Book #33-Sister Carrie by Theodore Dresier

After trudging through The Golden Bowl, I was distressed with the 575 pages before me with Sister Carrie.  I need not have been fearful as this was a sheer delight and much like my read of An American Tragedy, I was not at all tempted to miss so much as a single word.

As he did with An American Tragedy, Dresier pulled from his own experiences.  His own sister had run away with a married man who had stolen $3,500 similar to Hurstwood’s theft of $10,000 with Sister Carrie.  In that vain, the squalid  working conditions and gloomy life Carrie is living in the early part of the novel mimic Dreiser’s own life in that his family fell on hard times.  Dreiser also started out in Chicago working at menial positions as did Carrie.

My one disappointment with the book is that I felt Carrie’s character could have been a little more developed.  As the main character, I felt there must be more to her than was presented and was left feeling somewhat unsettled without any such distinctions.  There was even some wonder on my part that there could easily have been a follow up to Sister Carrie and I must confess that were it to be, I’d hope to see Carrie a little down on her luck.

Sister Carrie, aka Caroline Meeber, Carrie Madenda, and Carrie Wheeler, is the novel’s lead character.  The 18-year-old  leaves her home to live with her married sister in Chicago and is not at all happy with that arrangement as she is expected to work and contribute most of her earnings to her room and board.  What she had envisioned was a glamorous life donning the latest fashions and enjoying all the nightlife had to offer.  Sadly her ambitions don’t alter much as she suffers hard work, becomes a kept woman, is whisked off by a married thief, and finally sees her name in lights in New York city.

Chas Drouet is introduced as a “masher” who comes to Carrie’s aid when she first leaves her sister’s home.  He clothes and feeds her and sets her up in an apartment that he comes to when he returns from his many trips as a traveling salesman.  I’m not so sure he is the character one should like, but I found that I did.  Perhaps this is the result of some of the little tidbits we gather about him.   He is certainly compassionate towards Carrie, although he does garner the fruits of his kept woman.  His compassion reveals itself again when he, Carrie and Hurstwood are confronted by a beggar and only Drouet gives the man some money while the other two appear to not even notice this woebegone soul.

Hurstwood decides to leave his comfortable life, as well as his family, in Chicago and comes up with a ruse to get  Carrie to go off with him.  So used to a life without financial concerns, he arrives in New York ill prepared to provide for himself, let alone the self indulgent Carrie.  Even as the foul breath of poverty breathes upon him, he fails to acknowledge his situation.

I would just adore chatting with Mr. Dreiser.  Such a wonderful writer is most certainly a great raconteur.  I wonder at how interesting he could have penned the works of James Joyce and Henry James.


People do not grieve so much sometimes over their own state as we imagine.  They suffer, but they bear it manfully.  They are distressed, but it is about other things as a rule than their actual state at the moment.  We see, as we grieve for them, the whole detail of their blighted career, a vast confused imagery of mishaps covering years, much as we read a double decade of tragedy in a ten-hour novel.  The victim, meanwhile, for the single day or morrow, is not actually anguished.  He meets his unfolding fate by the minute and the hour as it comes.

People in general attach too much importance to words.  They are under the illusion that talking effects great results.  As a matter of fact, words are as a rule the shallowest portion of all the argument.  They but dimly represent the great surging feelings and desires which lie behind.  When the distraction of the tongue is removed, the heart listens.

A little success, like a little wisdom, is certainly a dangerous thing.

They are the men who are in the lodging house sitting rooms during bleak and bitter weather and who swarm about the cheaper shelters which only ope  at six in a number of the lower East Side streets.  Miserable food, ill-timed and greedily eaten, had played havoc with bone and muscle.  They were all pale, flabby, sunken-eyed, hollow-chested, with eyes that glinted and shone, and lips that were a sickly red by contrast.  Their hair was but half attended to, their ears anemic in hue, and their shoes broken in leather and run down at heel and toe.  They were of the class which simply floats and drifts, every wave of people washing up one as breakers do driftwood upon a stormy shore.

My rating for Sister Carrie is a 9 out of 10.

To see the entire list,  visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

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Next up, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.


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