Dreiser’s New Woman and the American Dream

May 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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