Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser’s novel about the arrival and subsequent fate of Caroline Meeber, a young country girl in Chicago in 1889, marked a dramatic departure in American fiction. It was one of the first American novels to attempt to find an artistic form to confront the new realities of life in a country that was rapidly industrialising.
The post Civil War boom was transforming cities such Chicago, whose population doubled in the 1890s.
Just as in cities across China today, a voracious demand for labour drew not just large numbers of men to work in the expanding industry of rising cities but also young women. Carrie’s journey from a backwater town in rural Wisconsin to Chicago’s expanding metropolis was one thousands of young women were making.
And entry into the labour market – Carrie initially finds work in a shoe factory – in a vast city also meant new ways of living and new relationships. It is a world of possibility that clashes with the older morality that governed relationships, especially between men and women.
It is also a world where everything, and everyone, is being turned into a commodity and is available for sale. The very first thing we learn about Carrie is a careful inventory of the belongings she possesses as she takes the train to Chicago, including a “cheap imitation alligator skin satchel” and how much money she has in her purse. Commodities, or their absence, continually shape the characters’ (and the readers’) evaluations of those they encounter.
Carrie has affairs, first with a well-dressed travelling salesman for a Chicago manufacturing firm and then with an even wealthier manager of an upmarket saloon bar. Attracted by their wealth, they lead her into new worlds and new identities.
She eventually pursues an increasingly successful independent career as an actress that gradually transforms the terms of her relationship with her lover.
Dreiser also offers us glimpses of the harsh reality of life for millions of US workers that underpinned the new wealth of America’s booming “Gilded Age”.
So we see Carrie recoil at the unpleasantness of work in the shoe factory. We observe the dull routine of Carrie’s brother-in-law, a Swedish immigrant to America who works cleaning refrigerator cars in the meat-packing stockyards, the foundation of the city’s new prosperity.
We see Carrie’s second lover, Hurstwood, desperate as his money seeps away after he has left his wife, taking a job as a scab during a bitter strike by New York street car operators.
Sister Carrie marked a new level of realism in American fiction. Dreiser eschews simple moral lessons. Carrie’s “immoral” behaviour is not met with any sanctions or unpleasant consequences; indeed she prospers.
Sister Carrie inhabits a world neither she nor the other characters control. But now this is a world governed by chance and the vagaries of the market, not the moral laws of god.
This created something of a scandal over Sister Carrie. Dreiser’s publishers even tried to wriggle out of the contract to publish the book after they read the manuscript and it only sold a few hundred copies initially.
Thirty years later the American novelist Sinclair Lewis in his Nobel Prize speech could declare that Sister Carrie “came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman”.
Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser, First published in 1900.
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