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Theodor Dreiser wrote his novel "Sister Carrie" in 1900. This novel became a very successful debut of him. Besides he laid down all the major themes that were also reflected in his following novels.
"Sister Carrie" was called the typical American novel. The main characters and their stories illustrated the influence that the changes in the economic situation in the country made upon American society and culture. Caroline Meeber is one of the thousands of men and women who were seeking for any job in hard economic situation caused by the economic boom. She is introduced into a novel in an unusual way. She has no history and we know nothing about her former life.
Capitalism influenced the American society. And one of the manifestations of this influence was the strong emphasis on the conspicuous consumption. Theodor Dreiser pays attention to every detail: he thoroughly enumerates everything Carrie has with her on her arrival. He also emphasizes that everything is artificial, that fact would play an important role in her formation as a personality. The reader's first impression of Carrie is formed by her possessions, because her thoughts, intentions and ideals are yet unknown. Dreiser ends his description with the exact sum of money Carrie carries with her. From now on the emphasis of the money problem will be one of the main features of the novel. As we know later one of the Carrie's heart's desires is to accumulate money and material positions, because she strongly believes that it is the only possible way to happiness. That s why Drouet attracts her so much. He seems to be rich, elegant and therefore happy. This image created by Carrie's mind promises her material pleasures, nice clothing, wealthy life and many other desirable things. This is the first time when Carrie manifests her consumer's mentality that governs her relations with other people and her attitude towards them.
The hard economic situation in the USA made the job search an ordeal for many people. Besides this situation reveals the capitalist values of the society. Employers do not treat people as personalities but look at everyone as a commodity, judging whether a man or a woman corresponds to the cost. Furthermore the capitalist character of economy manipulates consumers and their desires. Carrie is a vivid example. She wants beautiful things desperately, although she has no money to buy everything she wants. She is constantly frustrated by the inability to buy things that are necessary for life. And that terrible poverty makes her miserable.
So she is attracted by Drouet who seems to have no problems that do not let Carrie be happy. Drouet is represented as a symbol of the new economic structure. He can be called a commodification of a living being. He is not a consumer, he sell things to other people. Carrie is an active consumer in the heart of hearts, so she longs to be near wealth and prosperity. It is not difficult for her to understand that having a nice face she attract men's attention. She understands that men treat women as commodity. And she does not mind to sell herself in order to get everything she desires. She is also eager to join the world of consumerism as it promises her many pleasures and joys. She throws herself into Drouet's arms, who appears to be so nice and generous buying her new clothes and giving money. Relations between men and women are shown from the consumerist side: men can buy women, and women do not object to be bought at all. Consumer mentality governs even intimate relation between people. Carrie desperately wants to have money. Time had not come for her to understand that money alone is worth of nothing. She still believes that if she could buy everything she would have no problems. Carrie is not presented as an only fallen woman who should be condemned by a reader. She is one of many other women who had no choice during those times. Or at least they thought that there was no other way for them.
Hurstwood is a man from another world, the world of rich people and wealthy life. He is a capitalist. He must be happy in his life as from the first point of view he has everything a poor man or woman (such as Carrie) may want: beautiful wife, which is his proud in the eyes of the neighbors, educated and intelligent children, who will enrich their wealth after their marriages. Hurstwood made a good career and his position brings him a very good profit. So what is the reason to his unhappiness, asks Theodor Dreiser. What happened to the man who cannot get pleasure from the wealthy life? The answer appears to be not difficult at all. There is no limit to a person's consumer desires. Carrie is poor and she want to buy pretty clothes and have money for her simple entertainments, while Hurstwood's wife suffering are not less than Carrie's, because she cannot afford herself an expensive resort tour. Unsatisfied desire is the ground for all the troubles: all the members of the consumer society are not satisfied with what they have, everybody wants to have more. No matter how much money you already have the idea that someone has more do not let people sleep. So Carrie wants to get access to the world of George Hurstwood, but his wife and daughter want to get access to the higher circle of the richer people.
Hurstwood's wife Julia is not happy in her marriage. She cannot stand the position of the woman who is controlled by her husband, the position of the woman who is possessed by a man and is told what to do and where to go. Hurstwood really treats his wife as his possession and enjoys the idea that he can show her as one of his belongings as a manifestation of his wealth. But their marriage was also based on the consumerist principle: Hurstwood married her and therefore let her enter his rich world, while Julia sold him the exclusive right to have her body in his possession. That actually happened to Carrie when she accepted Drouet's courting and agreed to have intimate relations with him. So Mrs. Hurstwood understands that having actually sold herself to a man she made a mistake. Marriage bonds burden her, she suffers from the inability to do what she wants to. Carrie also suffers, but the reasons of her sufferings are quite opposite: she feels humiliated having to pretend that she is Douet's wife, while she is not. She sees salvation in the marriage bonds while Julia Hurstwood wants to get rid of them. Still neither Carrie nor Julia get satisfaction after reaching their goals. Julia Hurstwood is still jealous and angry that her husband left her. Carrie cannot find satisfaction in marriage to Hurstwood, especially when he stops to give her money for all her entertainments. This example illustrates that consumerist view of life influences every sphere of life.
Carrie's marriage to George Hurstwood is actually a consumerist deed. She does not think about her feelings towards him. She just tries to anticipate whether it would bring her any profit or not. Having counted that Hurstwood has more potential that Drouet, she does not hesitate to make a decision at once: Drouet is needed no more. Theodore Dreiser tells us nothing about love between them. After George Hurstwood proposes Carrie to stay with him, she does not plunge into prolonged talks about love or any other feelings between them. She considers a mere kiss to be enough to sign a consumerist contract between them. She actually sells herself for the second time to another man. Carrie's calculations are not difficult: Hurstwood has money; he can be useful for her. The only problem is that her calculations are not very distant: she does not expect that George Hurstwood stole the money from his company and has to return them in order to avoid public scandal. Carrie manages to make a career of an actress. She starts doing good money. While Carrie is doing a success and is becoming more and more popular, Hurstwood is declining - not only in material aspect, but also in the psychological one. So he represents consumer interest for Carrie no more. He has no money and can give her nothing. Her needs and desires grow every day on a high speed. She wants to make friends with rich women, who do not want to know her, because her husband is not in his top form any longer. Carrie is ashamed of Hurstwood, she does not want this feeling prevent her from entering the higher circles of the wealthy society. So there is a decision of the problem: Hurstwood has done what he had to and should be displaced from Carrie's successful and happy life.
Carrie reaches the wealth she desired so much. But to her great surprise she does not become happier than she was before. She has rich clothes, so much than she does not even have time to wear them all; she has a lot of admirers, but they follow her not because she is an outstanding personality as she would like to believe but because she represents a very nice commodity they would like to purchase. Still attention of many men is attracted by Carrie's high price she managed to establish for her nice face and empty soul. Neither her success nor popularity give emotional and moral pleasure for everything she does. Being already a rich woman she is still as miserable as she was when she had nothing to eat and twenty dollars given by Drouet could make her the happiest woman in the world. She is an impersonalized representative of the world of rich people. In this respect the contrast between rich and poor people is emphasized by the captain. He is a man, who has no home and lives in the street. Every day he gathers the other poor people around him and together they try to spend a day of their life. They beg for food and some money. Stopping numerous pedestrians he manages to collect money for a night in a cheap shelter for every one of them. He persists in his begging until every man has a place to sleep that night. This character symbolizes the dehumanized life of poor people, their desperate situation. He is also a personification of human kindness, love for neighbor in the middle of the huge city where it is extremely difficult to preserve human feelings and feel charity. Not only does he ask for money, but he tries to earn it doing everything he can - entertaining people, making performances for them. He is an actor as Carrie, but their purposes are different. While she is trying to slake her thirst for money and cannot do it, this man manages to reach his goal every day, earning less that Carrie. He achieves his aim and can estimate the real cost of money. Meanwhile Carrie got confused: with all her money she has she can buy a lot of things. She can afford herself buying even love, at least love as she understands it. The problem is that she does not know what can make her happy. She is totally confused: she considered money to be the only means that could make her happy. Now she has no goals, no objects. It is difficult to tell even herself what she wants from life now.