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Sister Carrie | Themes

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Significant changes in population and employment happened in the United States before and around the turn of the 20th century, and Dreiser was a keen observer and reporter of events. Many of these changes stemmed from the mass migration from rural to urban areas (as when Carrie leaves home for Chicago) and the prominent themes in Sister Carrie reflect this new way of life.

Materialism

As the Industrial Age made it possible in general to produce more things, people, in turn, longed to possess them. However, material goods require purchase, and so people were also intent on making money—and plenty of it. The more money people had, the more they could buy.

For many, the things they craved were symbols of status. The outward display of wealth was the best proof of success. In glittering detail, Dreiser describes the haunts of wealthy city dwellers—sumptuous restaurants, luxurious hotels, and grand mansions. In these settings, people are dressed in high fashion, coifed to perfection, and blind to any signs of poverty around them. Dreiser shows, through his main character, Carrie, the heartlessness of materialism. Once Carrie's dreams begin to take shape, all she can think about is getting rid of Hurstwood even though she, too, has suffered from poverty. As she moves through life, Carrie always chooses gilt, glimmering lights, baubles, clothing, and glamour over personal relationships.

Morality

The Victorian era (1837–1901), which came to a close in the new century, promised the middle class the potential rise to riches, but people were still expected to act properly to gain social acceptance. The stereotypical Victorian snobs were prudish and narrow-minded. At the time Dreiser wrote Sister Carrie, people were revolting against such judgmental attitudes but lingering moral codes remained present. People were largely expected to work hard and live straitlaced lives to achieve success, and characters such as the Hansons, who are poor workers from strict backgrounds, subscribe to this formula. The idea of acting in an entirely respectable way is ingrained in Hurstwood, as well, but he is open to change as he works in a saloon.

Carrie tries to rebel against such ideas and is especially loose in her decisions to spend money on frivolous pursuits and to engage in sexual and dependent relationships with men. She also seeks employment on the stage. However, a strict moral code is still present in her—she was brought up in the same household as her straitlaced sister, Minnie, after all. Her demands of Drouet and Hurstwood to marry her come from this code, for example. Dreiser shows his characters as conflicted between the morality of the past and the promise of a new kind of future.

The narrator has quite another take on morals than the characters do. He encourages his reader not to judge the characters, and he explains why in Chapter 10; "We have but an infantile perception of morals." The narrator views human beings as stuck between instincts and a higher nature beyond mere biological evolution.

The American Dream

The term American Dream was once used to describe a set of ideals—democracy, freedom, and equality. However, as the 20th century dawned, the meaning of the term began to shift to mean the opportunity for each citizen to use his or her skill set to achieve wealth and social status. By the time of the publication of Sister Carrie, money was an essential element of success and social status. The poor were trapped by hard work and physical labor. It was difficult to hope for a better life when people labored endlessly to put food on the table and clothe and shelter themselves. The most poignant example of the new dream is illustrated through Hurstwood, who has it and then loses it. As a result he is trapped in his memories of those times, rendered paralyzed by the grind of a working class life without the freedoms money once provided him. In sharp contrast is the carefree Drouet, who remains unchanged throughout the novel and is able to live the new American Dream to the fullest. Through Carrie, Dreiser shows how indifference and passivity are not virtuous; materialism is unfulfilling, and the American Dream is a sham that deludes and breeds heartlessness. In fact, Dreiser may go so far as to suggest that the American Dream is not uniquely American but rather a universal condition of greed that compromises humanity.

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