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Championing a fairer deal for women and the working class in early twentieth century America
on 17 November 2015
Sister Carrie, published in 1900, was Dreiser’s first novel, and what a deep novel it is. It follows a clear narrative journey, has completely believable characters, the central ones of whom are particularly complex, nuanced and perfectly credible as recognisable individuals – but we also absolutely see the history and culture of time and place acting on them, moulding them, influencing and shaping them. Choices may be made, which seem individual, but the freedom of expression may be more circumscribed than some characters – or some readers – may believe.
Carrie is a young rural girl, who comes to Chicago in 1889, to stay with her sister and her brother-in-law. Carrie has ambition, she is a young woman of beauty and some delicacy, wanting to improve her status and opportunities. She aspires to some kind of clerical office job, or perhaps as a sales assistant in one of the burgeoning glossy department stores. Unfortunately, her poverty and lack of experience are against her. It is an employer’s market, and all she can get is dirty, badly paid, unskilled factory work, exploited and working in impossibly harsh conditions.
Dreiser, writing with irony, looks back on the 1889 working conditions and compares them to the more enlightened thinking of ‘now’ (1900):
“The place smelled of the oil of the machines and the new leather – a combination which added to by the stale odours of the building, was not pleasant, even in cold weather. The floor, though regularly swept each evening, presented a littered surface. Not the slightest provision had been made for the comfort of the employees, the idea being that something was gained by giving them as little and making the work as hard and unremunerative as possible. What we know of footrests, swivel-back chairs, dining rooms for the girls, clean aprons and curling irons supplied free, and a decent cloak room, were unthought of. The wash rooms and lavatories were disagreeable, crude, if not foul places, and the whole atmosphere of hard contract”
Another writer with a socialist, humane ideology, Upton Sinclair, in his famous book The Jungle, set also in Chicago, in the meat processing industry, and published in 1906, rather shows the ‘atmosphere of hard contract’ had not changed in the intervening years, so Dreiser was writing at a time when, practically, those footrests, dining rooms, clean lavatories and the rest, were still unthought of in factories.
Dreiser’s particular focus in this book though, is on women, on the circumscribed choices available to women, and how poverty and want may drive a woman to make a living by selling herself. He explores the different power dynamic between men and women, and also the different morality expected of the sexes.
I discovered with interest that though Sister Carrie found a publisher, the book was considered too hot – or even too offensive – to handle, and was expurgated
What 1900 society found so offensive in Dreiser’s writing was his refusal to act the moralist, thundering down abuse on this fallen woman – instead, he reminds us how society itself creates the world in which the Carries must make this choice.
There are three major figures in this book, Carrie herself, the travelling salesman Charles Drouet and the sophisticated bar manager G.W. Hurstwood, looked up to by both Carrie and Drouet. Hurstwood is a man beginning to move in circles near the people of greater power, celebrity and wealth. In fact, the adulation of celebrity, and its shallowness, so symptomatic of our own age, is also laid out here.
I found the authorial voice, and the wide ranging evidence of Dreiser’s sophisticated, nuanced thinking, as fascinating and absorbing as the story of Carrie and Hurstwood, the trajectory of their entwined histories. The first section of the book has Carrie, starting from a kind of point of lowliness and desperation, and follows her rise (looked at one way) which might also be considered her fall. When she first meets Hurstwood, his star is in the ascendant, and life is rosy, and showing every possibility of getting rosier, for him. From thence, the fortunes of the two, initially linked, begin to travel in different directions. It is Hurstwood who becomes the major focus, and the drift of his story also offers a glimpse into early twentieth century capitalism in America, and the hard fought struggles of labour to achieve fair wages, fair conditions
I must admit that Dreiser’s style is style is not always the most flowing, and he isn’t a writer of what appears to be so well and beautifully crafted that the writing seems effortlessly poised, but what at times may be rough-hewn has honesty, and the ‘stuff’ of his writing is powerful, important and necessary.
I found this an absorbing, humane, compassionate and thought provoking read
Finally, kindly alerted by other reviewers, I did NOT get this on Kindle, and went for a second hand market place seller paperback, for readability instead of poorly formatted eread!