The Concept of Home in The Ambassadors and Sister Carrie
Ambassadorship is a field which utilizes the skills of diplomacy and promotes understanding among nations and peoples. Embedded in ambassadorship is tact with regard to human relations which involves mediation and problem-resolution techniques. Collaborative politics is indispensable to functioning well in the capacity to represent not only of another entity, but also to forward specific goals and objectives. In order to have an impact, an ambassador has to groom proficient communication and observation skills, while possessing a competence to easily assimilate or adapt in another climate and culture. Being an effective ambassador also means retaining one’s loyalty to the homeland, although occupying a difference space. In Henry James’ “Ambassadors” (1903), the protagonist, Lewis Strether is an American chosen to act as Mrs. Newsome’s proxy in some family business. For some reason, Chadwick loses the will to return to America and to his mother, Mrs. Newsome. He has to use his powers of persuasion to urge the American-born Chadwick Newsome vacationing in Europe to return home. The concept of home is key in The Ambassadors and Sister Carrie since each character espouses a different view on home. Home can either be one’s place of nativity, a fixed abode, or a place of rest and comfort. Because of the process of maturity, love of travel, and the desire to settle with one’s own family, people chose to migrate and eventually live in a new place than formerly.
Usually, home is a place in which one’s feels at ease and happy. This view of home becomes more and more popular among characters who migrate and settle in a new area. Strether himself, the appointed American ambassador to Europe affirms that he “feels more and more at home” (James 34). Happiness shared is also an integral component of what makes a home atmosphere. Chadwick was unhappy at his original home in America. As Strather observes Chadwick, he sees a man transformed by personal fulfillment and happiness, even happier than he. Soon, The Ambassador is desirous of partaking in the happiness of the American emigre. The American Dream is also a promised land of toil and hardship, yet hold out the hope of an improved lifestyle. The United States is the land of freedom and opportunity where all are in the pursuit of happiness. All Americans are the predecessors of immigrants, boasting a proud nation of ancestors which built a nation through their daring to explore another land. As an American, Chadwick exports the heritage of Americanness to Europe-the quest for happiness and love of adventure. Strether discovers soon that America is not the only land founded on the pursuit of happiness since in Europe, Chadwick pursues and finds happiness in culture and in the woman, Madame Marie de Vionnet. The irony is that Americans rediscover happiness in another land, even The Ambassador, Strether. While in Paris, Strather and Ms. Gosfrey who are Americans, feel at home. James describes vividly that “the circle in which they stood together was warm with life, and every question between them would live as nowhere else (James 2008). Home evokes images of a world of domestic bliss and even a utopia. Furbished with many comforts and amenities, homes can either be fashionably luxurious or spare – nevertheless the true essence of a home lies not with the fixtures or appearance but in the people who live with one another. Equally, Theodore Dreiser in his book, Sister Carrie, attests that “a lovely home atmosphere is one of the flowers of the world, than which there is nothing more tender, nothing more delicate” (Dreiser 1998). Carrie, the protagonist is in quest of a home since she cannot fine true happiness in the rural area where she was born. Here, Carries begins the realize the treasure of that place called home.
Home is a place for family. The eternal difference between a house and a home is family. What gives a home identity is the people who live therein. It would be impossible for Chadwick to merely change his location to establish a new home, the people in Chadwick’s life had to change as well. Chadwick does not feel appreciated at his home in America where his mother attempts to control his life. His new home in Europe bears striking contrast to his home in America for he rears up a new family consisting of Madame Marie de Vionnet and her daughter. As the man of the house and apart from his American family, he feels independent and experiences a higher level of personal contentment. Within the family is the key ingredient – love. Madame Marie de Vionnet confesses that both she and her daughter, “love him (Chadwick) here. He’s charming” (James 2008). The trio is bound by a tie of love which unites them as family and members of a home. Conversely, in America, Chadwick has no living record of motherly affection nor feels genuine love-only restraint. Dreiser in Sister Carrie observes that in Hedgewood “there was in him no feeling of affection which could bind him to his wife and children” (Dreiser 1998). Home life for his character has become destitute to the point that he seeks fulfillment elsewhere. Family is non-existent so although he possesses a luxurious house, it is not a home. Also, Carrie tells her friend that she could not get along with her family since they “always want me to do what they want” (Dreiser 1998). When a home begins to assume the character of a prison in which members are bound, they would seek to find comfort elsewhere, like Chadwick does.
Ms. Gosfrey preserves her identity as American and asserts that as an American she “bears on (her) back the huge load of our national consciousness or in other words …our nation itself” (James 2008). Here, Ms. Gosfrey verbalizes her opinion that being American does not necessarily root one forever to one’s homeland. She sees herself as an ambassador and representative, although not on home soil. Like millions before her, she visits Europe and becomes enthralled, choosing to stay for a while. At the same time, like Europe, America stands as a place which welcomes visitors or immigrants, opening to them the possibility of naturalization so that they can be registered citizens. America is the melting pot of diverse cultures. People of foreign lands arrive and make new homes in America primarily to attain a better standard of living for themselves and their families. The national consciousness to which Ms. Gosfrey alludes is diversity, freedom and equality. These nationalistic philosophies concept form the base of her statement. America becomes the mother country to which every one of her children pays due allegiance. Offering citizens land, bread and protection, American functions as a haven for the masses seeking comfort. America is defined as a home for the afflicted and a fortress for those fleeing misery, religio-political upheavals or personal adversity.
Home is a place of pleasure where one can live out the ideal, Carpe Diem or Seize the day. The theme of truly living is one of the foundations of The Ambassador. Being able to live a full and unhindered life is the goal of Chadwick, Jim and Strether. Jim declares that he “wants to come right out here and live here myself. And (he) wants to live while … here too (James 2008). Home lacks essence if one cannot be self-actualized as an individual. This disparity opens the gap between taking advantage of lands of opportunity or remaining discontented in substandard circumstances. Lands that offer better opportunity gradually become home. Sister Carrie paints a female character dissatisfied with the offerings of the country. She is anxious to seize the day and take control of her own life and nothing says independence and pleasure more like the urban area. (Carrie) was perfectly certain that here was happiness. The author shows the reader Carrie in a well-decked and furnished home where Carrie is confident that she will finally realize her dream of being happy.
Home is a familiar place. Because home represents a familiar sphere or known world, one can confidently deduce that there lies an unknown world, filled with novelties. America and Europe share links with one another, yet stand apart as separate entities. The inhabitants of each space occupy different worlds and share different worldviews. The novel derives its title, The Ambassador, because the home assumes not only physical space but also brings in its train unwelcome situations with which the characters are desirous of escaping. Chadwick longs to have a different experience because of his the blandness of familiarity at home in America, his longing to explore the new and unknown and also his discomfort in his own native home in America. On the other hand, James characterizes Madame Marie de Vionnet, Chadwick’s girlfriend, as a woman who “was not a wandering alien…but one of the familiar, the intimate, the fortunate” (James 2008). Since he becomes familiar with her, with her becomes his new home in Paris, France. In the same vein, Strather becomes familiar and exposed himself to enough European culture to appreciate the strange and accept it as his own. In Sister Carrie, Carrie has to leave the familiar environment of home to launch out and make a living for herself. She ruptures “the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home (as they) were irretrievably broken (Dreiser 1998). Leaving her birthplace is a big but necessary decision to grow, mature and experience life to a fuller degree in the city, rather than in the countryside.
In conclusion, one perceives varied concepts on home, each concept giving clarification concerning the purpose of a home. In The Ambassador, each person’s home is formed by the background, views, choices, experience and individuality. As one progresses through time, the home changes dimensions for circumstances never remain constant. The home contains surroundings, shelters people, inspires opinions, and accommodates vital institutions such as the family. Hence, the home continues to play important roles in shaping the life and worlds of characters.
James, Henry. The Ambassadors, Arc Manor LLC, Serenity Publishers, Maryland, USA, 2008
Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. The Pennsylvania Edition. University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania, USA, 1998.
The Value of Reputation in Dreiser’s Materialist America
In his novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser’s portrait of American materialism coincides with his characters’ values as they strive to promote their images. Critics of Sister Carrie often point out the inadequate human relationships Dreiser forms; however, perhaps Dreiser chooses not to focus on individuals directly talking to one another, but instead, he devotes attention to how people talk about one another. Dreiser’s characters constantly construct biases toward other characters based on speculative gossip, accentuated by class discrepancies. For example, Julia Hurstwood, insecure about her crumbling marriage, perhaps finds solace in gossiping with her daughter about families with less money than her own. Even a minor character like Drouet’s chambermaid attempts to socially progress as she recognizes Drouet’s support for Carrie and dismantles their relationship through gossip. Moreover, Dreiser reveals the increasing importance of newspapers and free press in America; specifically, Hurstwood takes substantial measures to avoid scandal whereas Carrie obsesses about the publicity she receives for her acting career. Yet, the gossip that characters thrust upon others stems from the deluded thinking that an individual’s reputation outweighs all else in determining class hierarchy, enforcing America’s materialist values. Dreiser’s portrayal of the Hurstwood family dinner suggests the treatment of reputation as a materialist concept as the family discusses other families’ fortunes and misfortunes. George Hurstwood Jr. announces his intention to visit a nearby resort and see his friend’s new steam launch. His statement prompts economic discussion raised by his parents who probe the Fahrway’s financial situation and offer insights. George says the new steam launch costs “over two thousand dollars” (79), and he learns from his friend Jack that the Fahrway’s medicinal shipping industry now expands to Australia and Cape Town. George’s gossipy hearsay promotes the Fahrway’s image. In effort to spite the Fahrway’s social climb, Mrs. Hurstwood bitterly discloses the Fahrway’s past as she exclaims, “Just think of that! And only four years ago they had that basement in Madison Street” (79). Mrs. Hurstwood’s remark has no essentially applicability to what George discusses, yet she introduces it as a means of condemning the Fahrway family and elevating her own. While the Fahrway’s overseas expansion incites awe from George’s awe, it likely incites jealousy from Mrs. Hurstwood since the Fahrways are evidently wealthier than the Hurstwoods. Of course, Mrs. Hurstwood also seizes the chance to put down the less wealthy Griswold family as soon as her daughter Jessica raises concerns over Martha Griswold’s dramatic skills. Mrs. Hurstwood questions, “Her family doesn’t amount to anything, does it? They haven’t anything, have they?” (80). Mrs. Hurstwood’s rude questions hint not only at Martha’s alleged lack of talent but more significantly, at the Griswolds financial situation. In turn, Jessica compares the Griswolds to church mice, complementing Mrs. Hurstwood’s intent to slander. Mrs. Hurstwood’s bias likely stems from her subconscious thinking that putting down others by gossiping about them will somehow make her feel more secure about her own family and materialist lifestyle. Perhaps she deludes herself into thinking that she can protect her reputation by gossiping about other families, but Dreiser later overturns this attitude as her husband creates a scandal, marring her reputation. As Dreiser’s protagonist Carrie makes her way into society, she, too, begins to recognize the value of one’s reputation. Also, Carrie’s outlook on gossip evolves quickly throughout the novel, for she first rejects the banter that occurs amongst the factory girls. On her first day, she hears the other girls gossiping lightly about men, but Carrie concentrates only on her work and feels “there [is] something hard and low about it all” (38). She also notes feeling more imaginative than the girls’ due to their lighthearted gossip as if she elevates herself above them. Ironically, Carrie cannot escape the material worth of one’s image and the gossip that follows it, affirming Dreiser’s critique on America. She moves into an apartment with Drouet and befriends her neighbor Mrs. Hale whose “gossip…[forms] the medium through which [Carrie] sees the world” (94). Carrie evidently now joins Mrs. Hurstwood in perceiving others and constructing biases based on the gossip she hears. Dreiser now exposes gossip as a means of discussing others’ behaviors and the need to either condemn or copy those behaviors as he writes, “Such trivialities, such praises of wealth, such conventional expression of morals [sift] through [Carrie’s] mind” (94). And, in this regard, Carrie learns to imitate others so as to know what is conventional and project such conventions onto others, advocating her image. Carrie may seek to feel secure about her image, just as Mrs. Hurstwood wishes not to be talked about in a negative light, but Carrie’s role as the fallen woman of the novel certainly invites gossip. For example, Mrs. Hale watches Carrie come home one evening from her upper window and thinks to herself, “[Carrie] goes riding with another man when her husband is out of the city. He had better keep an eye on her” (119). Of course, Dreiser foreshadows Drouet’s negligence in that Drouet will lose Carrie, but Mrs. Hale adds to the critique of reputational interests in that she previously gossips with Carrie and now could potentially gossip about her. Mrs. Hale witnesses Carrie’s affair inclusively, however, with Drouet’s housemaid who, hopeful for Drouet’s affection, utilizes her bias against Carrie in an effort to socially progress. The housemaid has no name; Dreiser argues that even an unnamed character within his story can damage another’s reputation and attempt to elevate his or her own. Yet, she gossips to the cook about Carrie’s affair because she despises Carrie and pities Drouet, and consequently, “a hum of gossip [is] set going which [moves] about the house in that secret manner common to gossip” (119). Several chapters later, Dreiser exposes the ill-mannered intentions of the housemaid who thinks Carrie and Drouet are married. Carrie leaves to meet Hurstwood, and Drouet returns to the apartment looking for her. He questions the housemaid and then flirtingly chats with her, admiring her ring. She casually asks about Hurstwood and then reveals that he visited Carrie “a dozen times” (177) while Drouet traveled. She even delights in gossiping, smiling as she says, “That’s all you know about it” after Drouet counters her claim. Dreiser describes the housemaid as a “mischievous newsmonger,” suggesting her intentions as a social climber. Again, the housemaid puts down Carrie and feels more comfortable with her reputation as she grows closer to Drouet by disclosing information. Drouet continues to deny her gossip until she fools with “with an air of one who [does] not intentionally mean to create trouble” and says, “He came lots of times. I thought you knew” (178). The housemaid’s motives later create a rife in Drouet and Carrie’s relationship; Dreiser shows that even though Carrie’s business does not concern the morally questionable housemaid, the housemaid seizes the chance to appeal to Drouet, potentially gaining his affection and a place in society. Hurstwood articulates the consequences of unfavorable publicity as evidenced by his efforts to cover up his scandals. Even before initiating the affair with Carrie, Hurstwood knows that he might lose his jobs over any scandal, and he takes measures to keep his matters “circumspect” by visiting “conventional places [and] doing conventional things” in public (81). Dreiser says that, “[Hurstwood loses] sympathy for the man that made a mistake and was found out” (82), which foreshadows Hurstwood’s commitment to keeping away negative press coverage. When his wife seriously threatens to hire a divorce attorney and a private investigator, Hurstwood’s primary concern is, “How [will] the papers talk about it?” (207). He knows that he will lose his job if the newspaper mentions his wrongdoing, so he complies with his wife’s demands. Moreover, after he flees to Montreal with the stolen money and Carrie, he anxiously checks the morning papers to find that “very little [is] given to his crime, but it [is] there, several ‘sticks’ in all, among all the riffraff of telegraphed murders, accidents, marriages, and other news” (253). The fear of being caught and having his name tarnished by the press drives Hurstwood to send the money back to Fitzgerald and Moy. Hurstwood keeps his scandals from newspaper, showing that he thinks of his reputation as a materialistic possession. While Hurstwood avoids media attention, Carrie indulges it after breaking from Hurstwood and becoming an actress on her own. She knows that a favorable representation by the press can strengthen her position as an actress, and through this bias she desperately seeks to be written about. Her friend Lola introduces her to several gossipy theatre tabloids, and gradually, Carrie “[longs] to be renowned like others, and read with avidity all the complimentary or critical comments [make] concerning others high in her profession” (390). Carrie receives a speaking part in a play after the original actress quits, and soon after, she finds her expectation fulfilled as one newspaper describes her as “one of the cleverest members of the chorus” (391). Soon after, Carrie earns more media spotlight, and one newspaper even publishes her picture. In a sense, Carrie comes full circle with gossip in that she recovers from being talked about by the housemaid and gains a favorable reputation by theatre critics. Of course, Dreiser adds irony to this dynamic in that the papers know Carrie by her stage name Carrie Madenda. Carrie Meeber never accrues the attention she seeks. Indeed, while Carrie Drouet’s behavior unsettles the housemaid and Mrs. Hale, Carrie Madenda’s performance pleases the press, and Carrie’s reputational interests disable her from embracing her true name and fulfilling her dream. As gossip pervades Sister Carrie, Dreiser examines a key force that drives individuals. Americans of the era seem to consider reputation in a materialistic fashion, constantly seeking to either bolster or defend their names. Dreiser’s characters who engage in gossip have varying intentions, but they all share the view that one’s reputation is a principle determinant in America’s class system. Dreiser proves that the fixation about class hierarchy propagates gossip and fuels biases, keeping characters from recognizing their own interiorities and achieving their American dreams.
Dreiser’s New Woman and the American Dream
In the late 19th century, young women began to renounce the rigid gender roles of the Victorian era, dissociating themselves from the inflexible differentiations of domestic and public spheres, and ultimately from notions of maternity. Countless young women arrived daily at the train stations of the huge cities, each of them cut off from their families, striving for their personal fortunes, seeking material bliss and a satisfied life in seemingly auspicious environments. Popularly labeled the “woman adrift”, as she was described in Joanne Meyerowitz’s work, or, as in the latest scholarly work, the “new woman”, however, was unable to rise from rags to riches, and often enough had to dwell in poor living conditions (xvii). The American Dream thus remained just another grand myth that arose with the emergence of the consumer society. Theodore Dreiser’s debut novel Sister Carrie, published in 1900, closely follows the aforementioned development and elaborates on the image of the independent and liberated “new woman”. Yet Dreiser’s depiction does not remain one-dimensional; it centers not only on Carrie and her immoral struggle for material wealth but also develops into a threefold illustration of the liberated female. Apart from Dreiser’s flat and quite objectionable protagonist Carrie, he also presents the subculture of the vast majority of the rather hapless sweatshop girls, and, in the second third of the novel, with Mrs. Hurstwood a compellingly liberated wife who — with the unconscious support of the femme fatale Carrie — jostles her unfaithful husband into a “crisis of masculinity” (Gammel 77). In the course of his novel, Dreiser critically discusses the perception of the “woman adrift”, rejects the apparent social dominance of the male gender, and demonstrates the fatal meander of immorality and insatiable desire. With the introduction of the novel’s protagonist Carrie, Dreiser presents a notorious depiction of the liberated young woman, which caused contemporary critics and readers alike to object. For how could a writer dare to narrate the seemingly successful story of the American Dream, achieved by an immoral, sexualizing female who lacks a genuine personality? Yet Dreiser makes no secret of the materialistic success of Carrie, his cunning, imitative “new woman” that has utterly yielded to the city’s “cunning wiles” (SC 1), falls victim to the consumer society, and lives a life of desire and falsehood. Despite all the obvious critique, Dreiser remains relatively passive in his judgment, since his protagonist prospers and evolves into a remarkable figure of New York’s fictional society; Carrie becomes financially independent due to her ingenious abilities of imitation, and not because of an extraordinary intellect. Having unknowingly exploited and eventually destroyed one of her wealthy lovers, Carrie’s insatiable desire ultimately threatens to devour her. Upon meeting Dreiser’s almost surreal idealist Ames, a sudden awareness of life’s non-tangible, non-material things is evoked in Carrie, pervading her mind with psychological emptiness. “Know then”, Dreiser begins his farewell to the melancholic and depressed Carrie, “that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone […], shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel” (SC 487). For Dreiser, only the honest and hard working “women adrift”, to be sure, are able to achieve happiness in life, whereas they will almost certainly fail to attain Carrie’s material bliss. Living the American Dream, Dreiser suggests herewith, is therefore reduced to bodily satisfaction — and will never produce emotional delight. Directly juxtaposed to Carrie — and somewhat closely related — stand Chicago’s sweatshop girls, the vast majority of the “women adrift”, who possess nothing material, yet are so much richer. Working hard under miserable conditions, tremendously poor, and “[conforming] to the discipline of machinery” (Fleissner 16), they represent everything Carrie is not. With this confrontation of the two unequal societal forces, Dreiser explicitly scrutinizes the myth of the American Dream. For these liberated, laboring young women scarcely have the chance of achieving materialistic wealth, and will, like so many others, lead a life of poverty at the social bottom line. Peculiarly, Carrie is aware of these poor girls to whose group she once belonged: “She knew that out in Chicago this very day the same factory chamber was full of poor, homely clad girls working in long lines at clattering machines; that at noon they would eat a miserable lunch in a half-hour; that Saturday they would gather, as they had when she was one of them, and accept the small pay for work a hundred times harder than she was now doing” (SC 441). Ultimately, there are quite a few reasons why the sweatshop girls will never succeed the way Carrie did: most notably, the majority of them lack Carrie’s abilities of imitation and adaption; also, they are not as susceptible to the consumer society’s “wiles” as Carrie is, and even if they are, they discard reluctant desires as delusions. Assembling these traits, the broad mass of Dreiser’s “new women” possess a much more genuine personality than Carrie’s, one loyal to the self, sustained by acquired virtues, religion, or the mere will to be a good person. These assumptions consolidate the considerations concerning Carrie’s flawed and fragmented identity, confirming that these different natures lead to highly diverse fates in life at the turn of the century, thus making Carrie the winner of the purely worldly Darwinist struggle in Dreiser’s naturalist universe, the sole female soul to experience the shady sides of the American Dream. Where does Mrs. Hurstwood, Dreiser’s third depiction of the liberated female gender, as wife and mother, fit in? Her image diverges quite a bit from the popularly used “woman adrift”, since she is introduced to the reader as a settled wife, mother of two in a wealthy household, and domestic sovereign of the Hurstwood household — thus as a woman already living the dream others strive for, yet dependent on her husband, who moves in the public, male sphere of society. It should be mentioned that unlike today, husbands committing adultery were commonly yet silently tolerated, since wives were financially and socially dependent on their sole source of income (Gammel 77). Yet she liberates herself from the rigid expectations, for when she discovers her husband’s affair, she counsels her lawyer, seeking divorce. As much as Mrs. Hurstwood seems to belong to the Victorian representation of the classical wife, she emancipates herself to a prototype for the modern liberated woman that no longer obeys the alleged dominant male. When one assumes that the notion of the American Dream is an idea somewhat associated with male power, Mrs. Hurstwood, in her liberating progress, delivers the first severe blow to the former idea, which is illustrated by the faltering George Hurstwood. After the following scene, the latter’s collapse is rendered imminent and inevitable: “I’m not dictating to you,” [Mrs. Hurstwood] returned; “I’m telling you what I want.” The answer was so cool, so rich in bravado, that somehow it took the wind out of his sails. He could not attack her, he could not ask her for proofs. Somehow he felt the evidence, law, the remembrance of all his property which she held in her name, to be shining in her glance. He was like a vessel, powerful and dangerous, but rolling and floundering without sail.” (SC 210)After his departure to New York — deprived of his wealth, his social position, and, probably most significant, his pride — George Hurstwood’s downfall becomes indeed fictional reality, and the once so dominant man turns into a helpless beggar, his appearance already implying a “loss of male power” (Gammel 49). Having been forcefully and inevitably pushed into the “crisis of masculinity” (77) by the “female city”, the “big social Darwinistic pond” New York (78), he finally puts an end to his life. Therefore, with this development, one can observe Dreiser’s liberated wife and his cunning “woman adrift” Carrie, although not cooperating at all, topple the male dominance, thus giving the grand myth of the American Dream new revolutionary, feminist ideas, loosening the rigid shackles of an exclusively male phenomenon. With naturalism’s new guiding forces of sexuality, human desire, determinism, and crucial psychological factors of life (Gammel 23), Dreiser unfolds a controversial tale about the questionable American “rags to riches” legend. Throughout the novel the novelist demonstrates how immoral behavior, sexualizing power, and constant insatiable desire — invoked by the city — enable the femme fatale to rise up to society’s upper social class, leaving broken men behind. Yet, thus Dreiser’s warning, the desire eventually devours her very self, and hence, it becomes palpable that contemporary romantic fiction’s idea , is not only dismissed, but reversed. Whereas Dreiser’s heroine materialistically triumphs on a questionable path, Chicago’s hard working sweatshop girls are depicted as suffering from intolerable working conditions, yet are superior to the former on a moral level. Another aspect represents the faltering male dominance that was initially associated with the American Dream; Mrs. Hurstwood, however, acts as a pivotal feminine force in the toppling of male hegemony.Works CitedDreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. New York: New American Library, 2000.Fleissner, Jennifer L. Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.Gammel, Irene. Sexualizing Power in Naturalism: Theodore Dreiser and Frederick Philip Grove. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1994.Meyerowitz, J. Joanne. Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.Sloane, David E.E. Sister Carrie: Theodore Dreiser’s Sociological Tragedy. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Sister Carrie: Finding Identity In the City
In Sister Carrie, the city is the narrator. It is the main focus of the book, and greatly impacts all those who are influenced by its magnitude. For some, it is a beacon of hope and a promised land of wealth and opportunity, while for others its walls close in more everyday as they fight the battle of poverty and the effects of being low to middle class. The city can make or break a person; it is truly a matter of survival of the fittest. The city will reveal a tragic flaw in a person, or it will be a foundation for extreme success. The city, with all its material prospects and consumer culture, is a combination of utopia and tragic disappointment, where the men who influence her make Carrie into a rags-to-riches success.In Chicago, Carrie feels the drag of desire upon her while looking for a job. She does not want to blend in with most people of the city, those who are plain and ordinary, but longs to stand out. She envies the clothing and fine material possessions that women of finer backgrounds flaunt and cannot bring herself to adapt to the fact that she is below them. This holds true even when she is a wage-seeker without anything. “To avoid a certain indefinable shame she felt at being caught spying for a position, she quickened her steps and assumed an air of indifference supposedly common to one upon an errand (17).” Working in the shoe factory she starts to become a product of her environment, truly disheartened and depressed by the women and mindless gossip that surrounds her. She finds the ordinary sweatshop life unbearable and knows the city life holds some other purpose for her.Carrie sells herself for twenty dollars to Drouet, whom she sees as an opportunity to advance her social status. Her desire for material pleasure overcomes her sense of morality, “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse (1).” It is the standard of the city that sets this precedent, and Carrie, longing to find identity through the cosmopolitan standard, is saved by men like Drouet and Hurstwood. She becomes a product of her environment by adapting the personality that Drouet wants for her and becomes a reflection of masculine desire. Carrie plays her roles convincingly before ever entering the stage life: from the beauty who men desire, to the woman who has no opinion other than that of material nature, to a mistress and wife. While losing her individuality, these roles help her form independence, a key element that will prepare her for thriving in city life. She follows orders because she knows she will get money and material goods out of it, which will make her stand out from the mundane while blending in with the higher class, and it is there that she will find her place.Once Carrie gets a taste of the better life, she becomes immune to the life she left behind. A homeless man pleads for change from Drouet for a place to sleep. Drout “handed over a dime with an upwelling feeling of pity in his heart. Hurstwood scarcely noticed the incident. Carrie quickly forgot (135).” This is the point of no return, her innocence gone, replaced by the wealth and fortune the city holds. “She realized…how much the city held—wealth, fashion, ease—every adornment for women (22)…” She compromises her moral integrity for this, which is partly the city’s fault for it keeps those who can afford it under a spell where morals matter not but where self-worth is measured in the Broadway shows one can afford to see, the clothes they can afford to buy, and the ability of money to speak powerfully. “Carrie had no excellent home principles fixed upon her, if she had, she would have been more consciously disturbed….under the influence of varied occurrences…the food, the still unusual luxury…she was again the victim of the city’s hypnotic influence (79.)”The consumer culture of a city can be deceptive and corrupt because one is truly defined and identified by their material possessions. This hypnotizing influence can cause apathy to anyone and anything with the exception of desire. Carrie is truly a product of her environment once she obtains a stage role making thirty-five dollars a week in the city of New York. She leaves behind Drouet, Hurstwood, and the rest of her life as she feels she is now above them and truly independent. She no longer relies on them to provide money, clothing or other material goods. Both Drouet and Hurstwood have created this monster of success by picking her up and making her their work of art. She survives and thrives in the city, while Hurstwood, forever changed and corrupt in the love he felt for Carrie, falls to his ultimate demise.The city is capable of fostering both beauty and destruction, but it is not capable of purity. Even in beauty there is sacrifice, in success there is suffering for someone who is affected by it. The city is the center of identity in all who live in it, for the rich are defined by their material goods and keeping up with the Jones’ attitude, while the poor curse their existence and cannot cope with the cruelty of the expense of living. Carrie explicates a touch of irony, for what she sees as great wealth in the men she meets is still mediocre, upper middle class at best. It is not necessarily talent that got Carrie to where she is at the end of the book, but chance, accident, and luck. The men who fostered her rise are destroyed by her in the end while Carrie becomes a product of pop-culture. But that’s just the way it is in the big city.
The Duality of Desire in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie
In Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser creates a world in which people are defined by desire. By viewing this world through the eyes of his protagonist, Carrie, the reader becomes aware of a dichotomy. On one hand, there is the desire for wealth, status, and material possessions. While the majority of the novel is dedicated to this kind of desire, there exists another kind of desire of “the mind that feels” (398), which longs for beauty. Most of the way through the novel, Carrie becomes increasingly aware of the superficiality of the former kind of desire, as well as the nobility of the latter, which she explores through her experience in acting. At the end of the novel, Dreiser praises Carrie for transcending the former kind of desire and embracing the latter, nobler kind of desire.When Carrie is taken in by Drouet, she is confronted with intermittent instances of moral misgivings about her situation. Dreiser writes: “[Carrie] looked into her glass and saw a prettier Carrie than she had seen before; she looked into her mindand saw a worse. Between these two images she wavered, hesitating which to believe” (74). When Carrie is alone, a voice says to her:Oh, thou failure!Look at those about. Look at those who are good. How would they scorn to do what you have done. Look at the good girls; how will they draw away from such as you when they know you have been weak. You had not tried before you failed. (75)These flashes of morality, which become virtually dormant for the majority of the book, reappear in the voice of Ames, who is extremely influential in helping Carrie shed away the desire for materials and focus on the desire for beauty.Carrie’s introduction to acting marks the beginning of her exposure to the positive kind of desire. However, at first she is only fond of acting because of the praise she gets; she is unaware of her potential to have a positive influence on the world. The following passage, in which Dreiser addresses the reader, is one of several which deals with Carrie as an actress. These passages serve as landmarks in Carrie’s realization of the better kind of desire:Carrie was possessed of that sympathetic, impressionable nature which, ever in the most developed form, has been the glory of the drama. She was created with that passivity of soul which is always the mirror of the active world. She possessed an innate taste for imitation and no small ability.And shortly after:In such feeble tendencies, be it known, such an outworking of desire to reproduce life, lies the basis of all dramatic art. (125-126).In this passage, Dreiser recognizes Carrie as a talented actress, capable of “reproducing life.” The importance of this ability is explained later by Ames.In her first meeting with Ames, Carrie begins to see the artificiality of the desire for material wealth in the following passage:”I shouldn’t care to be rich,” he told her, as the dinner proceeded and the supply of food warmed up his sympathies; “not rich enough to spend my money this way.””Oh wouldn’t you?” said Carrie, the, to her, new attitude forcing itself distinctly upon her for the first time.”No,” he said. “What good would it do? A man doesn’t need this sort of thing to be happy.”Carrie thought of this doubtfully; but, coming from him, it had weight with her. (257)This “new attitude” is one which explicitly denounces the desire for wealth and all things material. At this turning point, Carrie begins to see the wrongness of her desire of her adopting the “cosmopolitan standard of virtue” (1). Not only does she begin to see this, but she also begins to see the righteousness the pursuit of a better kind of desire, which she demonstrates in acting. Carrie is certainly on to this idea when she soon after asks of Ames, “Don’t you think it rather fine to be an actor?” (258). Ames’ approval is all that she needs to set her on the path to the good kind of desire. Dreiser indicates this dawning of awareness: “Through a fog of longing and conflicting desires she was beginning to see. Oh, ye legions of hope and pity of sorrow and pain! She was rocking, and beginning to see” (258).At this critical point in the novel, Dreiser begins the chiasmus of plot between Carrie and Hurstwood. Carrie, because of her growing awareness of the righteous path, starts on the rise, while Hurstwood, for opposing reasons, starts on his decline. The key idea in Dreiser’s analogy between a man’s material progress and his bodily growth is that once a man ceases to move forward, he begins to decay. Carrie does not decay because she does not cease to look forward. In fact, she is constantly longing for something which can never be achieved. However, it is this perpetual longing which keeps her in “youthful accretion” (259). On the contrary, Hurstwood never transcends the hollowness of the desires of the material world. He lives for himself, and subsequently, begins to decay. This passage is paralleled by one at the end of the novel, in which Ames advises Carrie on the evanescence of her gift for acting:You can lose it, you know. If you turn away from it and live to satisfy yourself alone, it will go fast enough. The look will leave your eyes. Your mouth will change. Your power to act will disappear. You may think they won’t, but they will. Nature takes care of that. (386)The first significant part of this passage is the matter about the danger of living to satisfy the self alone. This is precisely why Hurstwood does not rise as Carrie does. The other matter of significance is Ames’ comment that “Nature takes care of that.” Ames’ mentioning of Nature as an agent of fate is a direct reference to the passage in which Dreiser describes the scientific process of growth and decay, which, in Hurstwood’s case, results in a “sagging to the grave side” (259). When Hurstwood chooses not to go out on that wintry day and look for work, he stops looking for something more, and Nature takes over.The preceding paragraph is prefaced by one in which Ames tells Carrie how she has the power to voice the feelings of others. “The world is always struggling to express itself,” he tells her, and “Most people are not capable of voicing their feelings. They depend upon others” (385). Of her “sympathy” and “melodious voice,” he tells her to “make them valuable to others. It will make your powers endure.” This is Dreiser’s way of suggesting that to use one’s abilities valuable to others is the best way to preserve the self. Dreiser concludes the scene saying: “It was a long way to this better thing” (386). At this point Carrie realizes fully her duty in using her gift for expressing the desires of others. She realizes that to do so is a “better thing” than to live for herself and long for material possessions. While this kind of life seems “a long way” for Carrie, it is important to note that she strives for something which can never be attained. Just as the longing for status will never be satiated, “the blind strivings of the human heart” will never be ceased. But it is from the longing for that which cannot be attained that those of the minds that feel gain their pleasure.In Dreiser’s final pages, Carrie reflects on the futility of the first kind of desire: “Chicago, New York; Drouet, Hurstwood; the world of fashion and the world of stage these were but incidents. Not them, but that which they represented, she longed for. Time proved the representation false” (398). Shortly after, Dreiser writes a passage which refers back to the time when Carrie walked down Broadway with Mrs. Vance, desiring to be rich enough in wealth and status to be part of such a world. In this passage, however, Carrie has realizes the hollowness of such desire: “In her walks on Broadway, she no longer thought of the elegance of the creatures who passed her. Had they more of that peace and beauty which glimmered afar off, then were thy to be envied” (398). This is truly noble: no longer does Carrie envy other women for their clothes, their jewelry, or their collections of expensive possessions. Rather, “peace and beauty” are all that Carrie strives for.