A Controversial Theory of the American Dream in an American Tragedy and Sister Carrie
When it comes to those immigrating from places across the globe, America can bring a life full of opportunities and the foundation for one to build a life for themselves. The American Dream is, “the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative” (Merriam-Webster). These opportunities can vary from a job with good pay, a fundamental education, or a roof over one’s head. Without immigrants, the United States would not be the success it is today. Immigrants help increase our economy and enable the United States to have a sustainable employment system. Wealth is something we all desire to achieve, and this is one of the reasons why so many immigrants travel far and wide to come to the United States. Desiring wealth is virtuous to an extent, as some will go to drastic measures to achieve wealth, which can easily be a façade known as the “American dream.”
Theodore Dreiser is one of many American novelists who believe that this is the case. Theodore Dreiser was an American novelist who was a firm believer in naturalism. He wrote about social issues arising in America, such as poverty. He was raised into a family of poverty which caused him and his family to move between Indiana and Chicago to maintain a low-cost lifestyle. His family being deprived of materialistic wants inspired his works of literature. Sister Carrie demonstrates how the desire for materialism can manipulate an individual. ‘An American Tragedy shows how one’s guilt does not lessen an individual’s indictment of materialism’ (Hussman). In these two stories, the “American dream” is a cover-up for materialism to get in the way of someone’s life. In both works of literature, drastic measures are taken to prosper in the “American dream” of wealth and success. Theodore Dreiser demonstrates that the ‘American Dream’ is contradictory in An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie by developing characters that have materialistic and misguided lives that prevent them from conquering it.
Sister Carrie commences when eighteen-year-old Caroline Meeber takes a train to Chicago from Columbia City to begin a new life full of prosperity. While on the train, she meets Charlie Drouet, a member of the upper middle class. As he is checking her out, she discovers the courage to speak to him and she exchanges her phone number with him for his card. When she finally arrives in the colossal city of Chicago, she desperately looks for a job. She travels to multiple stores in the area asking if they have a job position available for her, and everyone tells her no. After a strenuous search, she finds a job in a shoe factory where she only earns $4.50 a week. In the 1800’s when Sister Carrie took place, there was an inequality between men and women. Men were treated with respect and dignity, and women were treated like objects that men could toy around with. Carrie is a victim of being subjected by a man, but goes along with it because of her “American dream.” She is unhappy beyond belief at her new job because she is only punching holes into pieces of leather. She cannot wrap her head around this American society that devalues women. This is also proven to be true when she hears women speaking about how great their weekends were on her second day of work. She also overhears that young men took them to expensive places throughout town. While she is confused how women can subject themselves to this kind of behavior, she is jealous because she wishes she had money to buy the materialistic things she desires. As winter comes around, Carrie lost her job because she became too ill to work and could not afford warmer clothing for the cold weather. The only way she could receive money was when she went out to eat with Drouet and he gave her $20. While she has a little gleam of hope, she thinks she must go back home because she is not getting anywhere in Chicago.
Carrie demonstrates that she has an unhealthy fascination with wealth. She is hypocritical because she was angered by the young women in the shoe factory speaking to young men in a certain way so they could get money from them, but realistically, the same thing was happening with her and Drouet. ‘Men treated her as a commodity because she already ‘sold’ herself to her employer, so men believed they could give her money for their needs’ (SparkNotes Editors). The American dream should have been route to freedom, but it is strenuous labor. She was miserable at her job at the shoe factory because she pondered about the things she could not afford, including the shoes she produced at her job. She often told her roommates, Hanson and Minnie, about how miserable she was at her job because she was not making much money. She realized she could not even afford car fare, which frustrated her. Now that she is seeing Drouet who is funding her stay in Chicago, Minnie and Hanson want Carrie to leave their apartment because she is “no longer representing an opportunity for profit” (SparkNotes Editors). At this point, she was so desperate for money that men, specifically Drouet, paid her for physical intimacy.
Carrie, still desperate for her “American dream,” moves in with Drouet and becomes his mistress in exchange for Drouet buying her clothes and taking her to a show. This is practically equal to modern-day prostitution, and the American dream she once longed for is gone because she sold and devalued herself. She meets Mrs. Hale who teaches her to “distinguish between degrees of wealth.” (SparkNotes Editors). This is because Carrie automatically assumes that a beautiful mansion filled with wealth also contains happiness, when this is simply not the case. Carrie’s misguided direction in life led her into making poor decisions for materialistic objects, such as putting her self-worth behind money. However, she met people comparable to her. Julia and Jessica lived comfortable lives, but they, like Carrie, were not satisfied with what life has given them. They were saddened by the fact that they could not travel to Europe for luxurious vacations in the summers. All three of these individuals had consumed themselves with the obsession of consumer society. Despite the amount of money that all three women have, they will never be content because there will always be more things that they cannot afford. Instead of feeling thankful for the things that they have that others might not have, they wallow in self-pity for not having the best of the best. Carrie did not dedicate herself to the “American dream,” and instead took the easy way out of it by selling her body. She is a prime example of being misguided, because even though she was doing wrong, no one bothered to correct her. Julia was no better, as her unhealthy desire to be in the upper-middle class of society led her to committing herself to an intimate life with her husband in exchange for this materialistic position.
Along with Carrie’s despicable acts of subjecting herself for money, she also leaves Drouet for Hurstwood because she believed Hurstwood was wealthier and had a higher social status. She portrays women as selfish objects throughout this story, because she travels from man after man for more money and “opportunities.” Carrie and Hurstwood’s relationship demonstrate that instead of Carrie having a feminine desire in a relationship, she had a desire for luxurious needs. When Hurstwood confessed his love for Carrie, she did not confess back because she did not love him for him, but for his money. Carrie lost her identity because she consumed herself with the inclination for ornate objects. The reasoning behind this common theme throughout the novel could be because of when it was written, but it still objectifies and undermines women regardless. Julia begged her husband for a season ticket for a race, but only wanted these tickets so she could flash her new wealth around town with her daughter, Jessica. Hurstwood is also in a “committed” marriage with Julia but sleeps with Carrie to fulfill his desires. While they were not the same desires that Carrie and Julia have, it is still a desire. Hurstwood abused his wealth for his physical needs, proving that he is also a misguided individual.
An American Tragedy also demonstrates an individual with a misguided life, causing them to act in a selfish and greedy manner. Clyde Griffith was misled in his early life, as ‘he grew up being rebellious, going against his family’s poverty, and dreaming of running away and having materialistic items’ (Delaney). He often spoke about ‘walls,’ which is irony in a sense because walls usually refer to being enclosed and isolated. However, Clyde refered to walls as the possibility of freedom in the future. When he became of age, he traveled to Kansas City and was offered a job as a bellhop in a luxurious hotel. On his first day of work, he was anxious and concerned that this was not something he was supposed to do, but knew he was on the correct path to achieve the American dream afterwards. Clyde’s parents were supportive of him working in this hotel, but are unaware of the negative effects it is having on him and his personality.
Clyde’s fascination with materialism becomes more prominent as the story progresses. He dreamt of receiving guidance from his rich uncle and had an odd desire to drive around town with attractive women. Hegglund spoke to Clyde about the importance of having a wealthy appearance. Proceeding with the idea that Clyde was not well-educated and had been misled during his early life, he followed in Hegglund’s footsteps even though he knew it was not wise of him to do this. His fortune made him begin to take advantage of women and become full of himself. He believed that he was superior to his co-workers, and this did not go unnoticed. He stated that he would rather not date a woman at all than date a woman who was not attractive, meaning that he believed that he was too good to have someone on the ‘same level’ as him. He was still aware that he was not as rich as he portrayed himself to be, but he was still determined to live a glamorous life.
Clyde demonstrated that materialism is more important than the American dream and his family when he commitd actions that he felt guilty for such as choosing his desires over his mother. His mother needed money, and instead of giving the money to his mother who had done nothing to wrong him, he spent the money on Hortense. Hortense was a woman whom he was interested in, and he hoped for his needs to be fulfilled in return for giving her money.
‘Clyde’s excessive sensibility was slowly beginning to devour him’ (Bucco). Clyde went on a road trip with Hortense and others and started to feel a need to be fulfilled. The actions he committed was more for the thrill of it than the act itself. He not only attempted to be with Hortense, but also rode in Sparser’s car without permission. He was beyond jealous of Sparser and Hortense getting to know each other, and kissed Hortense on the way home. He had no remorse for others, and instead, only cares about himself. His fortune brought a temporary rush and left permanent selfishness. He also showed his unconditional selfishness when Sparser crashed ‘his’ car and the first person Clyde thinks of is himself and he flees the scene. He did this in ‘hopes of deserting misery, punishment, and disappointment’ (Bucco).
After the ‘Kansas City fiasco, Clyde realized that his fortune depended on himself and his circumstances’ (Bucco). He was brought to the Union League Club where he met his rich uncle and quickly learned where his place was. He became aware that there were individuals richer than him, and that he was not all that. However, laborers in the club were jealous that Clyde was ‘full of class and connection” (Bucco), when that was just the way he attempted to portray himself. He decided to leave the Kansas City lifestyle to move to New York.
When he arrived in New York, he learned that no one was interested in his association with his rich uncle, and becomes lonely because of this. He decided to get a job at the shirt collar factory owned by his uncle, and while it seemed like Clyde was finally going to start working hard to chase the American dream, this was not the case. He met Roberta, who also worked at the factory, and fooled around with her. He fooled around with Roberta for his own selfish needs when he had an interest in Sondra Finchley, the daughter of a different factory owner. When it seems like he finally is learning to chase after the American dream he initially sought for, he is, yet again, distracted by materialistic wants and women. Once Clyde impregnated Roberta, she wanted him to step up as a man and marry her. “Meanwhile, Clyde was becoming increasingly popular with the upper class, and finally had a chance to make Sondra his” (Oglesby). His selfishness got in the way of his morals when he wanted Roberta to get an abortion because he did not want to give up his position in the imaginary hierarchy. He took drastic measures to make this abortion happen, such as going to out-of-town physicians and drugstores and pleading for help. However, no one responds to his begs and he began to feel hopeless.
“Clyde viewed marriage to Roberta as a dismal ending to all his bright dreams” (Bucco). Roberta threatened to expose Clyde if he did not marry her, so after hearing about drowning accidents at a lake resort, he took Roberta there to get married. Clyde dreamt about the death of Roberta, hoping that she would drown and so he could live the rest of his life with Sondra. After Clyde takes Roberta to the lake, the boat capsizes and she drowned. “Ironically, the boat capsized accidentally, but Clyde did not answer Roberta’s call for help” (Bucco). His determination was no longer focused on the proper direction to success, but to get the “girl of his dreams.” He needed to arrange an accident or else it would have look too suspicious on his part. While he did not cause the accident, he did not do anything to stop what happened. Roberta screamed for help but Clyde did not answer. His life in a dream made him face difficulties in the real world.
The story takes an impactful turn as much of the end seemed to speak about Clyde plotting an abortion for his baby with Roberta. Roberta insisted that he could not destroy the embryonic life that they have created together. While “Roberta’s condition temporarily shocked Clyde into reality, failure soon drowned his renewed sense of superiority: her demands were harsh and she also deserved blame for their intimacy (Bucco).” His obsession with women and fortune lead him to lose sympathy for Roberta’s incident because he desperately wanted eternal happiness with Sondra. Roberta lied to the doctor and said that she was married and poor, even though Clyde and Roberta never eloped. Clyde hoped that Roberta’s fabrications would help gain him sympathy, reduce cost on his part, and protect his name and reputation. He was still paranoid and anxious that his bad decisions would hurt him in the end. Due to the circumstances of the situation, Clyde seemed guilty for the murder of Roberta. This is ironic because he did not cause her death, but he did not do anything to prevent her death from taking place.
His selfishness persisted towards the end of the story. Mason, the District Attorney, claimed that there was too much evidence against him. Clyde deceived and manipulated others to get what he wanted, so it was no surprise that the fingers were pointed towards him. Out of fear, he changed the truth, even though the truth would have made him innocent. His altercation of the truth made him sound guilty, and was arrested for his “crime.” Mason wanted Clyde to be punished for his actions. This was rightfully so, because Clyde kept distorting his dream world with reality. Once in jail, he realized how alone he was. While he was surrounded by many individuals throughout the story because of his social status at the time, he was at an all-time low in jail because there was no one in the vacant cell but him. His social status no longer had value. He threw away his American dream for women, fortune, and selfishness. Him growing greedy influenced his poor decision making, and ultimately led to his execution by an electric chair.
The examples demonstrated in An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie leads to the ultimate question: Is the American Dream real? While it was real at one point, it was dead after a long period in these stories. Happiness was prominent when there was less fortune and greed involved. True success was nonexistent once those who received fortune let it get to their heads. The American Dream is not determined by how hard one works to achieve their dreams; it is mainly achieved by luck. For example, Clyde received a sizable amount of his triumph from his job at a bellhop at a luxurious hotel, where he was in the right place at the right time. For Carrie, it was when she met Hurstwood that she found her true success. She was fortunate to have met Hempstead, or else she would not have had a happy ending. The pressure that both Carrie and Clyde went through did not benefit them in their expedition towards the American Dream. Carrie felt that selling her body was the only way for her to gain money and a social status. Clyde felt that egotism and greed would lead him to a respectable social status and attractive women on his side. They were both preoccupied in their pursuits to success with the American dream. It was also learned that selfishness and greed could lead to severe consequences. At the end of An American Tragedy, Clyde’s self-indulgence led to his execution.
Theodore Dreiser demonstrates that the ‘American Dream’ is contradictory in An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie by developing characters that have materialistic and misguided lives that prevent them from conquering it. The American dream is certainty contradictory, but can be attained with complete perseverance and ambition, something that Carrie and Clyde initially had, but quickly lost.
Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Plot Summary.
The novel, Sister Carrie, written by Theodore Dreiser discusses the life of an eighteen-year old girl leaving Columbia City to start a new life in Chicago. With her are four dollars, a few paltry belongings, and her sister s address in Chicago. Throughout the story, a pattern is shown as Caroline (Carrie) Meeber progresses in the ladder of society: from a poor, jobless girl living below the poverty line to a rich and wealth actress in New York.
Carrie s story starts off living in her sister s flat within the pits of Chicago. The only jobs she could find are hard, backbreaking professions and those that require experience. One day, she finds a difficult and unpleasing job working in a shoe factory where she earns for and a half-dollars a week. This, however, was not enough to satisfy even the bare requirements needed to live within the city.
As winter comes along, Carrie finds herself ill and loses her job. Yet all is not lost. She soon discovers Mr. Drouet, the gentleman she had met at the train station upon arrival to Chicago. At this point, Mr. Drouet has become fond of Carrie and offers her twenty dollars to buy new clothes. One evening, Drouet invites George Hurstwood, a high classed, well to do man, to a card game. Through this game, Drouet introduces Carrie, whom Hurstwood is later drawn to. Hurstwood is a married man, yet he feels his marriage is falling apart and thus begins his pursuit of Carrie. Hurstwood draws her by taking her out and buying her gifts. Soon she is captivated by his charm and falls in love with him. They then decide to get married despite the fact the Hurstwood was still married to his first wife. Carrie, on the other hand, is unaware of the affair she is having with Hurstwood.
Julia, George Hurstwood s actual wife continues to pester Hurstwood because she isn t getting the attentions she deserves. She asks Hurstwood to go on social outings yet Hurstwood declines due to the lack of interest in their dull relationship.
One night, Drouet s local Elk lodge plans to put on an amateur theatrical to raise funds for new furniture. He needed a young lady for the par and asks Carrie. After a brief quarrel, she agrees and gave a surprisingly good performance for a beginner. This sparked the beginning of her acting career.
Carrie feels at home in theater and loves the entire affair. Hurstwood continues to explain the absence of his wife by telling his friend that she is sick. This soon lead to a suspicion caused by Julia and the situation intensifies. One day, Julia realizes the affair going on between Hurstwood and Carrie. A divorce is set up and Julia demands money from Hurstwood. Hurstwood refuses and a suit is placed on Julia s behalf for divorce and alimony. Carrie also finds out about the situation and angrily leaves both Drouet and Hurstwood in search for a new life as an actress. Hurstwood, upon receiving Carries letter to leave, tries to win her back. He lies to her by saying Drouet is injured and asks her to board a train to see his condition. Hurstwood steals $10,000 from Fitzgerald and Moy, a high-classed saloon he was managing, and runs away with Carrie to New York. Thus, Hurstwood loses his job starts his downfall from rich to poor. Carrie, on the other hand, gets a singing career in New York primarily making $12 a week, then $16, then $20, then $35, and soon $150. Soon she comes to the conclusion that life without Hurstwood would be much better. She leaves him and pursuits her growing career of fame. Drouet find out about Carrie s fame and tries unsuccessfully to win her. Hurstwood becomes homeless and soon decides to commit suicide.
How did the author and book affect his (or any) time period?
Sister Carrie has been the fundamental modern American novel through its characters and their story. Such a book illustrates the effects of the changing economic structure on American culture. It also shows how wage seekers converged during the economic boom that followed the Civil War. Through Sister Carrie, one is shown the emphasis of how society impacted the ways Americans thought and felt.
One of the biggest changes that capitalism brought to the American culture was an overwhelming emphasis on the “conspicuous consumption.” This was the purchasing of goods and services in such a way that one’s buying power becomes immediately evident. The readers are shown this when Carrie s wants exceed far past her what she can afford. Her wants typified they way society functioned. It showed Americans that material satisfaction was always temporary. Drouet also represents the class of conspicuous consumers. Throughout the novel, he is portrayed wealthier than he actually is. This is done through his purchasing of trinkets for Carrie and his presence at Fitzgerald and Moy. Consequently, the unsatisfied desire drives the consumer to continue buying more material goods and the desire to buy drives the consumer to work long hours at unpleasant jobs.
Through Sister Carrie, Americans were also shown the exposed corruption found within cities. Through the novel, Dreiser s readers are presented with the decrepit conditions found within factories. The truth in industry was revealed through such descriptions inside the shoe factory. In his description, factory work was difficult and unpleasant. They posed potential health threats and supplemented low wages. People were crude and hard to work with. In addition to such criticism, Sister was suppressed until 1907 due to its realism and supposed exploiting. Such publications were judged offensive by the publisher and often kept from good publicity.
Hurstwood represented a man of great wealth. This typified the high class of society. Through his wealth, Dreiser was able to show the reader a view of unsatisfied desire. He showed the American people that wealth was not everything. This was shown in Hurstwood s want for Carrie and in Carrie s suffering of chronic dissatisfaction near the end of the novel. Such examples supply the reader with an idea of the driving force behind consumers: it doesn t matter how much a man makes, there are still things left in life which are unfulfilled. Thus, Dreiser hoped to covey a concept showing wealth as being something materialistic.
Dreiser impacted every level of society by exposing their realities. He showed the readers what truth lied behind his society and how corrupt things were within certain cities. Not only was he able to show how each class in an economy functioned, but was also able to depict the social differences in the role of men and women within such levels of society.
How did the author reflect his time period?
Sister Carrie reflected the author s time period by describing the changing economic structures of American culture. It depicted the situation during the time of the economic boom in the late nineteenth century and exposed the social classes within the economy. Through the different characters and their roles, Dreiser showed how each class of society functioned and how they lived life under their ranks in society. Expression of such distinction between the classes also portrayed the differences between the men and women of his era.
Carrie served as a symbol of the American middle class. Carrie’s visit to the department store shows her fascination with conspicuous consumption. Her desires for trinkets and fancy clothing captivate her even though she cannot afford any of them; thus a capitalist economy is shown which manipulates the desire of the consumer without ever completely satisfying them. Through this, Dreiser is able to show the weakness of mediocrity. He showed them as people who want things and become dissatisfied shortly after they get it.
Another idea Dreiser inflicted upon his readers was Charlie Drouet who represented a symbol of the changing economic structure. Thus, through his professions, the reader is shown the mobility of the new worker. He is represented the tradesman of the society. As the tradesman, Drouet hopes to sell goods through charm ultimately making his products seem more attractive than they actually are. This causes an appeal towards the conspicuous consumer who not only want to have wealth but wish to present it as something greater than it actually is. Such a connotation gives the reader an ostentatious view on the average consumer.
Dreiser reflected the upper class of society through his interpretation of Hurstwood. Through the example of Hurstwood, Dreiser showed Americans the people high in society. Hurstwood represents the modern, capitalist man. His identity is largely derived from his role as manager of Fitzgerald and Moy’s. As the manager, he is able to accumulate a rather large income. This income makes him rich thus carrying the symbol of wealth.
The captain, on the other hand, symbolizes the impersonalized, dehumanized situation of the desperately poor within the novel. Through him, the reader is shown the low rung of society where people are forced to cope with the depraved facts of life. This often involves the cheating of other people. An example of such cheating was the captain s form of charity. This involved creating an entertaining spectacle by displaying misery of his fellow homeless men. Thus, by such a scheme, the misery of each individual beggar is auctioned off.
Sister Carrie also presents a woman’s identity as virtually non-existent. Through the novel, Dreiser showed that men can be genuine, but women can only try to imitate. This was shown when Carrie takes special care in imitating the mannerisms the Drouet compliments in other women. Thus, by imitating whatever Drouet desires in a woman, she becomes merely a reflection of masculine desire. Moreover, by playing her role in such a great manner, Carrie shows the reader her support in the conventional social belief that women are of nothing but deceit and performance. Dreiser hoped to show the reader that women lack fixed identities of their own making them seem pretentious.
Sister Carrie: Dangers of Being Consumed by Materialistic Wealth
American society has always upheld the idea of achieving the American Dream as a sign of success in life and as an easy means to achieve happiness. However, does achieving success through materialistic wealth truly make humans happy? Are there unforeseen consequences as a result of being so focused on achieving more materialistic wealth? In Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, both Carrie and Hurstwood found out the dangers of being consumed by materialistic wealth. Carrie, a young lady from a rural area, is first introduced to lavish materialistic goods when she arrives to Chicago. She is further drawn into the idea of climbing the social hierarchy in order to achieve the materialistic goods when she enters into a relationship first with Drouet and then Mr. Hurstwood. As Carrie gradually begins to achieve her goal of achieving materialistic success, she soon finds out that she is not truly happy with what she has done with her life. On the opposite end, Mr. Hurstwood, a once successful man, finds out how materialistic wealth would tear apart his once lavish and extravagant life and how it would ultimately lead to his economic
downfall. Both Mr. Hurstwood’s and Carrie’s actions in the novel help to portray the effects. In the novel Sister Carrie, Dreiser brings up the consequences of the America society that is obsessed with materialistic wealth and the excessive need to strive to climb up the social hierarchy. Dreiser is able to convey the philosophical assumption and meaning of the novel through Carrie’s various relationships, Carrie’s obsession with materialistic wealth and social class, contrast between the two cities, and contrast between Hurstwood’s demise and Carrie’s success.
Throughout the novel, Dreiser attempts to showcase the danger and consequences of materialistic wealth, something that was well engrained in the mindset of the American society that was obsessed with achieving the American Dream. For example, towards the middle of the novel when Carrie and Mr. Hurstwood had settled into New York City for a while, Mr. Hurstwood was fast losing his economic wealth and Carrie was becoming more and more depressed from it: “These miserable details ate the heart out of Carrie. They blackened her days and grieved her soul. Oh, how this man had changed. All day and all day, here he sat, reading his papers. The world seemed to have no attraction.” (Dreiser 364). Mr. Hurstwood has failed to provide enough money to satiate Carrie’s need and want for materialistic wealth. After being able to provide the necessary amount of finances for a while, it was a complete shock for Carrie and made her considerably worried regarding the future of how she could fulfill her want for more materialistic wealth. Materialistic wealth has controlled Carrie’s life and it is causing her relationship with Mr. Hurstwood to be torn apart. As critic Bolch mentions:
“Carrie’s imagination-fed upon American ideals-is the cause of her discontent with bare subsistence. Initiated into the more affluent ways of the city through her involvement with Drouet, whose money and fine appearance are in stark contrast to the reality of Carrie’s lower class existence at her sister ‘s flat, Carrie gains entrance to the type of life she had earlier been able only to imagine” (Bolch 73).
Once Carrie had been introduced to the upper class, the part of American society that was obsessed with materialistic wealth in order to show off their opulence, she was immediately pulled into and controlled by materialism. When Mr. Hurstwood began to lose money, she began to notice aspects that reminded her of her poorer past and she used it as point of reference, comparing her past poor life to her current rich life, causing her to not be willing to relinquish the need for materialistic wealth even if it meant ending her relationship with Mr. Hurstwood. Carrie’s love for money and materialistic wealth is clearly more important to her than her relationship with Mr. Hurstwood. She would rather lose the relationship than relinquish her love for wealth and opulence. Thus, Dreiser is trying to convey the message of the consequences of obsession with materialistic wealth.
In addition, after Carrie had just moved to New York City, Carrie immediately became friends with her neighbor, Mrs. Vance. Mrs. Vance, who was already a well-established member of the upper class often conversed with Carrie and would also often take Carrie out, exposing Carrie to the lives of the wealthy upper class. Gradually, Carrie soon found out how she was still not truly a part of the upper class and how she still felt lower on the social hierarchy. One day, Mrs. Vance took Carrie to see a Broadway show and as Carrie looked around observing those around her and noticing the differences between her and the upper class: “She could only imagine that it must be evident to many that she was the less handsomely dressed of the two. It cut her to the quick, and she resolved that she would not come here again until she looked better” (Dreiser 369). After Carrie has been exposed to the extravagant lifestyle of the upper class, she cannot help but to compare herself with the members of the upper class. She begins to notice the differences and it makes her even more frantic to attempt to close the gap by attempting to earn more money and to obtain even more materialistic wealth. Her desires to achieve the American Dream have ultimately controlled her life and she is always trying to achieve more even if she has already achieved quite a bit of success in her life. The idea of having to obtain more materialistic wealth has caused her to never actually satisfied with her life and Carrie can never be truly be happy and content with her life. It has ultimately made her want to constantly compare with those slightly more successful than her and continue her desire to attempt to be more like those economically better than she is. This caused Carrie to enter a never-ending cycle of wanting to achieve more and more materialistic wealth and success.
Furthermore, when Carrie moves between the two cities, Chicago and New York City, her perception of materialistic wealth begins to change. As literary critic brings ups:
“For the American dreamer of real cities, the attainment of the ideal is never as satisfying as the dream which spurs its pursuit. In her struggle for fame and fortune and the happiness she believes will come from these-Carrie moves from one real American city to another” (Lehan 82). Although Chicago was fresh and new to her not to long ago, the city failed to satiate her materialistic wealth need. She felt the necessity to move on with her life not fully because Mr. Hurstwood slightly pressured but more due to the fact that she felt she needed to go to another city in order to continue her obsession with the American
Dream. In addition, Lehan later on mentions how Carrie turns the cities into almost a fantasy: “She transforms these urban places into imaginary cities where success-however grandly realized-will inevitably pale in comparison with the idyllic conceptions fostered by her imagination” (Lehan 82). By equating the cities to being essential to her success in attaining the American Dream, Carrie begins to almost turn the cities into something quite unrealistic. When Mr. Hurstwood fails to meet her need in New York City, the lack of money and financial stability essentially wakes her up from her dream of New York and snaps her back into reality. This ultimately causes her to become miserable like she was when she was poor in Chicago and leads to the deterioration and demise of her relationship.
In the novel, Dreiser is able to successfully convey his philosophical assumptions regarding the consequences of materialistic wealth through different means. One method that he tends to use throughout the whole novel is by vividly describing Carrie’s emotions as she encounters materialistic wealth. For example, in a scene in the beginning of the book, Dreiser vividly portrays hers feelings when she first saw the goods meant for the upper wealthy class on the streets of Chicago:
“Not only did Carrie feel the drag of desire for all of this which was new and pleasing in apparel for women, but she noticed too, with a touch at the heart, the fine ladies who elbowed he and ignored her, brushing past in utter disregard of her presence, themselves eagerly enlisted in the materials which the store contained” (Dreiser 23).
By allowing the readers to see her emotions as she first encounters the opulent goods for the upper class, we are able to better understand how materialism really begins to draw in Carrie from the very beginning of the novel. It helps to establish her relationship with materialistic wealth and how she truly thought of it. As the book progresses in, Dreiser continues to update the readers with Carrie’s emotions when she encounters newer types of materialistic wealth in both cities and how she feels about it. As literary critic Lehan mentions in his literary criticism: “Dreiser depicts New York City’s allure of materialism, the products of the city, readily available for those with the money to afford them. For Carrie, such riches can only be possessed in her imagination. She becomes painfully aware of the city’s class distinctions” (Lehan 77). Through Dreiser’s constant portray of Carrie’s feelings and emotions regarding materialistic wealth, we are able to better understand how materialistic wealth affects her. It ultimately takes over her life and forces her to want to be a part of the upper class and to achieve a bigger and better version of the American Dream. Through her emotions, it is clear the Carrie notices all the minute details and she is very obsessed with trying to match someone of the upper class. It appears as certain times in the book as if she only cares for materialistic wealth. In
addition, literary critic Markov brings up: “Carrie’s desire to consume is a form of this “spontaneous materialism.” As soon as she has the promise of a job in the shoe factory, she imagines a life of immediate gratification, a way of thinking associated directly with her class” (Markov 7). Dreiser continues to use the emotions of Carrie to better convey his message regarding materialistic wealth. Carrie often in her emotions would compare between her past previous life and her new current life. She would always try to look back into the past and be reminded of her need to achieve the American Dream and her emotions helped to show how materialistic wealth was wreaking havoc on Carrie in many different ways.
Not only does Dreiser uses vivid portrayal of Carrie’s emotions to help convey his philosophical message regarding the dangers of materialistic wealth, other literary critic also use various different literary perspectives to help convey and further the philosophical assumptions regarding materialistic wealth in the novel. One literary perspective that many literary critics use when evaluating the novel is a feminist literary perspective. In the beginning of the novel, as Carrie had just boarded on a train bound for Chicago where she would move away from her rural life and into the urban life, Dreiser makes a generalization regarding women that leave their hometown at a young age:
“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. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility” (Dreiser 3-4).
Here from this excerpt, Dreiser appears to make a very hasty generalization of women of that time who were moving from a more rural area to an urban area. He claims that women only had two options for their futures and how they became trapped. For Carrie, this generalization although may seem not applicable to her, is actually in certain ways able to be applied her. In certain aspects, Carrie becomes trapped by materialistic wealth and causes herself to be have less freedom with herself and restricts her own possibilities for her future. By letting materialistic wealth control her life, she is building a trap for herself. Literary critic Eby brings up in her literary criticism the remarks of historian Barbara Welter and how she believes it ties with the Carrie in the novel:
“As historian Barbara Welter describes the nineteenth century ideal for the white middle class, the “True Woman” was expected to be pious, pure, domestic, and submissive. However a competing model for femininity emerged in the U.S. around the 1880s. The “New Woman” typically had a career and was economically independent. Frequently New Women aligned themselves with members of their own sex (in partnerships that were not necessarily romantic) rather than in conventional marriages…best think of Dreiser’s heroine as a transitional figure, moving from the Victorian model of True Woman toward the recognizably modern New Woman” (Eby 91).
Although Dreiser mentions the restrictions that women of that time encountered, Carrie may have been sign of a transition for women. While Carrie caused herself to be restricted by materialistic wealth, she did show signs of being able to defy some of the stereotypes and gender roles expected of women of her time. She was able to somewhat improve her life as a women and not be completely bounded by societal expectations and rules. In some ways, the desire to be higher up in American society may have helped to encourage Carrie to defy societal norms in order for her to achieve what she wanted in life. Thus, by presenting examining the novel in a feminist perspective, we are able to expand on Dreiser’s views and philosophical messages regarding the consequences of materialistic wealth.
Not only do many literary critics choose to evaluate the novel with a feminist literary perspective, many literary critics also use a Marxist or social literary perspective to better show how Dreiser’s philosophical messages and assumptions regarding the effects of materialistic wealth are present in the novel. In the later part of the novel, Mr. Hurstwood began to view New York City in much more negative light, feeling as if the city was a trap keeping him in and reveals how he felt as he was losing his wealth and financial stability: “He began to see as one sees a city with a wall about it. Men were posted at the gates. You could not get in. Those inside did not care to come out to see who you were. They were so merry inside there that all those outside were forgotten, and he was on the outside” (Dreiser 306). As Mr. Hurstwood began to lose more and more of his wealth, he felt as if he was trapped and had no options to move forward with his life. He began to view the city of New York to be like a city with walls that were guarded, preventing him from pursuing what he wanted. This city symbolism appears to offer an insight regarding social class back then in American society. As Mr. Hurstwood was losing control of his financial assets, he felt like a failure. He believed that no one in the upper social class would fall into so much financial trouble has he did. (Markov 11).
Although he no longer really belonged to the upper class anymore, his pride prevents from realizing that he no longer is really in that class. It keeps him trapped inside the walls that he describes and he will not admit that he needs to do something about it. He feels the need to fulfil a social class obligation which is only causing a much larger problem for him that ultimately ends his relationship with Carrie. A literary critic brings up when Dreiser uses an opium metaphor to describe the state of Mr. Hurstwood:
These forces are the effect of the atmosphere of the greath, with their magnificent residences, splendid equipages, and glided shops, on the small… Dreiser concludes that opium addiction is a metaphor for the ultimate social fall, and Hurstwood will eventually sink into a stupor that reflects hat dissolution.” (“The Sociological Metaphor and Other Imagery” 90).
This metaphor helps to show how Mr. Hurstwood is caught between two different social classes—one social class where he had once belonged that he still tried to hold on to and another social class in which he was really in although he was denying it. He was not willing to let go of his past social class and to admit that he was no longer in the upper class. He did not want to lose a part of his past identity even if it meant that it was hurting himself. Mr. Hurstwood was ultimately really harming himself in the process by not accepting the fact that he was no longer in the wealthy class and refusing to move on with his life.
In addition, throughout Hurstwood’s gradual economic downfall, Hurstwood is quite never able to fully restrain his old spending habits. One literary critic, Zender, points out that: “Hurstwood never succeeds in constraining his expenditure of money within prudential limits. At every stage of his descent into poverty, he seeks to economize-by buying smaller cuts of meat… But at every stage as well, he spends money improvidently, in the service of his former self” (Zender 63). As hard as Hurstwood may try to stop acting as if he was a member of the upper class, he can never quite get himself to accept the fact that he is no longer part of the rich and wealthy. Every time he would attempt to spend less and cut down on his spending costs for living, he would always revert back to his original behavior and suddenly spend extravagant amounts of money on things that he did not need. This behavior clearly shows that Hurstwood has a really hard time trying to assimilate into a lower position in the social hierarchy. Some of his actions are still guided by certain social obligations that were expected from him when he was still in the upper class. Thus, Hurstwood’s wealth in the past ultimately leads him to his own demise.
Throughout the novel, many literary critics have noticed some of the inconsistencies and problems with the book. By evaluating these flaws, we are able to better understand the meaning of the book and to further evaluate Dreiser’s philosophical assumptions regarding the impacts of materialistic wealth. For example, many literary critics have pointed out how Dreiser tends to make various generalizations regarding women but almost none of them are really that applicable to Carrie: “In the light of the world’s attitude toward woman and her duties, the nature of Carrie’s mental state deserves consideration. Actions such as hers are measured by an arbitrary scale. Society possesses a conventional standard whereby it judges all things. All men should be good, all women virtuous. Wherefore, villain, hast thou failed!” (Dreiser 87). In this passage, Dreiser mentions how society pushes certain expectations for women and how all women should be virtuous. However, throughout the book, Carrie never is able to follow any of Dreiser’s generalizations and statements regarding women. Initially, it seems confusing as to why Dreiser would even choose to add in so many extra generalizations about women and have Carrie not follow a single one of them. It appears to be quite random and almost as if it was out of place in the novel. A literary critic mentions that:
“Carrie may represent a broad principle of American culture– its quest for economic domination of the world; she might be seen as an allegory for
American ideals, often wavering and compromised in geopoiltical application, and serving a variety of self-interested pressure groups…we can see her as a representative of cultural impulses in our political process” (“Carrie” 105).
By defying these generalizations however, Carrie is able to achieve more in this book. As the author shows in that excerpt, Carrie is defying Dreiser’s hasty generalizations regarding women to have her better represent certain American ideals. She represents a spark or change in the book and better helps to expand on Dreiser’s philosophical assumptions regarding the effects of materialistic wealth. By defying the generalizations, Dreiser is able to show how even though Carrie is stuck in the world of materialistic wealth, she is still able to break other societal norms and gender roles for women of that time in American society. Thus, this flaw in the novel helps to further expand the idea of materialistic wealth.
In addition, there is another flaw and problem that many other literary critics have pointed out that exists in the novel. For example, Dreiser in the passage below describes a dark motive behind Drouet’s actions:
“Now, in regard to his pursuit of women, he meant them no harm, because he did not conceive of the relation which he hoped to hold with them as being harmful. He loved to make advances to women, to have them succumb to his charms, not because he was a cold-blooded, dark, scheming villain, but because his inborn desire urged him to that as a chief delight” (Dreiser 64).
Literary critics have noticed the inconsistencies with the relationship between Drouet and Carrie, especially the motive behind as to why Drouet actually wanted to date Carrie in the first place. In the novel, it seems as if Drouet also is somewhat controlling Carrie and that both materialistic wealth and Drouet are controlling Carrie. A literary critic mentions: “Drouet, for all his characteristics is a brilliant embodiment of the kind of limited mind that he, Carrie, and others share, and those with such minds survive with more forceful nature might fail. Carrie’s emotional greatness will bring her further on the stage, but Drouet embodies Carrie’s superficiality in the early progress of the novel, and Dreiser uses him at the end of the novel to measure the potential for change in a feeling character like Carrie” (“Four Lovers” 121). Although in the passage in the novel mentions how the narrator believes that Drouet has complete control over Carrie, The literary critic points how instead Drouet embodies Carrie in many different aspects. This flaw ultimately reveals the sinister natures of both Carrie and Drouet as they both are being controlled by the world of materialistic wealth.
In conclusion, Dreiser, through various different methods and techniques, is able to successfully portray the dangers and consequences of materialistic wealth and the consistent want to achieve the American Dream. Carrie, who once started out as a poor girl, gradually climbs up the social hierarchy ladder and does achieve materialistic wealth. However, the success does not come without a price to be paid. It ultimately controls her life. Similarly, Mr. Hurstwood’s once materialistic success causes his life to go into a downwards spiral. After seeing the damage that materialism ultimately thrust upon both Carrie and Mr. Hurstwood, one can only conclude that achieving the American Dream is not necessary to be content with one’s own life.
Concept of Conspicuous Consumption on the Example of Dreiser’s Novel
Julia Hurstwood’s Conspicuous Consumption
Julia Hurstwood in Sister Carrie illustrates Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption by requiring the best and highest-quality goods, constantly demanding and wanting new things, and primarily maintaining her social status and relationships through money and the consumption of goods.
Julia Hurstwood is George Hurstwood’s wife. Despite being in a union that signifies their love for each other, Mrs. Hurstwood does not appear to see Mr. Hurstwood as anything other than a way to buy things and get money. Mr. Hurstwood was an important and popular man in Chicago with his job at the local saloon, and this also elevated his wife, who expected both her and her kids to have the nicest things available to them. The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen calls this behavior conspicuous consumption, stating that “the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth… failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit” (Veblen 74). Even if someone does not want or need a particular good, he is expected to consume on-par with those around him in order to maintain his social status. During a conversation with her husband, Mrs. Hurstwood expresses that she would like a season ticket to the horse races. She also mentions that “one of her neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey, who were possessors of money… had done so” (Dreiser 98). Mrs. Hurstwood knows that a season ticket to the races is a prestigious and expensive good; if Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey were to have a ticket while she did not, it would display her inferiority. Of course, the Hurstwood family is wealthy, but if they are not able to afford a season ticket to the races, then everyone in the Hurstwood’s social circle will view the Hurstwoods as inferior to the Ramseys for being unable to afford a season ticket, regardless of whether they have the money to do so.
Mrs. Hurstwood has little regard for her husband’s feelings or how much money she demands he spend. Whether it is for herself or her kids, Mrs. Hurstwood is almost constantly asking Mr. Hurstwood for money or things. Mrs. Hurstwood would often ask her husband for new apparel for either herself or their daughter. Jessica, at the time, began going out and trying to find a rich man to marry. For this, she and her mother agreed that a new dress was necessary. She told Hurstwood “Jessica must have a new dress this month” (Dreiser 63). Hurstwood had recently purchased a dress for Jessica, though, and when he asked Mrs. Hurstwood why Jessica needed a new dress, she responded with “that was just something for evening wear” (Dreiser 63). This need to purchase apparel and appear high-class is a system to maintain their rank in their social circle. Veblen discusses this system and this need to consume, stating “…the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum…” (Veblen 84). The lower class see middle-class fashion as the standard, while the middle class see upper-class fashion as the standard. Julia Hurstwood demands that Jessica needs this dress because if Jessica does not have it, she will appear as if she belongs to a lower class. Not only is it in Jessica’s best interest to avoid being seen wearing the same dress all the time, but she also wants to look as fashionable as possible, and she needs to conform to the fashion standards that the class above her has established; this means she needs an array of clothing to suit any possible occasion, and possession of this array would exemplify her wealth through her consumption.
After years of a marriage that is hemorrhaging passion and becoming depleted of almost every bit of love and feeling, Mrs. Hurstwood seems almost excited to learn that her husband had been cheating on her with another woman. During their argument, Mr. Hurstwood tells Mrs. Hurstwood that she’s lying and accuses her of looking for an excuse to gain control over him. He follows this by saying “you or anyone else won’t dictate to me” (Dreiser 152). To this, Mrs. Hurstwood replies with “I’m not dictating to you, I’m telling you what I want” (Dreiser 152). Mrs. Hurstwood sees Mr. Hurstwood’s cheating as a means to an end, with the end being the freedom to spend as much of his money as she pleases on whatever she wants, and she can use that money to look as wealthy as she would like. Veblen says that “conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure” (Veblen 75). With Mr. Hurstwood’s money and full control over their finances, Mrs. Hurstwood will be able to consume more than ever. She will not only be able to reach the standards set by her peers and those above her socially, but also exceed them and possibly consume at a level that now sets a new standard.
Thorstein Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption is extremely prevalent in Sister Carrie, and Julia Hurstwood embodies this concept throughout the book by demanding that she have the most luxurious and highest-quality goods, desiring new things constantly, and maintaining her social status by consuming and spending by any available means.
The Two Sides of Desire
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.
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.
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.