The classic American novel, Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, published in 1900, might not seem conducive to modern tastes. Stylistically it’s like a big, nineteenth century novel, which hasn’t caught on to the idea of showing. The author continually pops up to tell you stuff – which chemicals the body produces under stress, in one eyebrow-raising, and scientifically dubious instance. Point of view switches around frequently. On occasion we even see the action through the perspective of random policemen, or half-seen shop girls.
But in its preoccupations, the book actually felt very modern. In the wake of Origin of Species published forty years before, Dreiser uses Carrie’s story to explore evolutionary ideas applied to society. Carrie, a young woman from Wisconsin, moves to Chicago to try and make a better life for herself. We follow her efforts, living for a short period with dull relatives, conducting a relationship with two men, and falling into a career as an actress. Dreiser says at one point, with regard to his heroine’s struggle:
We have the consolation of knowing that evolution is ever in action, that the ideal is a light that cannot fail.
But don’t think this bold statement is Dreiser telling you how it is. Although he is a bit of a proclaimer, Dreiser’s proclamations are multifaceted. Often a consequence of telling rather than showing is loss of subtlety. A reader is told what to think rather than presented with a situation to explore for themselves. That’s not the case here. Dreiser looks at social and personal evolution from all angles, and allows you to draw your own conclusions. For example we see that Carrie’s new city life is in many ways a dark one, involving manufactured dissatisfaction, which forces people to continually chase material gain in an atmosphere of ruthless competition. And yet restlessness of spirit is not always portrayed as a bad thing. The boring relatives Carrie stays with on first reaching Chicago have no restlessness of spirit. That’s what makes them boring.
We then explore the ambivalent goals to which dissatisfied people aspire. People are better and happier when they have a goal to aim for. Leaving behind that stick-in-the mud sister and her zombie husband, Carrie flourishes when she discovers acting ambitions. Conversely, she also discovers that much-desired goals are less attractive in reality than in dreamy anticipation. This suggests the unfailing light of evolutionary development is not as unfailing as it seems. A brightly lit sign, advertising one of Carrie’s Broadway shows, switching off after show-time, might be a good analogy. You reach the destination you worked so hard to achieve, and find yourself not much further on.
An essay at the end of my Simon and Schuster Kindle edition, pointed out the importance of rocking chairs as an image in the book. People retreat to rocking chairs to reflect, in the aftermath of both triumph and disaster, or bewildering combinations of both. The rocking motion neatly describes moving back and forth between contradictions. Evolution is no simple journey to the light. Such a straightforward idea of progress is probably more in tune with the religious world-views that came before. The journey of evolution is presented as one of endless oscillation, which goes nowhere, continues endlessly, and yet on occasion still suggests peace.
So, this book presents a complex and modern scenario to explore in turn of the century America. I ended up really enjoying Sister Carrie.