A Point of View
Dreiser uses a third person omniscient point of view to tell the story of his heroine, Carrie. Through this point of view, Dreiser provides readers with insight into not only Carrie’s thoughts but also those of all his characters. One of example of this is found Chapter 27, when Hurstwood discovers a note from Carrie and later steals money from his employer’s safe. Dreiser portrays Hurstwood’s distorted thinking as well as Carrie’s confusion over Hurstwood’s actions.
Early twentieth-century, newly urbanized America provides the backdrop for Sister Carrie. At the start of the story, Carrie travels by train to Chicago, a city of opportunity for not only country girls like herself, but also for immigrants from all over the world. The Chicago that Carrie finds offers an abundance of factory jobs for both men and women. In addition, numerous opportunities for enjoyment of the arts present themselves in the form of theater, opera, symphonies, and so on. Carrie enjoys the fashionably dressed people around her and her own ownership of the latest styles. The same prosperity exists in New York City, where Carrie and Hurstwood find themselves at the end of the story. Yet here, the less fortunate in this materialistic culture appear more obviously, begging on street corners and seeking refuge in homeless shelters. While upper- and middle-class Americans are envisioning a future full of promise, those at the lower end of the spectrum are suffering the negative repercussions of a stratified society.
Critics recognize Dreiser for the extensive detail he uses in his writing. The hallmark of Dreiser’s fiction, his journalistic style, receives criticism for being an “endless piling up of minutiae,” H. L. Mencken notes in his Commentary to Sister Carrie. Mencken goes on to say that he wonders if Dreiser actually enjoys creating his collections of words that do not reflect any beauty or even a particular style.
Although Dreiser receives negative appraisal for his rambling style, he earns accolades for his ability to write realistically. Mencken acknowledges that Dreiser’s writing reflects the influences of Thomas Hardy and Honore de Balzac in its ability to portray drama in the most mundane of life’s daily routines. A greater strength, though, is that Dreiser goes beyond the drama of the moment to immerse his characters in humankind’s eternal struggles. The portrayal of Carrie’s obsession with fashion, for example, merely demonstrates her attempts to escape from physical miseries in her search for true happiness. Dreiser’s descriptions, set in underlying universal themes, arouse readers’ emotions. As a result, Dreiser is viewed as a pivotal force in changing the direction of twentieth-century literature.
Many late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers tried to portray life as it actually existed. Their scenes, characters, and actions reflect daily activities in people’s lives, whether noteworthy or not. Literary experts call these writers “realists.” Realists who take their writing to the extreme-discussing even life’s coarse, brutal, or disgusting aspects-are “naturalists.” Critics categorize Dreiser as a naturalist. Sister Carrie’s blatant prostitution and supposed marital infidelity shocked people when the novel first appeared. Also shocking is that Dreiser makes no attempt to apologize for his heroine’s actions. He sympathizes with Carrie’s efforts to survive in a modern world given her lower-middle-class background and less-than-genteel upbringing. Dreiser’s Carrie and the settings in which he put her render a vivid and realistic picture of a newly urbanized America populated by people from all walks of life.
Dreiser writes from a philosophic doctrine known as “determinism.” Determinists believe that man’s actions are not his own; they are determined by inherited or environmental influences. Viewed from this philosophy, Carrie cannot avoid her experiences; her world runs on sex and chance. Neither does Hurstwood deserve his fate. His downfall results only from circumstances around him. The two characters’ destinies have nothing to do with morals. They simply happen.
Tragedy describes characters who have survived numerous struggles only to fail in the end. They fail, however, in such a way as to become heroes and heroines, evoking sympathy from readers. Dreiser’s Carrie and Hurstwood both portray tragic characters. Carrie struggles to overcome her meager existence and her naivete. Though she gains security, ease, and a taste of the finer things in life, Carrie never fully realizes the happiness she seeks. Hurstwood, on the other hand, represents the average middle-class American struggling to maintain his place in a mercurial class system. One moment of poor judgment ruins the rest of his life. The tragedy of Hurstwood’s life is his undeserved punishment.