Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Posted 3 February, 2015 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 27 Comments

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Sister Carrie Book CoverTitle: Sister Carrie
Author: Theodore Dreiser
Published: 1900; Pages: 400-557?
Genre: Fiction (Classic)
Rating: Oh the drama!

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In Short: Country girl goes to the city and gets wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of money, men, and society.

Why I Read: Because Care was reading it and it had been a while since I’ve read something this “old” (for shame!). Honestly, I’d never heard of Sister Carrie OR Theodore Dreiser before the readalong (though I since realized he wrote An American Tragedy).

Thoughts in General: O from Behold the Stars says it much better than I could… But I’ll be talking a lot more details than I normally  do in a book post, so if you don’t want to see spoilers, skip on down to the Bottom Line section. The basic plot of Sister Carrie is that young and impressionable Carrie moves to Chicago to live with her sister. On the train to Chicago she meets a gentleman, Mr. Drouet, who later entices her with comforts such as clothing and a place to live. During this time Carrie kind of sort of looks for work and ends up trying her hand at acting in a small theater production. She “befriends” a Mr. Hurstwood, whom she doesn’t know is married, and they later end up down a deep and dark path to wretched despair.

Or something–this is me being vague. The book apparently takes place over several years and dear Sister Carrie ends up in a very different place than she started. Though she is clearly none the happier in the end. More on this in a bit.

I was pleasantly surprised at how readable Sister Carrie is–especially given that I haven’t read a book that is more than a century old in quite some time. I was immediately swept up into the story and found myself easily reading a chapter or two in a setting. Sister Carrie is often credited as a more journalistic view of the turn of the century and this is indeed something that I really appreciated about the book. We see Carrie as she searches for a job to support herself and pay for her board at her sister’s. So often books of this time period focus on a woman’s role as wife and mother that it was nice to see a turn of the century look at a woman’s work outside of the home. Even if her continual search did bring back nasty personal feelings from my own job searches. Ha!

There’s also a lot to be said about the relationship between Carrie and Mr. Drouet and especially Carrie and Mr. Hurstwood later in the book as she assumes the role of his wife. Spoilers here–the book ends in much unhappiness after Carrie has separated from Hurstwood after he has failed to secure a job after years (though her reason for leaving him was not solely related to this). Her unhappiness comes when she seems to have finally made a name for herself in society and has satisfied every want she could, but none of this has brought her happiness.

I found myself really irritated at Dreiser and his message–is Carrie unhappy because she got too wrapped up in the American Dream and got lost in the material? That as long as she is continually striving for more that she will never really attain happiness or her dream?  Should we not want for better or for more? I realize that this can be a trap, but goodness should she have stayed in her small hometown or even worse as a lowly shoe repairwoman living for $4 a week and living under her sister’s roof?

There’s certainly more than I can grasp onto here and oh how I wish I could grab some coffee with the #CarrieAlong folks and chat!

Bottom Line: Glad I read it, and it’s worth your exploring as well. Not the best classic I’ve read but not the worst, either. This one also makes for a great discussion piece. I have so many questions and comments after finishing.

Have you read any Dreiser? What’s the last classic book that you read?

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27 Responses to “Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser”

  1. Okay. I think I said (here) before that while I’ve read this one, I much preferred An American Tragedy. I read them both in 2001, and only the latter stuck with me. I have this vague memory of Sister Carrie, including an end that I didn’t think was tragic (though again, I *barely* remember it, so it’s possible I just don’t remember the end!). An American Tragedy, on the other hand, was excellent, and really stuck with me, and I reread it a few years back even though it’s 1000+ pages long. And loved it just as much the second time. So don’t Carrie put you off if you ever think about Dreiser again. :)

    • ***SPOILERS*** I don’t know if this one is really TRAGIC…though Hurstwood does end up dying at the end and Carrie is terribly unhappy despite the fact that she is an independent woman, making her own living, being the best at her profession…She’s just plain UNHAPPY. I can’t figure out exactly what Dreiser is trying to say except maybe that we want for TOO much? The whole thing really bothered me. But nothing terribly tragic happens to her… I do want to read American Tragedy!

  2. I’m so glad you joined in the readalong! I’m glad it was easier to read than I expected, too. So many discussions about life in general, morals, the American Dream, “what’s it all mean?”, etc and then some in this book – a great slice of life look at a particular person and overall economics/lifestyles of that time. I do think I want to continue with Dreiser and read An American Tragedy, someday.

    • I really loved seeing the economics and lifestyle in Sister Carrie as it seems a bit different than I’ve encountered before–I’m trying to think of another instance of a “self-made woman” (if Carrie can be called that?). I just wish she hadn’t been so unhappy at the end!!

    • Carrie and I debated a bit on how long this book actually is (which is why there’s a range above!). Her copy is 400 pages but I saw anywhere up to 550 pages (maybe that includes notes, footnotes, big print??). It was interesting but I think maybe American Tragedy is the way to go for Dreiser?

  3. I read An American Tragedy last fall and Sister Carrie last month. The details of Sister Carrie are already fading (I’d better get a post written fast) yet, like Amanda just said, An American Tragedy has stuck with me. I still find myself thinking about it from time to time.

    I didn’t see Sister Carrie as that much of a tragedy and thought Carrie had actually done pretty well for herself. Will have to go back and reread that last chapter… and make post-writing a priority this week.

    • I don’t think that the ending for Carrie was tragic–I quite agree that she seems to have done well for herself given where she started–though Dreiser makes such a heavyhanded tip to her great unhappiness. I wish I could get a better grasp on what Dreiser’s ultimate message is. How could Carrie have avoided such unhappiness? It just doesn’t sit well with me… I do look forward to eventually reading An American Tragedy!

  4. Ti

    I was telling Care that I had never even heard of this one prior to you guys reading it. It does sound pretty interesting. Very different from the stuff you find today.

    • I hadn’t heard of it either! It wasn’t until someone made the connection to An American Tragedy that this guy sounded even remotely familiar to me. Mostly I jumped on the bandwagon to celebrate Care with a #CarrieAlong. LOL! It was a worthwhile read…and made me want to read more classics this year.

  5. I have only read An American Tragedy which I read back in high school. I was a precocious reader, very precocious. I remember that I loved it and it has stayed with me. Though that could be because of the wonderful Liz Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters film version called A Place in the Sun. Seriously, rent it; read it; you won’t be sorry. Sad maybe, but not sorry.

    • I’m trying to figure out why I’ve only just heard of An American Tragedy in the past couple of months! Solely because of JoAnn and her great praise of the book. How did Dreiser get totally skipped over in all of the classes I took throughout the years? Glad to know about A Place in the Sun–that one does sound familiar. On the list it goes!

  6. This was one of the first books I read in graduate school, and I looooved it! I think all the more because we did have such a lively classroom discussion of it. Good stuff! I want to read Dreiser’s An American Tragedy…hopefully this year.

    • I think the best time to tackle a book is in grad school–the discussions (and yes the research) really make any book SO much more exciting! Miss it… Would love to read An American Tragedy, too.

  7. Great review! I read this in college, so I barely remember it. I thought her “punishment” at the end, where she’s left lonely and disappointed, had to do with her putting her own ambitions ahead of other people in her life? Or maybe I’m not remembering it correctly. It’s been 1000 years since I read it. ;-)

    • It’s an interesting though, Irene–but I still find that troublesome! She was basically kidnapped by Hurstwood–who lied to her about their financial status. Then he failed to get work for years. Throughout the book the phrase “did I try hard enough” is used a lot and I’m not sure if he tried hard enough or not–I think the whole downfall of Hurstwood is fascinating, though, and really speaks to how difficult it can be to find a job when you’re down and out (same for Carrie trying to find a job when she doesn’t have much experience). Perhaps she could have provided more for Hurstwood, but I think she was cheated by him! So should she really be punished for making a good life for herself? What should the alternative be? LOL–sorry–trying to work out my own conflicted feelings. ;)

      • That’s a very fair point, Trish. Honestly, I don’t remember the novel well at all — I wish I remembered it better so I could discuss it properly. Maybe I’ll put a re-read on my list for this year. I want to read American Tragedy soon, anyway, so the timing would be perfect. :-)

        • I actually had a new thought… So I was a bit bothered that Carrie didn’t share or take care of Hurstwood – she really was a bit selfish but then so was he and certainly, for her being a woman, she would have been expected to give her earnings to the man and he would have buried his ‘pride’ and probably not have changed or considered an equitable ‘deal’. So, she wanted to spend it on her clothes and nice things and let him rot. oh well. She lucked into her profession choice – not much else she could have done, I don’t think. And she did play it humbly, sort of. That she didn’t flaunt and try to be in the tabloids, etc.

          • I agree…that part bothered me, too. She expected him to provide for her, but then wouldn’t help out in return? Also, I think you (you Trish, not you Care ;-)) identified what bothered me so much about the end…that she was unhappy. They were all unhappy. What’s wrong with a little happiness, Dreiser?!? But yeah, as you said, it’s still not the worst classic out there. **cough…Brothers K…cough*** ***cough, cough…Ulysses…cough, cough***

  8. Okay, you guys have had me all over the place on this one but I think I’ll give it a shot one day. Sounds like it’s worth reading.

    • LOL! I haven’t had a chance to read the other gals’ reviews, but I think maybe if you’re going to read ONE Dreiser that the consensus is to read An American Tragedy.

  9. How did I not pick up that this is the same author that wrote American Tragedy? I’ve only seen them both written out 50 times! I like how readable this sounds but on the other end it does sound like the message would annoy me. I may go with American Tragedy when I’m in the mood for a chunk!

    • I don’t know what An American Tragedy is about but it seems like it has a pretty good reception–even if a bit longer than Sister Carrie!

  10. I’m skipping the review because I do want to read this one. Dreiser was new to me too. I just read An American Tragedy last year but was impressed by his story telling.

  11. sounds familiar but maybe it’s just the name Carrie. Amazing how some really older novels stand up to the test of time. I just finished Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. Written in 1896 it is creepy and has stayed with me.
    adding Sister Carries to my list!