Theodore Dreiser is one of the most controversial figures in American literary history. Sister Carrie, Dreiser's first novel, and one of his earliest works of fiction, is universally recognized as a major American novel. Dreiser's controversy with Doubleday, Page and Company over the publication of Sister Carrie is one of the most frequent noted events in American literary history and the subject that spurred into a deeper research of the problem.
Being written under the pressure of his friend Arthur Henry, Sister Carrie was to become a symbol of a new era in writing fiction. In a society marked by discrepancy between reality and appearance Dreiser's story depicts the cruel crushing effects of such an environment on the characters. The present thesis entitled American Life in the Twentieth Century: Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie comes to reinforce the belief that this novel is the core reflection of American background.
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The intent of this thesis is to provide an extended analysis on several characteristics of modern American life as mirrored by Sister Carrie. Eventhough the chapters developed in this paper seem varied with apparently no connection between them they have as a bond the naturalistic movement behind the writing of Sister Carrie.
Therefore the diploma paper is divided in five chapters, each one having one or more extensions of the main topic. The first chapter introduces the issue of the controversial publication of the book and its reception by the reading public. It primarily follows the history of the publishing of Sister Carrie trying to reveal the motives of its suppression and those particular aspects that shocked the public. Here a collection of letters constitutes a documentary description of the publication of Sister Carrie edited by the critic Donald Pizer.
The second chapter ( Literary Movements in Sister Carrie) as hinted by the title, has as aim of framing the novel into a literary movement. Sister Carrie is considered as the masterwork of Theodore Dreiser's writing talent in naturalist style but as argued by various critics Sister Carrie is either classed as a work of pure naturalism, or as a mixture of naturalistic and realistic elements. Consequently this chapter comprises a more theoretical first subchapter and presents the birth of naturalism from realism following the innovations it brings. Moreover, a subchapter is dedicated to Dreiser's general writing tendency and philosophy. At this point Dreiser passes through various stages of influence, from the theory of evolution to the conclusion that life is the result of mechanism beyond determinism and "chemisms." Though he only mentions the innovative ideas of Spencer, Dreiser does not yield to employ several theories such as Darwin's "survival of the fittest" or Zola's "pseudo-scientific principles." Moreover, outlining these theories, the third and the fourth subchapters (Sister Carrie between Realism and Naturalism and Naturalistic Elements in Sister Carrie) show the creation of Dreiser both at the barrier between realism and naturalism and highlight the strict naturalistic aspects reflected in the work. At the same time the study, through the angle of naturalism in American literature describes how environmental features and heredity factors control the protagonist's destiny.
Further on, the chapter Visions of America in Sister Carrie is based on the realistic images of America transposed by Dreiser in his work. The focus is manly on the realities of the day such as capitalism, consumerism and work in general, then on the influence of the big cities of New York and Chicago had on the characters. It is here that Thorstein Veblen's pattern of "conspicuous consumption" precisely fits the bill. An overview of what meant the American life in late nineteenth century towards early twentieth century with special interest on the harsh reality of the time. Sister Carrie portrays the massive industrialization process, the immigration, the Brooklyn trolley strike and the reversal of gender roles in a booming society, all of which are present in the revolutionized America.
The third chapter (entitled Symbols) consists of various subchapters that focus on the treatment of symbolism. The second subchapter is meant to show the extent to which clothes provoke the interior and the social raise of the individual. An interpretation of money, mirrors, theatres, interiors and dwellings, dreams and newspapers complete the series of objects discussed in the paper. Separate attention has been given to water imagery strongly connected with the failure and success that the characters experience. Each of these symbols seems to voice the impetuous desires induced by society directing the individual into the treacherous ways of the consumerism in America
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
Finally the status of women in late nineteenth century America and the main character's role in society was subject to interpretation and analysis. Representative of the "New Woman" Sister Carrie perfectly envisages the reversal of the situation of the Victorian woman, as she is not passed judgments by the narrator for her apparently immoral actions. Thus the chapter Sister Carrie, the Actress contours the main character's figure through her roles in the theatre and through her success as an actress, in relation with the jungle-like environment in which she lives. Her success is guaranteed by the endowed gift of reproducing the reality and her physical traits. Once again Sister Carrie is driven by forces greater than her, reflecting the naturalistic pattern.
All these aspects fomented the search and kindled a lasting interest into discovering the cultural and social basis on which Sister Carrie was constructed. Perhaps many appealing aspects may have been left behind but the general tendency was to create continuity between issues that seem remote.
It must be added that the plan conceived in the beginning was not followed thoroughly, as new ideas came while reading critic and analyses on Sister Carrie. Despite the general view induced by the title, the paper did not achieve an overview of all aspects indicated by it. However it has been difficult to maintain my direction in this paper and subject to analyses have been only those aspects that touched the naturalistic concept and were omitted those that even though would have constituted strong chapters, seemed remote from the general tendency of the paper. The intention was to write an analysis of the novel Sister Carrie revealing new sides of the story itself and offer unexpected interpretations to topics widely discussed. At the same time the interest was to show readers that even though it was written over a century ago Sister Carrie is still generally read by contemporary people and continually valued by critics in other new viewpoint and charged with new connotations. It came as a surprise to discover that Dreiser anticipated in Sister Carrie very much of what might be observed nowadays, in a consumerism driven, ever-transforming society.