"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!