Sister Carrie

by Theodore Dreiser

Here we come to one of the least well drawn female characters ever. In fact, Classic Bitch can say with certainty that Caroline Meeber is the least well drawn TITLE character in all of literature. I'm going to guess that this is because Sister Carrie is a book about a teenage girl attempted to be written by a 30-ish male author in the year 1900. Even though Theodore Dreiser based Carrie on his own sister Emma, the lack of fleshing out, the lack of insight, the lack of even basic DIALOGUE ascribed to his female protagonist is so astonishing as to draw attention to itself. Carrie's most common line in the entire book is, "Oh! Oh!" (Say it in your most timid voice.) It's almost impossible by book's end to get a feel for what kind of person she is. I'm left judging her as dumb, amoral, and too dumb to even know she's amoral...but only because the author has given me so little to go on.

Conversely, the two male main characters have the lion's share of the dialogue & backstory. I end up understanding way more about them—they are three-dimensional characters—than I do about Carrie. I also sense, at book's end, that Carrie—a person with zero to few choices due to her gender and era—is being JUDGED by the author! The time period is unfair, the book is unfair, the story is unfair (in many ways), and it doesn't really leave you with a leg to stand on.

Another thing you can't get a handle on here, adding to the recondite feel of the novel in general: There is NO discussion of love life. Literally: zero. To put things in contextual zeitgeist, Dreiser had an editor friend excise 30,000 words after a first draft of Sister Carrie was rejected for being too risque. So there is an explanation. However, in the absence of passion, it becomes nearly impossible for the reader to ascribe motivation that would account for some of the choices the characters make here. Secondly, I began to seriously wonder—rather ridiculously—whether men & women even HAD sex in the late 1880s. Like...mmmaybe it wasn't invented yet...? When Carrie "lives in sin" with a man, which she does on two separate occasions in the course of the tale, she takes his name and presents to the outside world as his wife. In one case, it was only when reference was made to the placement of their FURNITURE that I realized they were actually sleeping together (i.e., in the same bed). And in the other case, call me naive, but I really don't think she and her "husband" were having sex!? It's baffling, and really yet another facet of Carrie that is left unpresented by the author.

Of the things that Sister Carrie does offer, one is a narrative of instant karma, insofar as what transpires between the covers of a novel can be called "instant." So there's that satisfaction. Dreiser also presents a fairly thorough ongoing lesson in economics, paying a ton of attention to fin-de-siecle household finance. Some characters have nothing, while others earn more than you make today...125 years later. And if either of those situations makes you want to turn on the gas or drown yourself in the East River, then Theodore Dreiser has done his job.

The only other Dreiser I had been exposed to was back in high school when Mrs. Bresnick assigned An American Tragedy & ruined my summer. So I definitely didn't go into Sister Carrie with high hopes. I guess I ended up liking it that need-something-to-read-on-the-airplane kind of way. The narrative keeps you guessing, which is an appreciable thing. And once I recapped my father ONE TIME on what the book was about—as far as I could tell based on how far into it I was at the time—he would often ask me after that, "So what's Sister Carrie up to now?" And I get it. It's engaging to read about people & the unique choices they make in their lives.