I’ve just finished reading Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, a novel I’ve been curious about since reading his An American Tragedy over 10 years ago. I’d somehow acquired the idea that Sister Carrie was the story of a climbing femme fatale, sort of like Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair, but this isn’t the case. Carrie is not a schemer, but a small town girl who comes to Chicago, is dazzled into longing by sumptuous department stores and the glittering crowds in carriages and theater lobbies and whose inchoate yearning for something more or something better leads her to become the mistress of first a salesman, then a married affluent restaurant manager.
The manager, Hurstwood, has his own yearnings, and winds up leaving his family and embezzling money in order to leave town with Carrie. They go to New York, do all right for a while, but then he loses his stake in a bar downtown and gradually slips into depression, unemployment and penury. Long before he hits bottom, Carrie leaves him and begins a stage career, where she finds success and independence.
The last parts of the novel had an effect on me similar to that of An American Tragedy; I can still remember where I was sitting and how the light looked on the afternoon I finished reading about Clyde Griffith’s final weeks on death row. When I had to pause, I’d return to the novel with a kind of reluctant compulsion. The sensation of dread and doom tinted everything else I did at the time, and I sometimes contemplating stopping because it felt almost unbearable. Sister Carrie, with that long, painful depiction of a man sinking into poverty and hopelessness, with the final scenes outside of a Bowery flophouse, is a particularly hard book to read now, knowing that so many people who have been laid off are facing similar, if hopefully not so severe, trials.
Dreiser has a reputation for being an awkward writer, prone to moralizing authorial commentary and graced with no felicities of craft. He’s the quintessential poor stylist/great novelist, although some today might argue that such a thing is an oxymoron. A beautiful style and technical perfection are more and more regarded as the sine qua non of the great novel. I don’t agree. To me, the novelist’s ability to envelope me in his imagined reality, to harness my imagination to his and to make the continuation of the reading feel as essential as the conduct of my own life is a gift that overwhelms other considerations. I would rather read clumsy old Dreiser than any member of the far more numerous tribe of great writers/poor novelists.
What Sister Carrie reminded me of most, however, was the HBO series “The Wire,” in that the characters are similarly subject to forces beyond their control. This novel, like An American Tragedy, does hinge on a single, crucial act or decision that completely transforms the character’s life and seals his doom; the characters in “The Wire” often don’t even get the chance to make that sort of decision. But the piteous spectacle of people trapped by their circumstances, and the sense of encroaching doom is much the same. I can’t say with utter confidence that I recommend this novel -- mostly because it’s so heart-rending -- but I don’t hesitate to call it a great one.