Sarah, of A Rat in the Book Pile, and I continue our discussion of Theodore Dreiser’s novel, Sister Carrie. This section covers Chapters 25 through 36. Sarah will then lead the comments on the rest of the book.
You could call this section a tale of three cities. Carrie leaves Chicago, goes briefly to Montreal, then settles with Hurstwood in New York. Initially Carrie had found Chicago intimidating, but she came with an intent to enjoy it if she could and, mostly, she did.
Montreal does not interest her much, but Hurstwood promises her New York: “You’ll like that. It’s a lot more like a city than any place outside Chicago.” Carrie’s initial reaction is rather negative.
“Where is the residence part?” asked Carrie, who did not take the tall five-story walls on either hand to be the abodes of families.
“Everywhere,” said Hurstwood, who knew the city fairly well. “There are no lawns in New York. All these are houses.”
“Well, then, I don’t like it,” said Carries, who was coming to have some opinions of her own.
As Carrie gains knowledge and some small experience of the luxury and gloss of New York, she is very impressed.
Carrie walked with an air equal to that of Mrs. Vance, and accepted the seat which the head waiter provided for her. She was keenly aware of all the little things that were done–the little genuflections and attentions of the waiters and head waiter which Americans pay for. The air with which the latter pulled out each chair, and the wave of the hand with which he motioned them to be seated, were worth several dollars in themselves. Once seated, there began that exhibition of showy, wasteful, and unwholesome gastronomy as practiced by wealthy Americans, which is the wonder and astonishment of true culture and dignity the world over.
When I started the book I thought Dreiser was using Chicago as a model of a big city and its influence on those who come to it. Then he changed the locale to New York. Do you think this makes any difference in the story?
“…more like a city than any place outside Chicago” is a line that caught my attention, because I felt that there was a cultural/historical implication there that I don’t comprehend. My expectation would have been that New York was the ultimate destination for the aspirational urbanite.
Having accepted that there may be subtleties that pass me by, there is a contrast between Chicago and New York, but it is expressed in terms of the characters’ perceptions thereof. For Hurstwood New York is considerably less glamorous, making humiliating demands; for Carrie it is more glamorous, the seedy and manual realities she feared in Chicago no longer impinging upon her.
I think the change of locale enables the shift in the relative positions of the protagonists, which will surely prove crucial to the plot, but are the characteristic qualities of each city relevant?
I think it is both a psychological shift and a cultural shift. In the U.S. the cities are perceived as different. New York is smoother, richer, more cosmopolitan. Chicago is cruder, more down to earth. I also note that Dreiser is more sarcastic in his comments about the New York scene, as in the passage about dinner at a fancy restaurant, quoted above.
At times I am annoyed by Carrie’s passivity, her acceptance of whatever comes to her. The prime example was allowing herself to be abducted by Hurstwood. When she does protest, he offers to send her back, but she is indecisive. Since she can’t decide what to do, she stays with him. In New York, she is portrayed several times as thinking, yet we do not know her thoughts. Is she brooding about her situation? The thoughts that we do know are devoted to material matters.
The whole street bore the flavor of riches and show, and Carrie felt that she was not of it. She could not, for the life of her, assume the attitude and smartness of Mrs. Vance, who, in her beauty, was all assurance. 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. At the same time she longed to feel the delight of parading here as an equal. Ah, then she would be happy!
When Carrie was still in Chicago, before Hurstwood deceived her into running away with him, she made some effort to find work in the theater. Her failure to do so was part of the reason for accepting what Hurstwood had to offer. For several years in New York, her passive acceptance continued and her judgment of Hurstwood was based on what he could provide for her. There is curiously little action on her part.
Is Dreiser marking time with Carrie’s story in these chapters (27 through 36) so that he can develop Hurstwood’ story?
I am not sure that I always entirely believe in Carrie’s passivity. At the time of the abduction her distress is convincing but at some level she is relieved. She does not insist that Hurstwood pay her fare back to Chicago, as she might. Nor does she alert the guard. The apparent compulsion allows her to save face, if not retain the upper hand. A complex psychological dance, but Dreiser pulls it off beautifully.
Carrie is a not an easy character to get to grips with. We are told that she is more intelligent than her male companions but, as you say, she seems to think about little beyond the material. When she is described as ‘thinking’ it is hard to imagine that she is dwelling on anything beyond the material thoughts to which we are party. It as if she has the potential but lacks the catalyst.
This section does seems a little like a holding pattern for both parties. We are heading towards Hurstwood’s ‘decay,’ which I am guessing will be the prompt that finally breaks Carrie out of her passivity. Because in this part, when there is little threat, she is undeniably passive. I would have predicted that in New York (where she was told she might better begin a stage career) she would again seek work in the theatre: easier to attempt with the pressure off.
Since Dreiser does not jump to the end of this period we have to ask what his purpose is. There is an interesting contrast as Hurstwood experiences similar fears to those that have beset Carrie at various parts of the novel, whereas Carrie is relatively comfortable and her fears are proportionately lessened.
I think we are both struggling with Carrie’s character. I think you once used the word “manipulate” and Dreiser is doing some of that with what he does and does not show about Carrie’s inner life. I agree with you about Hurstwood’s decay and Carrie’s future reactions to it. I await the event with interest.
I found Hurstwood’s story more compelling than Carrie’s. (And by the way, whatever happened to Drouet? He was a major character until Dreiser just dropped him.) We have always heard of Hurstwood’s superior qualities, yet he is both unimaginative and weak. He not only does not foresee consequences, he feels persecuted by what he did not foresee.
As he looked back now and analyzed the situation which led up to his taking the money, he began mildly to justify himself. What had he done–what in the world–that should bar him out this way and heap such difficulties upon him? It seemed only yesterday to him since he was comfortable and well-to-do. But now it was all wrested from him.
Wrested from him? Nobody forced him to pursue Carrie, even though he was a married man, No one forced him to take the money. No one forced him to flee his wife and his position in society. That said, the account of his struggles in New York to support them both and the depressing effects of unemployment ring very true. He avoids old acquaintances, sits in hotel lobbies because they are warm and comfortable and, finally, stays at home, wearing his old clothes.
Was our initial impression of Hurstwood back in Chicago consistent with what comes later? What does Carrie’s attitude toward Hurstwood’s difficulties tell us about her?
I still harbour a (surely unrealistic!) expectation that Drouet will reappear.
Hurstwood is a very different man in New York, but I buy it. His circumstances have materially changed beyond all recognition. Money (security) is the driving force in this novel, and access to funds defines who people are and how they behave.
Carrie isn’t sympathetic to Hurstwood, is she? His plight is pathetic and it is hard not to sympathise, even if he has brought it upon himself. Carrie’s point of view appears to be one of self-interest. We are told that Carrie does not love Hurstwood (nor he her) but in his former affluent self-assurance, Carrie could then, paradoxically, be moved to solicitous tenderness on his behalf. Sentiment may appear to her now a luxury she can ill afford. While finance is an issue Carrie’s personal qualities also appear straitened. Carrie’s approach is transactional, both consciously and sub-consciously, but to date the chance met Ames is the only character lacking financial cupidity.
At this point I am curious to see how her talent for acting will play out, if it is thematically significant or not.
Yes, let’s see what happens with the acting. Carrie is self-centered. I dislike her at times, not because she has lived with a man she was not married to and now is living with another man under a false (bigamous? ) marriage but because she is selfish. She is good natured when there is no reason not to be but does not extend herself for anybody else. This may make her a fine actress, as she is an observer with no very deep feelings.
Those who have stayed with us this far may think we have said more than enough. Perhaps we have, but Sarah and I are enjoying the discussion. Now, it’s back to her….