Urban society imposes on the characters from Sister Carrie a pressure to which many of them succumb. The urban landscapes serve as setting for the story, feature of naturalism. In this setting, the characters are compared to elements of the sea, as they are insignificant in the vast sea, just like tiny “wisps”. This sea serves not only as an image for crowds of people, but for forces stronger than man, in this case capitalism. It is inevitable and all the lives of the characters turn around either the attainment of money or the deliberate showing off of it. Feelings and emotions drop in importance compared to the tide of uncontrolled capitalism and there is always another opportunity in the sea of people. Carrie goes with the tide through several relationships, none long-lasting, each of them changing. As if contrary to her will, but if the sea image is seen as the “tide of capitalism” then it is clear that Carrie is simply following the pledge of material comfort and not love. Although the surface events of the novel appear to parallel those of many a tale of passion, love as it is plays no genuine role in Carrie’s life. Sister Carrie depicts a complicated story about survival and lack of experience “giving up of one’s mind to the powerful sea of capitalist forces and selfish desires”.( Smith, web)
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As an example of naturalism, special and considerable attention is given by Dreiser to sea and water imagery. Here, the sea stand for the sea of people that gather together in urban areas, this is an enormous place where one can get lost or become drowned quite easily. The sea is shelter for many types of fish and few fight to shine and not mingle with those that are swept by the current. In the sea, however, there is merely the great effort to stay floating and not get lost.
When Carrie is swept to “the sea of humanity in the city”( Smith, 2010: web), she is lost and disserted. Even if she has optimistic thoughts about her future, she tends to compare herself with the other “fish” and realizes that what she has accumulated as experience at home does not apply in the city. Home in Wisconsin she was an individual, but here she is one of the many that struggle in society. This thought is portrayed in a quote, “Men and women hurried by in long, shifting lines. She felt the flow of the tide of effort and interest-felt her own helplessness without quite realizing the wisp on the tide she was” (18). It is now that she realizes that she belongs to the sea and that she is bound to find her place in it. The rapid movement of people does not permit rationality and exposure of feelings. It is place characterized by superficiality and Carrie soon acknowledges her insignificance within it.( Smith, 2010: web)
Carrie’s place in the urban sea is gradually changed with the added capital. Drouet helps her separate from the rest of the crowd and when encountering the girls from her former work place “Carrie felt as if some great tide had rolled between them” (59). Drouet’s appeal proves overwhelming and Carrie soon yields to his seduction. However Dreiser does not render Carrie’s seduction directly; instead he abruptly shifts attention to Minnie, who is sleeping at home dreaming of Carrie and herself in a series of crisis. In the dream the two women find themselves “by strange waters”, standing on “something that reached far out”( 61) Minnie’s dream paints the curious turn Carrie’s life had taken once accepting Drouet’s offer. Eventhough initially she seemed swept by the sea she found her way to the surface. This is only the result of what Hurstwood noticed as being a strong point in Carrie: “She possessed an innate taste for imitation and no small ability” (112). She possesses a strange adaptability to the ways of the city and sometimes she pretends to do so in order to fit the patterns of the capitalist society. (Smith, 2010: web)
Dreiser fills with ironic detail chapters 14-15 when describing Carrie as insecure and afloat. In the presence of Drouet, who once made her feel she had found a calm spot in a “sea of trouble”, Carrie feels “all at sea mentally” (106) when discussing Hurstwood. It is with further ironic twist, then, that Carrie is shown wearing a sailor hat when she meets her new lover in the park. The imagery of sea continues in the scene between Carrie and Hurstwood. Hurtwood wants to “plunge in” and expostulate with Carrie, but finds himself “fishing for words.” For Carrie the “floodgates” are open, and she finds herself “still illogically drifting and finding nothing at which to catch”, “driftingâ€¦on a borderless sea of speculation.”(114-115) Hurstwwood beats on against the current of Carrie’s indecision. The imagery reveals Drouet’s intention to show the nature of man’s existence in a world of flux and irresistible change. Man is dominated and controlled by the forces of nature. At those times when he most needs it, his reason abandons him. (Balling,1967: 50)
Besides Carrie, Hurstwood also acknowledges that the environment has shaped him too. Not long after he leaves his home town to start “downstream” with Carrie we are given the author’s opinion regarding his decision: “Whatever a man like Hurstwood had been in Chicago, it is very evident that he would be but an inconspicuous drop in an ocean like New York. In Chicago, whose population still ranged about 500,000, millionaires were not numerous” (214). “The sea was already full of whales. A common fish must needs disappear from view-remain unseen. In other words Hurstwood was nothing.” This remarks foreshadow the entire struggle Hurstwood gives from the moment he leaves the known waters of Chicago.
Perhaps the only time one manages to assert his individuality is when he attains capital and the ability to control the environment in which he lives. From the moment Carrie gets money she acknowledges that this is the only way she can survive. Economic stability is what she longs which brings with it social security. “In the view of a certain stratum of society, Carrie was comfortably established-in the eyes of a starveling, beaten by every wind and gusty sheet of rain she was safe in a halcyon harbor” (69). Dreiser uses the sea imagery throughout the entire story showing Carrie’s permanent drift. She finally has left the unsteady seas with “wind and gusty sheet[s] of rain” reach the coast and a “halcyon harbor” ( 69) emphasizing the fact that with suitable means one can overcome the sea.( Smith, web)
Dreiser draws his imagery in the next chapters from savage nature. The vision of doom finds expression in images of stormy weather and “blackening thunderclouds” pouring forth ” a rain of wrath.” In the tempest of his wife’s savage jealousy, Hurstwood is “like a vessel , powerful and dangerous, but rolling and floundering without sail.” Similarly, in the onslaught of Drouet’s discovery about her and Hurstwood and her own discovery about Hurswood’s marriage, Carrie is shaken loose from her morning of logic” and becomes ” an anchorless, storm-beaten little craft which could do absolutely nothing but drift.” Through such imagery Dreiser demonstrates his “naturalistic” philosophy, showing his belief that man is merely an object battered about the dark forces of the natural universe. The ship, a conventional image of man’s temporary but heroic triumph over nature is cast adrift and battered about mercilessly. (Balling, 1976: 52)
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Dreiser opens chapter 29 “the Solace of travel: The boats of the Sea” with a discussion of travel. To the untraveled, new places are fascinating. Travel “solaces and delights”. New things and places to see are so fascinating that they cannot be neglected, and the mind, which is a mere reflection of sensory impressions, succumbs to the flood of objects.” One forgets lovers, puts aside sorrow, and suspends impending problems. Thus Carrie is fascinated by her entry into New York with its boats and highways, and especially the East River, “the first sign of the great sea.” (Balling, 1963: 59)
In Dreiser’s world view such a drastic change in conditions is part of the extraordinary flux of life. At one moment Carrie drifts along on tempestuous sea; the next moment she finds herself on the crest of a wave riding toward success. Looking over her shoulder, she sees Hurstwood slipping beneath the stormy surface.
In the urban landscape the sea of people seems interminable. Some people are desperately trying to stay afloat but others dare to hope for more and even dream of reaching the ” halcyon harbor” -the promise of wealth and satisfaction. In Dreiser’s world the paradigm “survival of the fittest” is illustrative for that specific trait that many “fish” lack: adaptability. This is what pushes Carrie to the pinnacle of success and what draws Hurstwood back into the deep waters of humanity.
The world that Dreiser portrays is a ceaseless flux, a fluid, wide-open universe in xhich people are constantly rising and falling – quality which he seeks to suggest by the cluster of water images he employs in the novel, his countless description of Carrie ” drifting with the tide” his summation of Hurstwood in New York as ” an inconspicuous drop in the ocean”, and his various comparisons of the city to the sea. In such a world the only reality is movement, the only good is upward movement, the only objects worth having are those one can not afford. (Lynn, 1991: 503)
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