This was actually my first Dreiser read. I had exposure to his type of story-telling from the 1951 movie: A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. I saw it years and years ago, but I caught a clip of it in my Evidence class in law school recently and remembered being riveted by that film. The film is based on the Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy, which is on my list of things to read sometime in the future.

Sister Carrie was one of Dreiser’s first novels. It was not well-received when first published in 1900 for a variety of reasons, my favorite being that people of that day had a hard time with the book’s female protagonist not getting her due. She succeeds and shines to the very end even though she made a series of immoral decisions, which in those days should have ensured her doom. Evidently Dreiser and his wife toned it down a bit and that was why it was published at all. Interestingly, the altered version of the book was published consistently from 1900 until about 1980 when the original version finally became available. And for that, I am grateful.

I loved this story. There was something so soul-full about the characters. The “everyman” quality of Carrie, a very young woman who is initially too silly to know that glamour and and easy lifestyle comes with a price. At the outset she is just what a young woman might have been back then, relatively naive, ambitious to obtain trinkets and beautiful clothes, to be one of the beautiful people, and thus she was a rather silly girl. Carrie meets a Mr. Drouet on the train in from Chicago, beginning a friendship that would lead her to attaining her dreams. Drouet himself is almost the male equivalent of Carrie–enamoured with fine things, clothes, and beautiful women. But since he is making his own way in the world, he does work hard at his trade and makes a success of himself. Through Drouet, Carrie meets Hurstwood, a married, successful bar and hotel manager who is a the top of the society food chain in Chicago–at least for those in society who must work to attain or maintain their wealth. Each of the three make a succession of decisions, that in the novel’s time and indeed to a large extent in our own time, are immoral and create difficulties to which the characters must react.

I think for me that is one of the most powerful parts of the story. The point at which in anyone’s life, you have made a decision and must “suffer the consequences,” it is usually then where it seems that many future decisions are taken from you. You must then merely react to consequences upon consequences instead of having the upper hand and taking steps to determine your fate.

I found myself waiting many times during the first half of the novel for Carrie’s decisions to catch up with her. For whatever reason, I assumed that a book from this time, focusing on the human element and our penchant for making bad decisions worse, I assumed that Carrie would end up having to walk the streets or die of some venereal disease. I am astonished now at the outcome. And applaud Dreiser’s courage to break away from the “evil fallen woman must suffer a thousand agonies and indignities” formula that literature had proscribed to since the first wronged man ever captured such a story on sheep’s guts.

It is not without some tedium though. At first, I was enchanted by the many, many details that Dreiser provided. You could close your eyes and picture Carrie on the train from Wisconsin to Chicago–going to the big city with stars in her eyes. By the 400th page of such description though, I confess to skimming through some of that detail. And yet, it’s not like many other detailed stories where I wish to heavens that the author had just stopped 200 pages earlier. The detail is needed, for the most part, to really get you into the minds and even the lodgings of the characters. It leaves you with a more complete view of the desperation of the two main characters–desperation that leads them in decidedly different ways.