To be fair, Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie can be a slog. The tale of a young country girl, Caroline “Sister Carrie” Meeber, moving to the big city was published in 1900, at the tail end of the Victorian era, which was dominated by not just the novel, but by the epic novel. Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair are touchstones of the time, and all three clock-in at over 500 pages — reflecting an era without television or radio, during which the serialized story was standard and fiction writers were often paid per word. Thus, it’s no surprise that Sister Carrie is a heavy 557 pages.
Beyond it’s length, Sister Carrie presents other challenges to coerced English students. Dreiser’s realism, captured in his detailed descriptions of characters, behaviors and locations, may create a valuable historical window into life in 19th century Chicago, but casual readers can get bogged down in the seemingly pointless minutia. After all, a high school student may wonder what use is getting to know all the department stores in Chicago if Carrie won’t ever actually get a job at any of them.
The novel’s supposed raison d’etre — to challenge the social and moral norms of the Victorian era, especially as they apply to women — also rings hollow today. In an age when casual sex is common, the controversy around Dreiser’s depiction of Carrie’s affairs and her lack of punishment evaporates. No one today is calling for Carrie to be flogged for her transgressions — college students would likely prefer that the romances be ratcheted up. (As would middle-age married women, if Fifty Shades of Grey is any indication.)
There’s also the question of Dreiser’s style, which frequently departs from realism to philosophical musing. Apparently bidding for the title of “Great American novel,” Dreiser writes at large about the Big Questions — life, death, love, etc. — attempting to impart his own wisdom as everlasting truths for future students. The only problem is that his approach is shambling and his destinations are often unenlightening. Example:
To the child, the genius with imagination, or the wholly untravelled, the approach to a great city for the first time is a wonderful thing. Particularly if it be evening — that mystic period between the glare and gloom of the world when life is changing from one sphere or condition to another. Ah, the promise of the night.
It’s easy for students to write-off sections like that as high-minded filler, and in her annotated version of the novel, Clementine the Hedgehog takes Dreiser to task for the above lines, writing, “Classical writers are so quaint. Can you image David Foster Wallace un-ironically writing that fucking sentence? Kakutani would have handed him his balls on a platter.”
But while some critics have called out Dreiser for his style (or lack thereof), the man and his work received praise from some very authoritative corners. H.L. Mencken called Dreiser “a man of large originality, of profound feeling and of unshakable courage.” F. Scott Fitzgerald placed Sister Carrie at the top of his list of essential reading in 1936, and Sinclair Lewis said the book “gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman.” The value they seemed to have gleaned from Dreiser is his tenacity — Sister Carrie was beset with publication issues and censorship — and his dedication to depicting his characters realistically and without judgement. The people throughout Sister Carrie are often easy to hate — but that’s because they are more like real people with their flaws than stick figures in a morality play.
So while teenagers may continue to gripe about Sister Carrie, the book remains a valuable read. It captures history while rejecting Victorian judgement, and during its time, it pushed to make America more accepting or, at the very least, more honest. In terms of literary tradition, it’s frighteningly easy to imagine a world without more vaunted novels like The Great Gatsby if Dreiser hadn’t set the course with Sister Carrie.
Plus: What don’t teenagers bitch about?
This coverage of Sister Carrie is brought to you by Clementine Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, the first installment in the Clementine Classics e-book series from Black Balloon Publishing.
Sometimes reading the classics is a chore, but not so with the snarky annotations by Clementine the Hedgehog. Having made her debut as a weekly book reviewer of note on Tumblr in 2012, Clem now takes on Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. On each page, she inserts her keen insights, dark sense of humor and cut-the-crap commentary.
Clementine Classics is a new series from Black Balloon Publishing that gives classic works of literature the contemporary annotations they deserve. Obsessed, possessed and thoroughly distressed by the originals, today's writers riff, rant, praise and flay these old books, giving them new life. The series' beautifully designed e-books are both an act of sincere literary criticism and a new, composite form of humor writing.
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