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Naturalism in Sister Carrie

2685 words (11 pages) Essay in English Literature

03/07/17 English Literature Reference this

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There was much debate to whether Dreiser was a “naturalist” after the model of Zola. But if this denomination is reflected by the acceptance of the sordid side of life and a more faithful registration of personal experience, then it can be a characteristic of his work. He was an objective realist who remotely brought together his facts but at the same time he was more. ( Spiller et all, 1963: 1039)

In the case of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie – a novel that has been repeatedly classified in separate accounts as a work of literary realism and literary naturalism – the exact opposite seems to hold true. Featuring elements of two of the most prominent literary “movements” of the time in which it was written, the very consistency of Sister Carrie seems to be built on the combination of “discrepant” parts. Dreiser attains such combinatorial proficiency by operating with a rather distinct method of characterization, correlating the traits of particular characters (primarily Carrie) with a variety of forms of imagery employed to describe the external circumstances that affect them. By joining realistic descriptions with naturalistic intentions in dealing with his characters, Dreiser is able to connect the vastness between literary genres, not only overcoming literary divisions. ( Decker, 1997, 2)

Being the subject of various critics, Dreiser stated his intention with Sister Carrie in one interview in June 1907:

“Here is a book that is close to life. It is intended not as a piece of literary craftsmanship, but as a picture of conditions done as simply and effectively as the English language will permit. To set up and criticize me for saying ‘vest’ instead of waistcoat, to talk about my splitting the infinitive and using vulgar commonplaces here and there, when the tragedy of a man’s life is depicted, is silly” ( qtd. In Pizer, 1991: 13)

      Sister Carrie is often referred to as a pattern of “realist” literature because of its very down-to-earth descriptive technique. By presenting a “behind-the-scenes” view of daily life in Chicago and New York – often from the two very different perspectives of Carrie and Hurstwood – Dreiser illustrates what actually happens in places the reader might know only tangentially. Such “objectivity” permitted Dreiser to concentrate on the fundamental qualities of “ordinary human experience” while at the same time representing larger sociocultural notions and values. A context as this serves “to provide the novel in general with two of its most characteristic themes: the individual seeking his fortune in the big city and perhaps only achieving tragic failure, so often described by the French and American Realists; and, frequently in association with this, the milieu studies of such writers as Dreiser” (qtd. in Decker, 1997: ). Integrating “accurate” descriptions of everyday experience in a collection of apparently “vast” American settings, the fiction of Theodore Dreiser has thus been easily recognized in light of realist descriptive technique (Phillips 572).

       Literary naturalism “developed out of realism’ and ‘Darwin’s biological theories’ Those in favour of a naturalistic approach to and interpretation of life concentrated on depicting the social environment and dwelt particularly on its deficiencies and on the shortcomings of human beings. The ‘naturalist’s’ vision of the estate of man tended to be subjective and was very often somber” (Naturalism 537-8). Naturalist authors refocused the objective of the realist novel by examining the unintelligible influences of biology and culture on man to expose the weakness of the human condition. By detecting the impossibility of “human understanding,” naturalist authors depicted experience as a assemblage of events generated by innate cultural and biological inheritances. Rather than trying to bring to light and describe the nature of specific social and cultural “truths,” naturalists proved readers that the “facts” themselves were in reality driven by greater and often incomprehensible sociobiological forces (qtd. in Decker, 1997, 2)).

       Evocative of a rather deterministic message, Sister Carrie has also been often referred to as a work of literary naturalism (qtd in Decker,). In this view, the city settings in which the plot develops are means for the various social and biological forces that drive the action of this novel. Both Carrie and Hurstwood are stimulated by external and internal forces that are beyond their individual powers of control. The descriptions of the characters, then – in particular those involving external appearances and settings to internal traits – illustrate how deeply these individuals are influenced by factors inexplicable to them. The original message of Sister Carrie – the futility and mystery of life-guiding forces considering the intriguing vagaries of fortune – is therefore a readily naturalistic one (Walcutt 266-9).

       Even though literary realism and naturalism are often seen as different and discordant modes of representation in the American literary “canon,” the movements – in theme as well as in description – are not mutually absolute. The appearance of American naturalism in the late 19th century did not mark any ultimate rupture with literary realism. In fact, some critics see naturalism as a logical extension of realism, building upon the knowledge of the time and expressing thought in an “updated” fashion (qtd. in Decker). Bearing such ideas in mind, it would seem deductively unsupported to assume that certain authors writing at the turn of the 20th century did not exploit particular aspects of divergent literary “movements” to reflect overarching ideologies of the time.

     Writing in 1900, Dreiser certainly would have been aware of the stylistic elements of both literary movements. With the tools of each of these modes of address at his disposal, Dreiser was able to portray realistic settings and descriptions while maintaining an underlying naturalistic message – one revealing the powerlessness of the individual in a morally confused society. The chief accomplishment of such a combination – that of literary realism and naturalism in Sister Carrie – occurs through the correlation of Carrie’s physical appearance with what one might consider “inherent” personality traits.

       The various realistic character descriptions in Sister Carrie render a very naturalistic message by their correlation with internal traits and motivations. Although the novel continually and quite dispassionately observes the conditions of “ordinary life,” Sister Carrie also centers the attention on the total absence of ethical plot conflict (the presence of which would be notable in a strictly realist novel). Even if its motion is depicted realistically, Sister Carrie is not reliant on determined acts by any of its main characters (Walcutt 270-2). One of the greatest sources of such external / internal conflict occurs in repeated instances of “sea imagery” within the novel’s context. This is particularly relevant to the initial characterization of Carrie.

       “With the wane of the afternoon went her hopes, her courage, and her strength. On every hand, to her fatigued senses, the great business portion grew larger, harder, more stolid in its indifference…. 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 of the tide that she was” (21).

The novel begins with Carrie finding herself in an unfamiliar and “unstable” environment, she “feels” that she is utterly subject to a force greater than that of her own personal agency. Carrie’s “job-seeking” efforts are described is extremely realistic ones. The circumstances of trying to obtain a working position in a low social place are faithfully portrayed, including their potential effects such a “hardship” might have on the individual psyche (.Decker) Yet, when one judges the primary “motivation” in this quote, it becomes obvious that there is a naturalistic message emphasizing the abovementioned realistic descriptions. This message – of whose implications Carrie is not aware – is one that paints man as a helpless organism in a “sea” of forces above and beyond his control and understanding. Finding a job – seen as an internal motivation, one marked by realistic description – is merged with an “external nature” that evades any decisive human control. A debate on internal “motivation” might be interpreted as one of the ways in which Dreiser combines realistic description with naturalistic intention in order to triumph over the strict difference between literary realism and naturalism.

       Such correspondence between realistic descriptions and naturalistic intention can also be found in the concrete characterization of Carrie. Dreiser frequently compares Carrie’s physical and mental composition, utilizing the forces of literary realism to convey actual descriptions while employing naturalistic techniques to provide an underlying message.

       “Caroline, or Sister Carrie, as she had been half affectionately termed by the family, was possessed of a mind rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis. Warm with the fancies of youth, pretty with the insipid prettiness of the formative period, possessed of a figure promising eventual shapeliness and an eye alight with certain native intelligence” (Dreiser 2).

This way, Carrie is made a “preface”, her character is depicted in two ways: first, through the description of her mental traits, and second, through the description of her physical appearance. By the realistic portrayal of Carrie’s “looks,” Dreiser hints at who Carrie “is.” By then placing both physical and mental characteristics within the bounds of a single phrase, Dreiser makes a very naturalistic argument. This claim – that the forces of biology have not contoured the way Carrie looks but also the way she thinks and acts – is one that strengthens the concept of the frailty of human understanding. This is significant considering the overall attitude to Sister Carrie can be regarded as a reflection of biological determinism convoyed by a conviction that the course of narrated events has neither order nor direct accessibility to man’s intellect (Walcutt 277). By revealing the reader that Carrie’s mental qualities are established exclusively on features beyond her control, Dreiser formulates the naturalistic reason that human agency is driven by a greater force than that of the consideration of individual characters as well as novel’s final motion. In this way, the early presentation of Carrie’s personality combines realistic description with naturalistic meaning – that of biological stimulus and man’s limited discernment – to exceed the bounds of literary genre.

      moreover, Dreiser employs similar physical descriptions to show how Carrie’s mental and emotional traits are viewed by others in this novel.

        “He looked at her pretty face and it vivified his mental resources. She was a sweet little mortal to him – there was not doubt of that. She seemed to have some power back of her actions. She was not like the common run of store-girls. She wasn’t silly” (53).

By this quote, Dreiser familiarizes his reader with Drouet’s perspective, who sees Carrie from the perspective of her beauty. By realistically comparing her physical appearance with the “common run of store-girls,”(53) Owing to his vast knowledge with women Drouet concludes that Carrie is not only more physically attractive than the average-looking woman of the period, but also gifted with more “agency.” This quote speaks about the realistic description of Carrie’s physical qualities to the sphere of the naturalistic by disclosing the biological basis of mental traits. The description of Carrie’s physical traits in this passage suggests the tone of naturalism through realistic depiction, demonstrating that Carrie’s personality is nothing other than an increase of her biological composition. By presenting Carrie through the eyes of a knower (Drouet), Dreiser shows that even other individuals morally corrupted society in where the narrative is set, are blinded by the expression of physical traits. Dreiser therefore mingles realistic descriptions of Carrie with a naturalistic implication to show the limitations of rigorously defining literary realism and naturalism.

       Dreiser also conveys the combination of literary realism with naturalism by directly addressing physical influences on mental and emotional qualities.

       “To the untraveled, territory other than their own familiar hearth is invariably fascinating. Next to love, it is the one thing which solaces and delights. Things new are too important to be neglected, and mind, which is a mere reflection of sensory impressions, succumbs to the flood of objects” (217).

This quote is meant directly for the reader. In Dreiser’s fiction, there is often an explicit correlation between the narrator and the author himself. By temporarily assuming the role of the narrator, Dreiser is able to insert his own personal opinions directly into the text without assuming an overly authoritative tone (qtd in Decker, 6). By addressing the reader directly, Dreiser is able to express his naturalistic message bluntly by making the most of realistic descriptions, thus bridging the disparity between literary realism and literary naturalism.

       A final example that demonstrates the overlap between literary realism and naturalism in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie occurs at the novel’s conclusion. At this point in the plot’s progression, the relationship between realistic description and naturalistic intent has become fairly evident. The combination of literary movements is further enhanced when Dreiser directly attributes Carrie’s success as an actress (based on naturalistic “motivation”) to the acknowledgment of her very realistically described physical beauty.

       “Now because Carrie was pretty, the gentlemen who made up the advance illustrations of shows about to appear for the Sunday papers selected Carrie’s photo along with others to illustrate the announcement. Because she was very pretty, they gave it excellent space and drew scrolls around it. At the same time there seemed very little in her part. It consisted of standing around in all sorts of scenes, a silent little Quakeress. Carrie was the chief feature of the play. The audience, the more it studied her, the more it indicated its delight. Every other feature paled beside the quaint, teasing, delightful atmosphere which Carrie contributed while on stage” (Dreiser 351-3).

       At the novel’s conclusion, Dreiser shows the reader that Carrie has risen above her former station in life – one initially marked by a feeling of almost overwhelming helplessness. Dreiser also points out, however, that Carrie has achieved her position as a “well-known” actress only through others’ recognition of her physical beauty – a trait that was marked as causing her “heightened” mental and emotional prowess from the novel’s very inception. Carrie’s part as an actress consists only of standing around and frowning – “acting” which fails to lend itself to her potential mental fortitude. In effect, then, Carrie has risen above and beyond her initial rank in life by ends outside her control and understanding. By realistically describing the announcement of her part in the papers as well as the actual role itself, Dreiser shows the reader how Carrie has advanced naturalistically – on the basis of her physical attractiveness to members of the opposite sex. In this conclusion, then, Dreiser utilizes realistic descriptions in order to convey the naturalistic notion that it is only Carrie’s beauty that contributes to her “inner” being and her ultimate success. With this idea in mind, Dreiser definitively binds realistic description to the naturalistic notion of helplessness and misunderstanding to dispel the boundaries between literary movements.

       Although “traditionally” referenced as a work of either strict literary realism or naturalism, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is a novel that incorporates certain aspects of each of these movements to overcome the boundary seemingly inherent between the two. Through the pervasive combination of realistic description with the naturalistic dismissal of individual power and understanding, Dreiser, writing at the turn of the 20th century, bridges the expanse between these two literary movements. Utilizing realistic descriptions of internal motivations and physical descriptions, Dreiser gives the reader an “accurate” sense of who Carrie “is” and what her “world” is “like.” Dreiser also conveys a naturalistic message in his novel – one marked by the misunderstanding of a morally oblivious society regarding various underlying behavior-governing forces. By frequently comparing Carrie’s physical appearance to her emotional and mental composition, Dreiser shows the reader that seemingly personal qualities are based on strictly sociobiological foundations. By utilizing realistic descriptions of Carrie’s physical attributes to contribute to his naturalistic message, Dreiser bridges the gap between literary realism and naturalism and proves that strict holistic coherence need not be based on readily “compatible” parts.

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