Jonathan's Reviews > Sister Carrie

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
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's review
Sep 22, 2008

did not like it
bookshelves: assigned-by-shane, great-american-novels
Recommended to Jonathan by: Shane Avery
Read in September, 2008

In the words of Edmund Wilson, "Dreiser commands our respect; but the truth is he writes so badly that it is almost impossible to read him."

Sister Carrie is a bad book. Not morally bad, unfortunately. That at least would make it interesting. In that respect, nothing in this book would be out of place in a Progressive lecture on social purity. This line from the first page sets the tone: "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." Why anyone bothered to censor something this priggish is beyond me. No, I mean Sister Carrie is simply bad writing.

Dreiser never shows if he can tell, and he never tells if he can grandiloquesce.

Dreiser's characters are clichés. None ever has a fully formed, let alone interesting, thought; they limit themselves to dim impressions of either the obvious or the implausible. I am not sure that it is possible for a real human being to be as boring as these characters. In large part, I blame the boredom on Dreiser's evident belief that "the common type of mind" (340) is merely a bundle of instincts and impressions. This common type apparently can't think for herself, so Dreiser's narrator has to do all the thinking for her.

Humans are not actually like that.

In any case, Dreiser's prose is unpardonable. I marked down a few examples. "As a result, a train of gossip was set going which moved about the house in that secret manner common to gossip" (131). ... "In short, for the time being he walked in a lighter atmosphere and saw all things through a more rosy medium. It might have been said of him, under these circumstances, that he was truly in love" (132). ... "As he undid his collar and unfastened his studs preparatory to washing his face and changing his clothes, he dilated upon his trip" (135). ... "Oh, the drag of the culmination of the wearisome. How it delays, -- sapping the heart until it is dry" (140).

I gave up on page 345 of the Penguin edition, with 154 pages to go.
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Shane Avery Dreiser's prose is admittedly...unorthodox, maybe even at times provincial, but, I fail to see how it's anything resembling unreadable. Part of its charm is the fact that this is basically a manuscript, because, as you are aware, it was originally published in a highly edited form.

But, I suspect your main reservation is not with the writing, but with the content...

Jonathan You raise an important point. Some of the roughness can be attributed to the fact that I read the "unexpurgated" edition, which is just a draft.

However, the real problem lies in the story's characters. They are not believable. I do blame their woodenness largely on Dreiser's philosophy rather than on his prose ability. But isn't that the best test of his philosophy? If his ideas lead him to portray "common" people as hollow shells of what I know them to be in real life, then his philosophy is evidently wrong. It makes false predictions.

Michele Did Wilson really say that? Spot on...

Marcia Lonteen-Martin I totally disagree. If you judge the book by modern standards, of course, it comes off stuffy. I let myself enter into the time period of the book. Somehow the story of an sheltered,inexperienced girl heading to the big city 100 or so years ago seems entirely believable. I loved this novel. It is an extraordinary study of human psychology and the way some manipulate others and others are manipulated and also the entitlement some of these characters feel they deserve. Dreiser laid the mental process out step by step as it occurred. The ending remains a testimonial to these people's mistaken efforts toward true happiness.

Robert Maier If you don't like Victorian lit, you'll hate this book. Dreiser can construct a convoluted Victorian sentence like no one else. If you're looking for Jack Kerouac, this ain't it. But the book is a peep hole into late 19th century that is shocking for the time. It's a pleasure to see that the venality, shallowness,and vanity were alive in 1900 as much as they are today. Dreiser's bourgeois would feel quite at home in today's suburban golf course country club culture.

message 6: by Spw (new) - rated it 4 stars

Spw Though I respect your views, I completely disagree. Though Dreiser's writing his somewhat difficult to read, the novel is still a sort-of American classic. I sincerely believe that his characters are well-developed and are far from cliches

message 7: by Jason Williams (new)

Jason Williams I've only read bits. But my take on this is that both the (Progressive) story and the prose itself are relics of this time. Dreiser may have been reading Jacob Riis, Gabriel Tarde, G. Stanley Hall, Gustave Le Bon, and/or John Dewey, any of whom would have influenced a fiction writer's approach to character development at the time.

Robert Moscalewk Oh, humans are not actually like that. Thank heavens humans are not like fictional characters, otherwise we would be doomed.

Danny Lindsay "Humans are not actually like that."
I lived on the street for a brief period and I can assure you that the section in which Hurstwood is living on the street is the most accurate depiction of homelessness I've ever come across.
Of course the book comes across as old-fashioned and priggish, it's from an America that no longer exists. Read Hogg if you want edgy/outrageous depictions of sexuality.
Dreiser's writing is awkward but when he gets it right it's lyrical and wild and poetic:
"Ah, the promise of the night. What does it not hold for the weary! What old illusion of hope is not here forever repeated! Says the soul of the toiler to itself, "I shall soon be free. I shall be in the ways and the hosts of the merry. The streets, the lamps, the lighted chamber set for dining, are for me. The theater, the halls, the parties, the ways of rest and the paths of song - these are mine in the night."
I think that's some damn pretty stuff, if a little purple. For a guy known more for his "gritty realism" he can really pour it on. Sister Carrie is his masterpiece.

Ruthmgon Ya should have started at page 350! The last pages were the best of the novel...but I am with you. It doesn't become better writing..but the characters seem to be more interesting in their wealth and poverty opposites. The side characters are introduced and so there is some filling in of the culture and city environment that made it better. (not less depressing in any way however)

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