Goodreads: Sister Carrie
When young Carrie moves to Chicago to live with her sister and brother-and-law, she’s hoping to find a job, make a little money, and eventually save up to really enjoy the luxuries of city life. However, it turns out good wages are hard to come by, and Carrie ends up finding her luxuries by more unconventional means.
My friend predicted that Sister Carrie would be a book I would not like. While I could just be amused that I give the impression of being someone who could be offended by the things that were considered offensive in the late 1800s/early 1900s, I admit my friend has something of a point; I often don’t like books with adultery or books with unlikable characters who succeed despite many moral shortcomings. That said, I think Sister Carrie is a bit more complex than that, and while many of the characters certainly aren’t likable, I did enjoy reading about them.
Sister Carrie belongs to the school of naturalism. While academics may debate what naturalism even is, suffice to say it generally has something to do with showing how large forces (society, biology, environment, etc.) act on humans and help determine their fates. That might sound depressing, but I think it helped me like Sister Carrie. Yes, Carrie and her acquaintances do some despicable things–but it’s hard to blame them. How can you blame a woman who chose to be a man’s mistress (super scandalous!) instead of being poor on the streets? How can you blame a woman for having an affair with a married man if she didn’t know he was married? I think the men in the story are often more culpable for their actions (though I’m not sure if Dreiser was consciously making some statement about gender and how woman are more acted upon by outside forces than men), but they also seem to be punished more, which makes my moralistic side happy.
All this is making the book sound preachy, but it’s not. Much of the point of naturalism is to avoid passing judgment on characters; they, after all, can’t really help what they do. So perhaps that, too, contributed to the fact I wasn’t sitting in bitter dislike of Carrie throughout the novel. Reading about her exploit was actually pretty interesting, in spite of a lot of things I would normally think of bookish flaws: a narrator too attached to commentary, characters who often seem more passive than active, etc. I’d hesitate at saying this book has widespread appeal. I’d understand if other readers found it dull. However, I was pleasantly surprised I was so interested by it.
Note: There are two versions of this book: the edited one originally published, and the “original” version as we think Dreiser wished it to be published. Both are still readily available, so you might want to check which version you have!