Sunday, August 29, 2021

Back to Classics Challenge 2021: Sister Carrie


"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.

This book is as much about Carrie Meeber, the young woman who comes from rural Wisconsin to Chicago in the 1880s as it is about George Hurstwood, the older married Chicago business manager who falls for her. This book was controversial when first published since Carrie lives what would be considered an immoral life when she shacks up with men who are not her husband. But the book also bucks convention (and probably pissed off critics of it) because Carrie is not punished for this. In fact, despite certain challenges, she thrives. 

The book opens with 18 year old Carrie on a train from her small town in Wisconsin on her way to Chicago sometime in the late 1880s. She meets a flashy but charming salesman, Charles Drouet, who will later play a great role in her life. But at this point, she is basically a country hick with no idea of what a city like Chicago has to offer and also to take from a fresh girl like her. Her married sister lives in the city and the expectation is that Carrie will get a job and help them by paying room and board out of her salary. Her sister’s husband is a dour Swede who has no imagination or interest in what a young girl might want out of life. His expectation is that she should be happy working in any of the various factories employing cheap labor. Carrie’s sister is slightly more sympathetic, but not much. Carrie soon finds that almost all her earnings are eaten up by room and board and the cost of transportation to and from work. She has no money at the end of the week, nowhere to go and no one to go with her.  Her chance meeting with Drouet will later pay off in taking her away from this existence, which serves only to grind her down. Drouet can offer her something better. 

Drouet, in turn, is very admiring of George Hurstwood, the manager of a local “resort” (sounded like an upscale bar to me). George is older, successful and surrounded by local celebrity and big wigs who come to the bar. He is also unhappily married with two grown children. When George meets Carrie (Drouet introduces them almost as if he is showing Carrie off as a possession, though he calls her his wife) he falls head over heels in love with her. 

Definitely this is a realist novel along the lines of Emile Zola (which fits nicely with The House of Ulloa and the Zola title I read earlier this year). I’m not that particular about language or prose but I have to say, Dreiser’s dialogue and description is sometimes pretty flat and matter-of-fact. 

What I liked most about this book was its time capsule quality. Dreiser really brought the streets of the nascent Second City to life and later those of New York as well. He gave me a glimpse of how some people lived during those times and, sometimes down to the penny, what a dollar could get you and where. I liked those details. The plotting was a little hackneyed maybe, but overall I appreciated this classic novel and especially I appreciated Dreiser’s non-judgmental stance. Also, I learned that “out of sight” meaning “terrific” or “great” was a common phrase in the last 19th century! I had always assumed it originated in the 1960 or '70s, but no. The trivial things we readers learn, right?

Chicago in the late 19th century

Another book from the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels published during the 20th century. I read this for the Back to Classics Challenge 2021 category “20th Century Classic”. Sorry for those of you who were looking forward to me reading the next book in the Alexandria Quartet for this prompt, but it just didn't work out. I will read it, for sure. But not in time for the 2021 challenge, alas!

18 comments:

  1. Hi Ruthiella, great review and I read Sister Carrie in my twenties and I have forgotten the specifics but I remember enjoying tne book and I was planning at the time on reading Dreiser's An American Tragedy but never got around to it. As I recall, George becomes obsessed with Carrie and it doesn't work out well for him. But agree, Dreiser was ahead of his time in allowing Carrie to be a free spirit. I've read a number of the Victorian writers and I can only imagine the outcome they would have created for Carrie.

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    1. Hi Kathy! Yes, I can't imagine many Victorian authors letting Carrie remain unpunished for her lapse. But I think Dreiser was reflecting life as he knew it. If I recall correctly from the introduction, some of George and Carrie's experiences were based on those of his sister and brother-in-law. I will definitely also read An American Tragedy one of these days also. 😃

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  2. I'm adding this to my list. Thank you for this excellent review. It looks like a great book to read on my next trip to Chicago.

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    1. I've never visited the Windy City! I wonder what landmarks in the novel still exists in the city?

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  3. I read Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy years ago. Certain scenes remain in mind, but details are gone. Both novels are surprising for the time in which they were written and fascinating in the sense of "time capsules."

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    1. Good to know that An American Tragedy is also worth reading and also provides that sense of place I liked so much.

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  4. I like Dreiser's books, especially this one. Maybe because Dreiser makes Carrie such an independent woman, and ahead of the time she lived in.

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    1. This was my first foray into his books. I think he showed a lot of sympathy towards his characters and didn't judge any of them. He just laid it out on the page.

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    2. Dreiser is always sympathetic towards his characters. Even the ones who mess up.

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  5. This was the first Dreiser I read, a long time ago now, but I remember quite liking it. (I've been thinking about rereading it. He's pretty good and he's a Chicago writer! (So I had to read him early on.) An American Tragedy and the Cowperwood trilogy are pretty good, too. (At least the first two of the trilogy.)

    I always thought of Hurstwood as managing at The Berghoff, though that's probably just me... (https://www.theberghoff.com/)

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    1. Thanks for the link to to the Berghoff. I've never been to Chicago, but that totally fits the bill for the kind of establishment George Hurstwood might have managed. I will definitely read An American Tragedy and then we'll see if I explore more of Dreiser's work.

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  6. I've never read any Dreiser (although I did try to read An American Tragedy because I liked the modern version Jennifer Donnelly wrote); however, I am putting this on my list, based on your review.

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    1. There's a modern version of An American Tragedy? I think I must therefore read them BOTH! Thanks for the tip. :D

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  7. I am sure I read this book once upon a time, but I have zero recollection of it. Thanks for the review and update--I think I might like it. I do like realistic novels. How funny that the term "out of sight" was a common phrase in the late 19th century. I also thought it was a term from the 1960's!

    I found the quote you led with to be a bit chilling. My own grandmother left her home and country alone except for a friend at 18 in 1920 and I cannot imagine how scary and friendless and vulnerable she must have felt.

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    1. I can only imagine the kind of courage you grandmother had to have to immigrate like that! When I moved to Germany in the '90s there were challenges, sure, but I was also not as isolated due to technology, right? And now it is even easier to keep in touch with people "back home". But in the 1920s? Telegrams were as fast as it got. I will say, however, that youth also helps when making big leaps like that. We bounce back a faster when dealing with adversity when younger, I think.

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  8. That's one of the best things about older books - all the trivia you come across!
    The more I read of some of these bygone authors, the more surprised I am by the subjects they tackle. I think there's a lot of chronological snobbery where we think we are so enlightened compared to them. I don't think human nature has changed and these writers are reflecting that.

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