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Sister Carrie | Context


The year 1900, when Sister Carrie was published, was also the year the world ushered in a new century. It was a time of huge change. New ways of working, new scientific and philosophical ideas, and a shift from rural to urban life were some of the benchmarks of the era in the United States. Dreiser was very much a student of all of these elements and as a writer, was determined to shine a clear, realistic spotlight on American life. That meant depicting loosening morals, the changing life goals of average citizens, and the rejection of many old world beliefs.

The Industrial Age

Historians usually date the Industrial Revolution as beginning in England by the mid–1700s and then spreading to other countries. By the time Sister Carrie was written and published in 1900, industry had taken a strong foothold throughout the United States. With industry came mechanization and mass production, which fed an ever-growing demand for goods across the expanding nation. The demand for goods created the need for transporting them. Trains and ships began crisscrossing the country and the ocean, moving people and goods. Suddenly, the rural, agrarian life was no longer the way to what had been called the American Dream. Cities became the center of a changing country and its culture. People flocked to them to find good jobs and to pursue excitement and new ways of life, bringing with them the desire for more and more material things.

Dreiser portrays this material hunger and extravagance in his elaborate descriptions of Chicago and New York City. He reveals the glittering surface of city life, not its dark underbelly, as extremely desirable. The cities hustle and bustle with many finely dressed people and well-provisioned stores, blatant displays of wealth, and exciting entertainment. The other side of the industrial world—the poorly paid workers, content with so little and lacking in polish, and the starving street people—is also there and stands out in stark contrast. It seems progress has no time to stop and pick up those left behind. While successful people of the time wished to make this side of city life invisible, Dreiser shines a light on the lowdown grittiness of city life. He gives readers of Sister Carrie the feel of it as they watch one of the story's main characters descend from the heights of city life into its depths, as others rise.


British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–82) rocked the world with his ideas about evolution and natural selection. In his seminal work, On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin explained what he had learned from a five-year around-the-world botany tour. His theory dawned upon him gradually, based on years of reading, examination of collected specimens, and a uniquely questioning mind. He wondered insightfully about why the world does not become overpopulated. In the latter pursuit, he was greatly influenced by the work of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), a prominent British economist who warned population would soon overtake resources. Darwin's ideas are complex and in his view relate to the future of all people.

Variation is a feature of natural populations and every population produces more progeny than its environment can manage. The consequences of this overproduction is that those individuals with the best genetic fitness for the environment will produce offspring that can more successfully compete in that environment. Thus the subsequent generation will have a higher representation of these offspring and the population will have evolved.

"Social Darwinism" developed from these ideas about plants and animals and applied to the larger society. The leader of this movement, biologist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), whose name appears in the novel, coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." In essence, he claimed humans have to compete in order for the best and brightest of the species to survive. His ideas showed up in the work of "naturalistic" authors like Dreiser, but have since fallen out of favor among philosophers.


The literary style known as naturalism emerged in the late 1800s, with the French author Émile Zola credited as the founder of the movement. Naturalism owes its beginnings to the scientific ideas of the time—ideas that were applied to literature. Naturalistic writers used the scientific method when writing. "They studied human beings governed by their instincts and passions as well as the ways in which the characters' lives were governed by forces of heredity and environment." Naturalistic writers were hugely influenced by Darwin's ideas. Only the fittest characters survive in naturalistic novels, the ones who are perfectly suited for the times and situations in which their stories are set.

Naturalism also evolved from realism, a literary style preceding it. Naturalistic writers took from realism the technique of presenting a massive amount of detail without a subjective filter. Naturalists attempted to present the world as it is, not as people might like it to be. Dreiser's long sentences and unpolished style—his lack of stylistic grace, as some critics have put it—are a direct reflection of the goals of realism.

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