of Hurstwood, but like I said the characters aren't exactly sympathetic. But I think you could get over that, especially if you were interested in the time period.


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