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Sister Carrie | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How is Mr. Ames different from Drouet In Sister Carrie?

Whereas Drouet is quite a flirt and an expert in the art of winning women, Mr. Ames is "nothing of the dashing lady's man." Mr. Ames is well dressed, but in sharp contrast to Drouet, he is "wholly free of affectation" and even seems a bit bashful. Whereas Drouet makes no attempt to hide his lust for more money and things or his appreciation for being seen in fine places filled with high class people, Mr. Ames views blatant shows of money as shameful and says he "shouldn't care to be rich." Finally, although Carrie comes to realize her mental superiority over Drouet, she is in awe of what she takes as the fine mind of Mr. Ames. She longs to gain his approval. Both the first time she meets him and later, when she has become a star, Carrie wishes she could be the sort of accomplished actress he might admire. Drouet admires her no matter what types of roles she takes, so his approval does not mean much to her.

Why do some critics suggest the character of Mr. Ames in Sister Carrie is based on Thomas Edison?

Dreiser waited three weeks to interview Thomas Edison for an article that was published in SUCCESS magazine in February 1898. He greatly admired the inventor, and it comes through in the article. So it is not a great leap to think he might model a significant character in his novel written around the same time after Edison. Ames is presented as the ideal man in the novel, and Edison might reach the same level in Dreiser's estimation. He ends the article with high praise, saying Edison has reached the age of 52 with nothing short of "magnificent achievement." Like Edison, Ames is an inventor with a specific interest in electrical things who moves from the Midwest to the East where he has a lab. Also like Edison he does not care for money or the trappings of wealth. He believes in work and the single-minded pursuit of knowledge. Ames alludes to some unhappiness in his childhood, and the young Edison also had some tough times. When pressed by Dreiser, Edison agrees want can "push a man along" toward success and so might be more valuable than riches. Even the mannerisms of Ames might be modeled on Edison. For example Dreiser uses the word boyish several times in describing Ames, and in his article about Edison he says he was struck by the inventor's youthful manner.

What role does Mr. Vance play in relation to Hurstwood's and Carrie's characters in Sister Carrie?

Mr. Vance serves to act as a contrast to Hurstwood by representing Hurstwood's past and the life he threw away when he made the fatal choice to steal money and leave his family behind. Based on the description of Mr. Vance in Chapter 32, where Dreiser even goes so far as to compare him to Hurstwood "in former days," Mr. Vance would clearly have fit in with the crowd at Fitzgerald and Moy. He is relaxed and confident wherever he is but most notably when ordering fine food and wine at a swanky restaurant. He doesn't mind spending money and seems to enjoy being seen doing it. People, including his beautiful wife, are drawn to him as a successful man. He has the look of prosperity and the adroitness in social situations that are the mark of those who can afford to frequent the ritzy social clubs of a big city. Also, Mr. and Mrs. Vance enter the point in the novel's plot just when Carrie is mostly satisfied with the life she has with Hurstwood and just before misfortune strikes Hurstwood and he loses his investment in the Warren Street saloon. Going out on the town with Mr. and Mrs. Vance reminds Carrie of her time with Drouet when life was merry and exciting. Mr. Vance is so similar to Hurstwood when Carrie was swept off of her feet by him, that Mr. Vance's presence intensifies Carrie's longing and dissatisfaction, propelling her once again toward her fate.

In Sister Carrie why is it significant that Carrie misunderstands her relationships with Drouet and Hurstwood?

By refusing to see things clearly from her past, Carrie cuts herself off from ever being happy again. In a flashback Carrie has in Chapter 32 of her first fine dinner with Drouet, she recalls "the other Carrie—poor, hungry, drifting," and how she left Chicago—"a cold and closed world"—because she couldn't find work, but that is not exactly true. The "cold and closed world" of Chicago Carrie remembers while dining at Sherry's is linked in her mind with poverty. When she recalls she was only able to wander from this world because she was desperate and out of work, she rationalizes her decision to stay with Hurstwood, forgetting she had already decided to leave Drouet for Hurstwood. By only remembering the poverty she experienced, she is also rationalizing her decision to become Drouet's mistress in the first place. The times when Carrie does feel pangs of guilt toward Drouet she pushes them away, so she never builds a sense of gratitude, loyalty, or depth for his having "rescued" her. Dreiser makes it clear the happiest moments of Carrie's life will be over when she leaves Drouet. Similarly, if she is thinking in this moment of how she left Chicago and came to New York City, she is again forgetting she could have chosen to get off the train when Hurstwood tricked her. At that time Carrie was feeling desperate, having tried unsuccessfully to find work in Chicago, but she does not wander from the city because of that. Rather, she once again accepts a man's help as her fate, and her self-absorption, passivity when it comes to making choices, and lack of awareness are connected to Hurstwood's demise.

How is Dreiser's negative view of 19th-century American fascination with newspapers, a distaste based on his experience with journalistic misrepresentation of reality, apparent in Sister Carrie?

In Sister Carrie the people who rely on newspapers are often "has beens." The character who best fits in this category is Hurstwood, who seeks comfort from the news more and more as his life unravels. The charming, upwardly mobile Drouet cannot be bothered to read. The ideal male character, Mr. Ames, prefers literary novels, seeking truth through fiction. But Hurstwood is content to learn everything he knows from the papers, rocking and reading as he stops experiencing the real world outside of his chair. Dreiser was not alone among the realists of his day who disliked journalism as a window on the world. Since many authors began as journalists, they had inside knowledge of how newspapers and magazines operated to attract readers with shocking headlines often stretching and distorting life and the truth.

What is different about the reasons that Carrie and Hurstwood read newspapers in Sister Carrie?

One shared belief Hurstwood and Carrie have about newspapers is the influence they can have on the popularity of entertainment productions and actors. Hurstwood reveals this belief when he uses his friendship with the managing editor of a paper in Chicago to help draw people to the Elks play. After her successful performance in the play and the first productions she is in as a rising star in New York City, Carrie hopes for positive reviews in the papers to boost her career and to feed her desire for adulation. However, that is the only reason Carrie looks at the papers. Hurstwood, on the other hand, studies them to find out what is being said about his thievery, to seek business opportunities and employment, to entertain himself, and to learn about people he used to socialize with. During his successful life in Chicago Hurstwood relaxes each evening with the paper, as a small part of his daily routine. Later, he escapes life by reading papers all day long in his rocking chair as part of his general decline and fall.

In Sister Carrie, as the Warren Street business fades away, why does Hurstwood's reasoning about his failure point to Julia?

Although Hurstwood has thought very little about his family back in Chicago since fleeing some three years before, he begins to justify the position he is in based on Julia's greed and need for revenge when he is facing a bleak future of impoverishment. This is the only way he can keep his self-respect as he diminishes as a man in every sense. Carrie no longer loves him, he has not made it as a saloon keeper in New York City, and no one looks up to him as a respectable member of society. Rather than accepting full responsibility for the choices leading to his situation, he prefers to focus anger and hate on Julia, feeling outrage at the unfairness of her having all of the wealth when "I didn't do anything."

In Chapter 34 of Sister Carrie what is the significance of Hurstwood's comment when going to the closing of the Warren Street bar—"Today's my last day on earth"?

Although Hurstwood will have other types of employment in his lifetime, he will never again have the chance to be a manager. His position in society as he has enjoyed it for most of his adult life is dead, so in a way he is also dead to the world. Although Carrie smiles at the remark and Hurstwood feels relieved in a way that morning, looking "rather gayly" at the paper, by the end of the day both of them will feel the burden of his new status as unemployed and without the necessary funds to procure another business of the sort that is familiar to him. Neither of them is prepared to find contentment in a life of such diminished financial means. It is not Hurstwood's literal last day on earth, but part of his painful decline. However, the day the saloon closes does mark Hurstwood's rapid descent into poverty and death, so the statement is true in a figurative sense.

In Sister Carrie what do Hurstwood's criticisms of Mrs. Vance reveal about how his character has changed?

Hurstwood makes negative comments about Mrs. Vance when she returns to Carrie's life after Carrie and Hurstwood have moved to the cheaper apartment and he has become unemployed. Hurstwood attributes her ability to "look so nice," as Carrie describes her, to her husband's high salary in a "soft job." As a manager of a theater, Mr. Vance has a job not that different from the one Hurstwood had in Chicago, a job which Dreiser alludes to as being soft as well. "For the most part he lounged about, dressed in excellent tailored suits." So Hurstwood's words show his jealousy over his lost situation. He continues in this vein when he refers to Mrs. Vance as "too gay" and says people can only socialize with her if they are equally wealthy. Now down and out himself, he forgets people once viewed him as a member of the elite and those beneath him were practically invisible to him. Finally, Hurstwood talks about the fact Mr. Vance may "get down like anybody else." His tone is such that he seems to wish hardship for the other man. This is because Hurstwood is trying to reinforce his belief that his own demise is not his fault.

In Chapter 37 of Sister Carrie in what ways is Dreiser's suggestion that Carrie has "emotional greatness" warranted or unwarranted?

The context of the description is a moment of insight Hurstwood has that Carrie might be able to find her own success as an actress and leave him behind. He has never believed this could be true because of his underestimation of her and her abilities. One part of what Dreiser means by "emotional greatness" is a person's ability to rise to challenges and setbacks rather than becoming mired in them as Hurstwood has. Dreiser is also referring to the natural acting ability Carrie showed in the Elks play. She is able to take on a role and emote with great skill. So in this case Dreiser has painted an accurate picture of Carrie, who can act dramatically if need be while still not doing much original thinking.

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