When small-town Carrie Meeber arrives in 1890s Chicago, she cannot know what awaits. Callow, beautiful, and alone, she experiences the bitterness of temptation and hardship even as she sets her sights on a better life. Drawn by the seductive desire to rise above her social class, Carrie aspires to the top of the acting profession in New York, while the man who has become obsessed with her gambles everything for her sake and draws near the brink of destruction.
Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie (1900) was inspired by the life of one of his sisters, who had eloped to New York with a disreputable lover. Its sympathetic depiction of Carrie’s love affairs shocked its publisher, whose grudging efforts won few initial readers until the book’s successful re-publication in 1907. Today it resonates with Dreiser’s clear-sighted understanding of life in the increasingly mercantile world of the big city, and with his belief in the domination of fate over free will. Particularly in the unflinching tragedy of its final chapters, the novel broke new ground in American fiction for its gritty realism and for the character of Carrie, who begins a half-equipped little knight” and becomes a truly modern woman.
Herbert Leibowitz is the editor and publisher of Parnassus: Poetry in Review. His books include Fabricating Lives: Explorations in American Autobiography and Hart Crane: An Introduction to the Poetry. He is currently writing a critical biography of William Carlos Williams.
Dreiser's story unfolds in the measured cadences of an earlier era. This sometimes works brilliantly as we follow the choices, small and large, that lead some characters to doom and others to glory. On the other hand, the middle chapters--of which there are many--do drag somewhat, even when one appreciates Dreiser's intentions. If you can make it through the sagging midsection, however, you'll be rewarded by Sister Carrie's last 150 pages, which depict the harrowing downward spiral of one of the book's central characters. Here Dreiser portrays with brutal power how the wrong decision--or lack of decision--can lay waste to a life. --Rebecca Gleason