This perplexing and frustrating novel had great impact, exerting tremendous influence in literature and in politics. It is also a textbook example of what Gardner called frigid writing: Dreiser thinks his characters weak and unintelligent, and he doesn’t hesitate to share that opinion with the reader. Indeed, Dreiser sometimes emphasizes the characters’ shallowness by juxtaposing their very simple, realistic dialogue with overwritten exposition.
First published in 1900 (although Frank Doubleday, when he found his house had accepted the novel, first tried to back out and then buried the first printing), Sister Carrie labors under impossible constraints. Carrie, after all, is a very young and very pretty country girl who goes to the city, meets a fellow on a train, and within a few months is living in rooms for which the fellow is paying and wearing clothes he bought her. She’s introduced to acquaintances as his wife. There must be a romance here, but Dreiser can’t write about it; they must be sleeping together, but Dreiser cannot say so, and if he has the skill to hint, I can’t pick up the clues. But this is crucial: in the fact of Carrie’s choices, in her candid interest in material things and disinterest in the romantic trappings of sex, lie the American fascination with white slavery that was about to burst on the scene. Of course, the same mixture also gives us the flappers a decade later, and the final consensus (crackpots of the Republican Party accepted) that women do and should control their bodies to use as they think best.
And yet, there is something here that is excellent and true. Carrie’s story, a country girl struggling to find prosperity in the city, is familiar enough, but her lover Hurstwood is finely drawn, a prosperous Chicago manager who makes a big mistake and can never manage to recover. He’s a real man in a real job in a real industry, and we learn enough about his world to understand his disaster — and to see how his world is not ours, and also why it is.