Visions Of America Sister Carrie English Literature Essay

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Since it first came out, Sister Carrie is remembered as one of the most contentious novels of its time. The astonishingly realistic characters and contentious situations created by Theodore Dreiser, exemplify the double values within the emergent American society at the turn of twentieth century.

In her essay Historical and Cultural Context for Sister Carrie, the author Clare Virginia Eby states that for many readers, the compelling feeling left by Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) "is that of a ceaseless motion directed toward uncertain goals".(Eby, 2001: web) The author's remark depicts precisely the general tendency of an ever-transforming society when giving another important turn. Sister Carrie reflects the actual America, hinting at aspects like social and personal life, depictions of the cities, economy and the massive industrialization.

Dreiser's edgy indecision typical for his characters illustrates the intense renovation in American life at the end of the nineteenth century. "His novel makes the volatility of the period concrete, vivid, and unforgettable by registering its effect on individual lives" (Eby, 2001: web). There are important changes registered in the novel among which the shifting of the economy from an agricultural to industrial basis, the attrition of conventional values subsequent to the Darwinian revolution, and the altering relations between men and women.

Studying Sister Carrie while emphasizing the cultural and historical backgrounds such as these can direct to "a shock of recognition", as the novel grasps the birth of much that we consider familiar, even unavoidable, aspects of modern life.( Eby, 2001: web)

As Dreiser points out, the social order reflected by Sister Carrie is based on economic circumstances. He sets the story in motion by following the migration of Sister Carrie, a young innocent woman whose affection to her family is not fruitful, from her small town home of Wisconsin to the city of Chicago. The confirmed intention of this passage, "if not the psychological impetus behind it" (Eby, 2001: web), is Carrie's necessity for a place to work.

As Mankiller observes, for migrant women, age at immigration, pressure connected to adaptation to a new social and cultural background, disruption in family relations and other losses experienced as a result of the migration play a role into the development of a new person. ( Mankiller at al, 1998: 542) Carrie perfectly reflects the consequences the migration from her home to the big city had on her. A young, inexperienced girl in a new city, having superficial bounds with her family, ends up being swept into the tumult of the city and of the "sins" of it.

The year Dreiser attributes to Carrie's immigration is 1889, and her seek out for employment in the closest major city shows a national tendency, as hinted in the titles of contemporary texts, such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor's Working Women in Large Cities (1888) and the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor's The Working Girls of Boston (1889). In 1890, one year after Dreiser pictures Carrie's arrival in Chicago, the national labor force comprised women aged between fifteen and twenty-four representing the largest section of this group (qtd. in Eby, 2001: web) If we think of the "bright-eyed" optimist Sister Carrie taking the train for the first time to Chicago yet few set down roots more permanently than Carrie's.( Smith-Rosenberg, 1986: 171)

Dreiser initially focuses on women's work, but he broadens his treatment of the issue by including men's labor as well, providing a pertinent index of the changing economy. From the beginning of the U.S. throughout the beginning of the nineteenth century, the economy had been based primarily on the agricultural factor, having as the heart of fabrication the individual household. The goods that individual families consumed were only what they could themselves manufacture. In the beginning of the economy the women's labor was essential, a reversal of the situation or of the model of house wife and mother related with the Victorian era in the course of much of the twentieth century. (Eby, 2001: web)

The city provided higher economic autonomy than did before but women who worked as home laborers, and the working girls in the textile and garment trades obtained small wages that improved only dimly with the expansion of jobs in the accounting and trade sectors.( Mankiller et al, 1998: 597) The evolution from family centered agricultural economy to an industrial order described by managerial capitalism was conditioned by the progress of factories during the nineteenth century.

Factories came with precise demands of centralized labor, groups of people leaving their home and working under one roof and for one purpose. With this change, work inevitably expanded outside the home, and subsequently, the significance of the family and the home also adjusted. Dreiser reasons Sister Carrie in this factory concentrated capitalist economy, accentuating its effects on individuals and families. The era from the Civil War to the end of the nineteenth century was marked by extensive economic change. This transformation implied not only "the factory system and a labor force centralized in cities, but also a vast infrastructure of technology as well as communications and financial systems". (Eby, 2001: web)

Given that the capitalist economy was based on rapid transfers of merchandise from producer to consumers, speed became the rule of the day. As a result human life was set alike to the clock: as a necessity for the effectiveness of the railroads and the employment of synchronized schedules, time zones were established in 1883; in the meantime, "scientific management," the innovation of Frederick W. Taylor, developed time-motion studies to control the moments of a worker's day.( Eby, 2001: web)

While Sister Carrie registers the fervent pace dictated by the market, one of the most important facts the novel illustrates is the shift of the economy "from being supplied by production to being driven by consumption" .( Eby, 2001: web) This change is noticeable from the opening chapters, when Carrie discards the avarice and hard work so advocated by Sven and Minnie Hanson, those erect but dull exponents of the Protestant work "philosophy". Being the "ambassador" of a new age group of Americans, Carrie does not "submit to a solemn round of industry" (32) while postponing fulfillment. Properly, Carrie's first lover is a drummer or traveling salesman who travels a lot in order to sell his company's merchandise. The friendly Drouet does not produce something concrete to sell, but he and many others like him watched the good functioning of the system that brought goods to their final target, the customers. Prospective buyers like Carrie with easily pliable requirements are also vital: without desire, the consumer economy halts. (Eby, 2001: web)

Further more, as Eby remarks, in his notorious Progress and Poverty (1877-79), Henry George offers a classification of desires that describes issues reflected in Sister Carrie. Unfolding "man" as "the only animal whose desires increase as they are fed; the only animal that is never satisfied," George clarifies that "the demand for quantity once satisfied, he seeks quality. The very desires that seem to be common with the beast become absolute, refined, exalted. It is not merely hunger, but taste that seeks gratification in food; in clothes he seeks not merely comfort, but adornment; the rude shelter becomes a house." This way the consumer "passes into higher forms of desire," as in a world without end. (134-5) Exemplifying what George labels "an infinite progression of wants", Carrie Meeber is a noticeably modern figure. (qtd. in Eby, 2001: web)

The purest outline of the psychology of the consumer, is reflected when Carrie wanders through the Chicago department stores, described by Dreiser as "vast retail combinations [. . .] that form an interesting chapter in the commercial history of our nation" (Dreiser, 1991: 22). Sister Carrie evokes the history which involves changes in the merchandising system during the second half of the nineteenth when ways of selling products were developed, which are still common. The vast process of advertising standardized consumer goods began in the 1850s and 60s, when a variety of commodities from jackets to lingerie, from blinds to furniture were launched to the wide market. The new mass retailer, in this case the department store (having as target the urban population) and post order firms (carrying goods to rural population), expanded in the 1870s and '80s. (Eby, 2001: web)

One of the storehouses that Carrie goes to, Chicago's The Fair, launched in 1879. The widespread outcomes of mass retailing were remarkably converted by Dreiser into human terms. The department stores provided customers lower prices and numerous choices, but these choices were deliberate to imbue-as illustrated by Carrie in Chicago's stores-"a new and curiously intimate relationship between purchaser and consumer goods". (Eby, 2001: web)

As mesmerized by the generous offers, Carrie occupies a central role in the multitude of discontented desire and Dreiser's representation of her initiation into the mystery of the department store "bears of the mark of an archetype in American experience" ( Orvell, 1989: 42)

"She passed along the busy aisles, much affected by the remarkable display of trinkets, dress goods, stationary and jewelry. Each separate counter was a show place of dazzling interest and attractions….Carrie could not help feeling the claim of each trinket and valuable upon her personally [. . . .] The dainty slippers and stockings, the delicately frilled skirts and petticoats. [. . .] all touched her with individual desire" (Dreiser, 1991: 22)

The significance of the quote is acute especially by the confusion between use and desire and the interference between reason and need.

It is hard to create an image of what must have been a significant psychological transformation at the beginning of the XX century, as people replaced "garments made at home from coarse homespun cloth, with select ready-made clothing cut to standard sizes and available in endlessly expanding styles" ( Eby, 2001: web). But the attraction that garments and other personal belongings has for Dreiser's characters-what he calls "the voice of the so-called inanimate!" (98)-permits us to glimpse that outstanding change.

Unrestrained consumption increases especially in cities. Dreiser's urban settings in Sister Carrie-the flourishing city of Chicago and the reputable metropolis of New York-are idyllic settings for what the critic Thorstein Veblen termed in 1899 as "conspicuous consumption." (qtd in Eby: web). Veblen's words are significant, for the modern spending patterns that imply conducts that promote advertising status rather than satiating desire. This kind of consumption needs to be evidently on exhibit, and Carrie's leisure walk along Broadway with Mrs. Vance, "going purposely to see and be seen" (323), perfectly matches the pattern. (Eby, 2001: web)

The city, definitely, may be considered Dreiser's most important character in Sister Carrie. The opening chapter offers the narrator's remark on the city: "The city has its cunning wiles," (4) and it seems that Chicago here compared with a man has great seducing power over the protagonist. Chicago, pictured by the narrator "a giant magnet drawing to itself from all quarters the hopeful and the hopeless" (16), may have so attracted Carrie because of its record expansion: from a populace of 300,000 at the time of the fire in 1871 to over one million by 1890.( qtd in Eby, 2001: web)

When Sister Carrie was published, in 1900, "it elicited a chorus of agreement on the quality of its realism" it "was written out of real life" it was "logical and photographic" with its actual names of streets and business, it was a "photograph of life in a large city" its principal value lay in its "photographic description" (Orvell, 1989: 114) It is more than obvious that Carrie's towns reflected Dreiser's reality with the most exact details.

A commentator of the time depicts the appeal of the urban experience in words stunningly predicting Dreiser's: "the metropolis is to lots of people like a lighted candle to the moth. It attracts them in swarms that come year after year with the vague idea that they can get along here if anywhere" ( qtd. in Eby, 2001: web); Dreiser makes use of the moth image to distinguish the saloon that Hurstwood administers: "Here come the moths in endless procession to bask in the light of the flame" (Dreiser, 1991: 46). Ironically, the metropolis that seems to fit anyone and everyone could also leave out others, growing to be what Dreiser calls a "walled city" (239). Thus New York, which "interested Carrie exceedingly" (229), has a harmful consequence on George Hurstwood. As stated by the narrator, no matter how important a man like Hurstwood was in Chicago, he is in New York but "an inconspicuous drop in the ocean." (214) (Eby, 2001: web)

Industrial unit assembly, mass division, and conspicuous consumption in the developed city, all resolved into impressive fortunes in the late nineteenth century.

Dreiser was introduced in the American magic of self-promotion by means of financial success. Before writing his first novel, he issued interviews with Andrew Carnegie and other magnates for Orison S. Marden's Success, a magazine that praised the ideology of rising "mobility." (Eby, 2001: web). It became obvious to Dreiser that the economy had two sides, one that meant fortunes for some and poverty for the rest. The last decades of the nineteenth century were characterized by insecure economy, boom-bust cycles being specific for the period. Dreiser witnessed in his early years two of the most harsh economical crises in the U.S., one starting in 1873 with the collapse of Jay Cooke (the founder the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad) and the second beginning in 1893 (Eby, 2001: web). While several corrupt barons kept vast fortunes during there periods of depression, almost half of the industrial workers stood below the $500 per year poverty rate in the late 1880s (Trachtenberg, 1991: 90). As a mark of their discontent, laborers got together and organized to defend themselves by founding unions such as the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and later the more radical Industrial Workers of the World. (Trachtenberg, 1991: 86). The one that had dramatic effects happened in Chicago in 1886, the Haymarket massacre, ensuing human loses and many wounded after bomb attack at a strike gathering.( Eby, 2001: web)

Labor unions made great progress in America during Dreiser's early life. But there was not even a hint that a disagreement such as the one which resulted in the Brooklyn trolley strike of 1895, the one Hurstwood was involved into, would ever be developed in support of labor. It seems obvious though that Dreiser takes sides with the workers. Difficult to notice in chapter forty one called "The Strike" is Dreiser's emphasis with the double significance of the struggle seen not as a Marxian class struggle but also as a Darwinian battle in which only the fit will survive. In effect, the whole novel presents Carrie surviving as she is compliant and Hurstwood failing once he leaves his common environment, because he is incapable to learn anything new. (Gale, 1968: 19) The harshness of the reality is felt by George Hurstwood when he manages to escape the Brooklyn streetcar assault, "He had read of these things but the reality seemed something altogether new" (Dreiser, 1991: 425).

By comparing Hurstwood's story with Carrie's, Dreiser plays with a dual outlook on the influence the economy has on the individuals. Social mobility is illustrated by Carrie's economic rise and Hurstwood's economic fall and entails that movement pursued not only at the top of success but also to the opposite side of it. When Hurstwood is introduced in the novel, "he is an emblematic, powerful American male: married with children, comfortably well off, a member of the new managerial class, at ease in Chicago's metropolitan scene". His decline begins when he steals money from his company and tricks Carrie by lying to get her on the train, Hurstwood begins a decline that will speed up next to Carrie's steady social climb. Dreiser uses Hurstwood's character and illustrates through his decline that the ill-fated "other" could in fact be anyone-even a man of wealth and reputation. (Eby, 2001: web)

While Sister Carrie registers the irregularity of the economy, extremely productive but disastrously anomalous, an important background for Dreiser's novel is the Darwinian revolution, which had deep and often disconcerting effects. (Eby, 2001: web) Many of Sister Carrie's dominant themes-drift, chance, rivalry, struggle, survival-originate straight from evolutionary ideas. The Origin of Species, published in 1859, asserted that all species were not resultant from divine plan but rather from random variation. Evolutionary views such as Darwin's encouraged new thinking "for replacing God with chance as the universe's creative power".( Eby, 2001: web)

"Social Darwinism," which raises "to the extension of evolutionary ideas to human behavior and interaction" (Eby, 2001: web), was assumed from Darwin by many adepts, especially the British philosopher Herbert Spencer. The renowned expression, "survival of the fittest," was in fact conceived by Spencer and not by Darwin. The latter, the author of laborious books among which First Principles (1862), was greatly popular in the America of Dreiser's day. Daring and unfounded ideas like Spencer's pleased Dreiser, who in Sister Carrie is referred to as propagating a "liberal" philosophy (87). But the vision Dreiser had on evolution followed only little of Spencer's brightness. Instead, Dreiser viewed "our civilization" as being "a middle stage--scarcely beast [. . .] scarcely human"; as for human performers, the narrator of Sister Carrie declares our "innate instincts dulled," our "free will scarcely sufficiently developed" (73). This indicates Dreiser's preoccupation with a more sympathetic strain of evolutionary thought. (qtd. in Eby, 2001: web)

Consequently to the Darwinian revolution, Sister Carrie's enigmatic moral stand shows Dreiser's profound engagement with ethical matters. Carrie's moving from Minnie's place to live with Drouet causes the first of a succession of moral predicaments. (Eby, 2001: web) Their initial attitudes and replies suggest a conventional representation of seduction and sin:

"Oh," thought Drouet, "how delicious is my conquest."

"Ah," thought Carrie, with mournful misgivings, "what is it I have lost?" (69)

But right after the characters' predictable, even antiquated, responses, the narrator does not yield to announce, "Before this world-old proposition we stand, serious, interested, confused; endeavoring to evolve the true theory of morals--the true answer to what is right" (Dreiser, 1991: 69). For centuries, ethical dilemmas have be the subject of human investigation that searched for their "true answer", but Dreiser, by regarding it as "evolving," not declaring, embraces the conclusion of the principal philosophical tendency of his day.

"Dreiser's evolutionary treatment of ethics in Sister Carrie ultimately fringes toward the revolutionary", ( Eby, 2001: web) appealing to the sensitive side of the readers and urges them not to pass judgment on actions that would usually be catalogued as depraved, for instance Carrie's sex before marriage and Hurstwood's thievery. In describing Carrie's setting off from home the narrator conjures up the traditional ethical verdict on a young woman who lives alone in the city:

"When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse" (Dreiser, 1991: 3-4).

But this conception seems to embody a man or woman, for when Dreiser repositions his attention from Carrie to investigating the principle that would condemn her-he terms it "the world's attitude toward woman"-he clearly conceives that "actions such as hers are measured by an arbitrary scale" (Dreiser, 1991: 67). That is why Dreiser deters his readers from considering Carrie as immoral, instead shifting attention to the desuetude of conventional moral standards. The final part of the novel is charged with significance in this regard, for Dreiser parts from ancient literary conventions that "fallen women" must be punished, preferably by a dreadful death. Carrie, to the contrary, may be discontent or alone at the novel's end, but she is physically alive and very successful in the eyes of the world. (Eby, 2001: web)

Likewise, Dreiser manages Hurstwood's life so as to prevent moralizing observations. The matter of moral agency is complicated from the cardinal moment when Hurstwood robs the saloon he manages in Chicago, for the safe is accidentally left unlocked on a ill-fated night when the manager, atypically, has had too much to drink. Here it is difficult to distinguish between crime and accident and readers easily pass judgments on his actions. Instead of acting as a determined manager, Hurstwood "could not bring himself to act definitely"; he is obliged to take action as manipulated by uncontrollable forces. (Dreiser, 1991: 191). And so "while the money was in his hand, the lock clicked. It had sprung. Did he do it? He grabbed at the knob and pulled vigorously. It had closed. Heavens!" (192). Dreiser constructs this critical instance to advocate that Hurstwood, "was accused without being understood" (299). (Eby, 2001: web)

Many of the established codes of conduct were unsettled by the Darwinian revolution, some of the most widespread of these changes resulted in the liaisons between genders. Once again, Sister Carrie illustrates this alteration and offers both profound insight into its historical context and fundamental scenery for emphasizing the current effects of those transformations. Carrie's and Hurstwood's opposite social and economic tendencies draw attention to the attrition of Victorian thinking about proper male opposed to female "spheres," a notion system "that regulated many aspects of middle- and upper-class white American life". According to this nineteenth century model (that even now has followers), "woman's proper "sphere" in the home permitted her to increase her innate nurturing predispositions while applying her influence in a suitable fashion: "by directing the moral development of her children and husband". Likewise, what constituted man's "sphere" was the public world, in particular the marketplace, where his possible inclinations could be directed to help his family and society all together. (Eby, 2001: web)

Even if the narrator of Sister Carrie makes some unreasonable generalizations about women that may make Dreiser look conservative, his sympathy for Carrie's position and aspirations indicates his true vision upon women and their condition in a man ruled society. She sets off as an common immature woman with an "average little conscience" (71) that urge her to maintain the traditional sphere women were assigned. However, besides wishing to be a consumer-a desire that implies a remote attitude towards the traditional role and her move in with Drouet-Carrie is a dissenter, though largely a hesitant one.( Eby, 2001: web)

In the newer scenarios, opportunistic women, such as Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, reacted at the constraint of domesticity and the monotony of the small town. As concluded by one writer, "The city is her frontier and she is the pioneer." ( qtd. in Ruiz, 2000: 316)

Similarly "her heart rebelled" (41) against the Hansons' attempts to suppress her personality, she fights back when, her bigamist husband, the pretender Hurstwood, attempts to restrain her desires. When settling in New York Carrie's relationship with Hurstwood was evidently colder, but here Carrie, "was coming to have a few opinions of her own" (213). Because of her increasing consumer desires, Carrie not surprisingly first recognizes the dual principle leading men's and women's behavior in the way Hurstwood considers appropriate to spend his diminishing store of money. While Hurstwood suggests Carrie they do not earn enough to buy her any new clothes, "she had not failed to notice that he did not seem to consult her about buying clothes for him. [ . . .] Her reply was mild enough, but her thoughts were rebellious" (242).acest citat l-am folosit si cand am vb despre clothes. Ar trebui sa il scot?sau sa il inlocuiesc, desi se potriveste in ambele situatii? Dreiser points out that Hurstwood regularly takes too lightly Carrie's capability: "he had not conceived well of her mental ability. That was because he did not understand the nature of emotional greatness." (Dreiser, 1991: 271) Rather than discover in Carrie what she really is, Hurstwood sees in her as the reflection of a woman he wants her to be-"a wife [who] could thus be content." The reason for Hurstwood's fault in character analysis is easy enough to grasp: "since he imagined he saw her satisfied, he felt called upon to give only that which contributed to such satisfaction" (222). More gloomily, the narrator comments, "Hurstwood was pleased with her placid manner, when he should have duly considered it" (222). While "he saw nothing remarkable in asking her to come down lower [. . .] her heart revolted" (Dreiser, 1991: 317).

Carrie's rebellion is silent but significant. Considering the conformist domestic sphere for women tedious as well as oppressive, Carrie comes to the decision that she does not wish "live cooped up in small flat" with somebody who considers her a "servant" (319). Nothing less than a reverse of gender positions follows as Carrie begins to ask herself, "Was she going to act and keep house? [ . . . Hurstwood was] waiting to live upon her labor" (275). As an expected consequence, Carrie's "dawning independence gave her more courage" (278), and she is soon motivated by her increasing salary to go away from the oppressive domestic sphere altogether.

Carrie's rebelling is not only against her husband's ideas and treatment but more notably against the role that women were traditionally assigned and somehow obliged to follow. As the critic Barbara Welter concludes, the nineteenth century symbol for the white middle class, the "True Woman" was projected to be moral, pure, domestic, and obedient. Purity was as vital as piousness to a young woman, its lack is considered as abnormal and unfeminine. "Without it she was, in fact, no woman at all, but a member of some lower order". (Welter, 1966: 152-158)

However a contending model for femininity appeared in the U.S. around the 1880s. The "New Woman" usually dedicated herself to having a career and was independent from an economic point of view. Commonly New Women ventured in associations "with members of their own sex (that were not necessarily romantic) rather than in conventional marriages". (qtd. in Eby, 2001: web). Carrie fits the pattern when, leaving Hurstwood, she gains a fine salary on stage and moves in with the optimistic Lola Osborne. Yet the New Woman was better educated and often more politically prone than Carrie, and so we might think of Dreiser's female protagonist as a "transitional figure, moving from the Victorian model of True Woman toward the recognizably modern New Woman". (Eby, 2001: web)

Regardless of gender, change in the social position often creates a "predicament" for the opposite. This was a confirmed situation as the New Woman brought herself to display, for she "threatened men in ways her mother never did" (qtd. in Eby, 2001: web). This is evident as Carrie struggles to understand Hurstwood's "chronic unemployment", because in her view "No man could go seven months without finding something if he tried" (Dreiser, 1991: 309, emphasis added) none too faintly probes his masculinity. Hurstwood looks devitalized by Carrie's new working position to support him-although it is worth nothing that his first wife's control of him suggests a deep-rooted flaw. Hurstwood's decay demonstrates the deduction of one historian that "the feminine revolt was creating tension and confusion and challenging the masculine paradigm" (qtd. in Eby, 2001: web). Accordingly Dreiser's entire novel shows how the rise of the New Woman was doubled by what critics name a "crisis of masculinity." For a man in Hurstwood's position, who has lost his influential job administration of Hannah and Hogg's and finds it hard to carry on in the necessary male breadwinner role, once moved to New York, the "crisis of masculinity would be especially severe".( Eby, 2001: web)

When Carrie stands Hurstwood, she leaves behind the same amount of money she received from Drouet early in the novel. Together with it she also motivates her departure in a short note. By this economic deal, Dreiser "brings the novel full circle" because the novel began similarly with Carrie being tempted with money. These moments in the novel highlight how efficiently Dreiser makes use of actual facts to suggest a variety of stages of historical change, for the twenty dollars synthesizes Sister Carrie's persistent concern with economic reality, with changing moral principles, and with dramatically transforming gender roles. Hurstwood will soon end his matters with life, and Carrie has come forward as a successful actress. Yet as Bob Ames will advice her, "If I were you, [. . .] I'd change."(367) And so, will Carrie continually drift and transform, making her an symbolic figure of the late nineteenth century, as well as a unusually suitable archetype of our own time.

With such controversial surrounding, the novel can only demonstrate one point "it is a story of real life, of their lives" (qtd. in Eby, 2001: web). All of these circumstances - materialism, seduction, infidelity, bigamy, and robbery-were real life occurrences. Not capable to declare his characters' will against natural and economic forces Dreiser rarely passes judgment on them. These controversial conditions created by Theodore Dreiser exhibit the ironies within a developing American culture after the Civil War. Materialism and capitalism in a blooming economy, conventional principles of men and women's roles, and the rejection of the American public in reply to the novel all prove that Sister Carrie was ahead of its time in rendering the genuine and gloomy view of real life.

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