Sister Carrie

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2008-07-01
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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Carrie Meeber leaves her home in rural Wisconsin for big-city life in Chicago, and faces a series of struggles -- professional, moral, and romantic -- before achieving success in the New York theater scene.THIS ENRICHED CLASSIC EDITION INCLUDES: A concise introduction that gives the reader important background information A chronology of the author's life and work A timeline of significant events that provides the book's historical context An outline of key themes and plot points to guide the reader's own interpretations Detailed explanatory notes Critical analysis, including contemporary and modern perspectives on the work Discussion questions to promote lively classroom and book group interaction A list of recommended related books and films to broaden the reader's experience

Table of Contents

Introduction Chronology of Theodore Dreiser's Life and Work Historical Context ofSister Carrie
Sister Carrie
The Magnet Attracting: A Waif Amid Forces
What Poverty Threatened: Of Granite and Brass
We Question of Fortune: Four-fifty a Week
The Spendings of Fancy: Facts Answer with Sneers
A Glittering Night Flower: The Use of a Name
The Machine and the Maiden: A Knight of Today
The Lure of the Material: Beauty Speaks for Itself
Intimations by Winter: An Ambassador Summoned
Convention's Own Tinderbox: The Eye That Is Green
The Counsel of Winter: Fortune's Ambassador Calls
The Persuasion of Fashion: Feeling Guards o'er Its Own
Of the Lamps of the Mansions: The Ambassador's Plea
His Credentials Accepted: A Babel of Tongues
With Eyes and Not Seeing: One Influence Wanes
The Irk of the Old Ties: The Magic of Youth
A Witless Aladdin: The Gate to the World
A Glimpse through the Gateway: Hope Lightens the Eye
Just over the Border: A Hail and Farewell
An Hour in Elf Land: A Clamor Half Heard
The Lure of the Spirit: The Flesh in Pursuit
The Lure of the Spirit: The Flesh in Pursuit
The Blaze of the Tinder: Flesh Wars With the Flesh
A Spirit in Travail: One Rung Put Behind
Ashes of Tinder: A Face at the Window
Ashes of Tinder: The Loosing of Stays
The Ambassador Fallen: A Search for the Gate
When Waters Engulf Us We Reach for a Star
A Pilgrim, an Outlaw: The Spirit Detained
The Solace of Travel: The Boats of the Sea
The Kingdom of Greatness: The Pilgrim Adream
A Pet of Good Fortune: Broadway Flaunts Its Joys
The Feast of Belshazzar: A Seer to Translate
Without the Walled City: The Slope of the Years
The Grind of the Millstones: A Sample of Chaff
The Passing of Effort: The Visage of Care
A Grim Retrogression: The Phantom of Chance
The Spirit Awakens: New Search for the Gate
In Elf Land Disporting: The Grim World Without
Of Lights and of Shadows: The Parting of Worlds
A Public Dissension: A Final Appeal
The Strike
A Touch of Spring:The Empty Shell
The World Turns Flatterer: An Eye in the Dark
And This Is Not Elf Land: What Gold Will Not Buy
Curious Shifts of the Poor
Stirring Troubled Waters
The Way of the Beaten: A Harp in the Wind Notes
Interpretive Notes
Critical Excerpts Questions for Discussion
Suggestions for the Interested Reader
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.


Sister Carrie:
A Dramatic Story of Real Life Choices

A young woman takes the train to Chicago in search of workv in 1889, thus setting in motion a chain of events that will lead her to fame and fortune in New York's glittering theater world. While the plot ofSister Carriemay sound like a fairy tale, Theodore Dreiser was actually trying to write a work of literary realism. He filled the pages of the novel, first published in 1900, with the harsh details of everyday life, and generated controversy for the veiled but potent depiction of Carrie's sexual experiences with the dapper traveling salesman and the "respectable" saloon manager, who both try to seduce her.

The story of Dreiser's Carrie resembles that of the melodramatic "damsel in distress," especially when she realizes that sin may be her only option for survival. And yet there was one aspect of melodrama that Dreiser purposely left out ofSister Carrie: Carrie neither agonizes over her choices, norexpresses regret for her actions. In fact, at times it seems she is not even aware that she is acting badly. Dreiser emphasizes that Carrie acts as she does simply because she wants to be comfortable. Perhaps even more scandalously, Dreiser's novel implies that most people, if faced with the same choices Carrie faces, would do exactly the same.

It was a shocking message. Americans had read tales of "fallen women" before, but they were hesitant to embrace fiction that showed people acting immorally without any kind of consequence. (Consider that, up until the mid-1960s, films made in the United State were governed by a production code requiring films to portray immoral behavior with a tone of disapproval, emphasizing its undesirability.) Fueled by his background as an urban reporter, Dreiser felt that literature that bound itself to upholding moral standards was dissatisfying. He wroteSister Carrieto defy such standards and to offer readers a glimpse of how Americans living and toiling in the rapidly expanding urban industrial centers really lived. Inspired by the true-life story of his own sister, Emma Dreiser, who had made Chicago headlines when she ran away with a married man, Dreiser wroteSister Carrieto make a statement about what literature was for.

Though realism was becoming more popular as a style at the time, Dreiser's particular version of realistic fiction initially won few fans. Aware that he might have trouble finding a publisher, Dreiser cut his manuscript substantially, following the suggestions of a well-meaning friend and editor, Arthur Henry. Even so, the press that agreed to print the novel later tried to recant its offer. Though an agreement was reached, the publisher released only a limited number of copies, fearing scandal. In recent years, literary scholars have attempted to restore the text to its original condition, publishing "unexpurgated" editions. The edition included here, however, shows what readers found when they opened the novel in 1900, and what Dreiser himself continued to reissue during his lifetime. It is a text that both reflects and challenges the standards of a turn-of-the-century audience.

The Life and Work of Theodore Dreiser

Dreiser came to his career as a novelist slowly. The child of a German-Catholic immigrant father and a German-American mother, Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1871. He grew up in a large family that struggled with poverty and drifted apart, moving in and out of the booming city of Chicago. Dreiser's older sisters had affairs and out-of-wedlock children that would inspire the stories of "immoral" women in the author's later work. After dropping out of school, he slowly found his way to work as a reporter, taking jobs with newspapers in Chicago, St. Louis, Toledo, Pittsburgh, and finally New York, where he became interested in documenting the kind of urban poverty his own family had endured. Dreiser would later reflect that reading the philosophy of evolution-oriented Herbert Spencer at a Pittsburgh public library in 1894 shattered the Catholic ideals with which he had been raised, creating his interest in writing literature that examined what, if not God, accounted for human action and social development. Though often inspired by true-life events, his work was not portraiture but instead dramatization that considered fundamental questions about human behavior.

The failure ofSister Carrieupon its initial publication proved emotionally devastating for Dreiser. Despite the support of his wife, Sara White, who had helped him to edit the novel, Dreiser sank into a depression. His older brother Paul, who took the last name "Dresser" during his rise to fame as a popular songwriter, gave Dreiser the money to stay at a sanatorium, where he recovered his health. For a while, he tried to earn his living by catering to more popular taste, taking on work as an editor and writer for popular publications. He and his wife separated, and Dreiser took part in a number of scandalous affairs, including one that cost him a lucrative job as an editor at a publishing company.

This ended up being the push he needed to reinitiate his work in fiction, and before his death in 1945, he would write seven more novels. The first of these,Jennie Gerhardt, was published in 1911, eleven years afterSister Carrie. It drew from another sister's experiences, taking as its subject a young woman who has borne the illegitimate child of a prominent man. Dreiser's later novels, including the wellknownAn American Tragedy(1925), continued to employ provocative story lines, and his work was often the target of obscenity charges. Sympathetic to the plight of the working class in which he was raised, Dreiser joined the Communist Party shortly before his death. His work grew in stature, and he died a famous writer.

Historical and Literary Context ofSister Carrie

Toward an Urban Consumer Society

Readers see the impact of Chicago's and New York's modernization inSister Carriethrough Carrie's adjustment from small-town life to the fast pace of a big city. She suffers through an intense job search, hoping to find work that will enable her to afford the material temptations she discovers on the shelves of a new American institution: the department store. Americans of this era were, like Carrie, severing their ties to a "homemade" agrarian past, becoming instead consumers in an industrial economy and experiencing what Dreiser calls the "drag of desire" for mass-produced goods.

Both Carrie's temptations and her limited ability to satisfy her desires testify to the particular circumstances faced by a young single woman during this era of change. While Carrie is able to find factory work upon her arrival in Chicago, it is worth noting that women gained access into unsafe and hostile factory workplaces precisely because they could be paid less than men. They had little choice but to accept such conditions: they might hope for life as a wife and mother, but this is an option in which Carrie, having observed her older sister's experiences, is quick to see limitations. And many women, such as those who had recently immigrated to the United States, as well as African Americans, expected to toil for pay as well as in the home, regardless of their marital status. For women who could not secure even low-paying factory work, prostitution served as a last resort.

The urban life that dazzles Carrie, with its horse-drawn streetcars and dressed-up theatergoers, may seem quaint or old-fashioned to readers today. But Dreiser's contemporaries likely viewed his urban settings as seedy and threatening, a reputation upheld by other writers in this era. Ten years beforeSister Carriewas published, Jacob Riis published his shocking collection of documentary photographs of immigrants to New York,How the Other Half Lives. Stephen Crane'sMaggie: A Girl of the Streets, published under a pseudonym and amid controversy in 1893, also portrayed gritty urban life, examining in particular its consequences for women. Dreiser took the portrayal of the city's underside in a slightly different direction, toward the consciousness of the people who lived there, without moral judgment or pleadings for sympathy.

History-oriented readers ofSister Carriewill likely note that Dreiser's urban settings are the very ones that attracted Progressive reformers like Jane Addams, who sought to remedy the harsh conditions of urban life through exposing political corruption, enacting protective labor legislation, or creating reform homes for "wayward" women. And those familiar with the women's rights movement of the era will see in Carrie's limited options the incentives for the Suffrage Amendment, for which women labored until it finally passed in 1920. But Dreiser's work can be better understood as a tribute to the common people of this era of change, rather than a rallying cry on their behalf.


Dreiser's approach to writing has rightfully earned him a place in the school of American naturalism. This style emerged in the United States in the late 1800s, inspired by French realism, and placed an emphasis on a depiction of life as a natural process. Some writers, such as Jack London, took this style in the direction of "wilderness tales" aimed at showing man's place within the basest laws of nature. Others, like Stephen Crane and Frank Norris, extended the laws of the animal kingdom to an urban setting.

A simple characterization of naturalistic literature is that it attempts to demonstrate "survival of the fittest," a phrase coined by philosopher Herbert Spencer (who was much admired by Dreiser) and associated with evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin. Like "Social Darwinists," who justified cutthroat business competition with the theory of evolution, literary naturalists applied the theory to the contemporary urban world.Sister Carrie, however, focuses less on animalistic survival strategies than on a consideration of how the natural, random forces of the universe may impact humans more than the ideal of civilization praised so highly by Victorian writers. Dreiser hoped simply to explore such randomness, while other naturalistic writers took a more political approach. Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel,The Jungle, for example, protested conditions faced by the immigrant workers in Chicago's meatpacking plants. Dreiser avoided such direct preaching; in fact, didactic literature, which perpetuates old-fashioned morality even when its characters stray from it, formed the precedent he most hoped to break.

Dreiser also shared his literary era with a tradition of women's fiction in which writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, and Edith Wharton sought to create "whole" women characters whose situations inspired examination of gender inequality. The plot ofSister Carrieallows for such feminist analysis but doesn't necessarily invite it. Indeed, Dreiser's asides about "the nature of women," sprinkled throughout the novel, illustrate his comfort with confining women like Carrie to a secondary sphere. Her eventual success in the theater does not liberate her; in fact, in some respects, Dreiser's portrayal of Carrie reinforced nineteenth-century assumptions about women's need for protection.

In his acceptance of such gender roles, Dreiser may be considered old-fashioned. And yet he broke new ground, rebelling against the kind of sentimental, melodramatic novels and plays that Carrie reads and acts in over the course of the novel: no one is "rescued" here, and no one is damned. In this shying away from moralism,Sister Carriemay be best understood as a novel about change and the tensions it unleashes, both in everyday life and in the world of literature.Supplementary materials copyright © 2008 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Excerpted from Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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