Carrie's Blues



. . . the curious effect which Carrie's blues had upon the pare.


-Sister Carrie

WHAT most struck Sister Carrie's first readers was the clarity and understanding that Dreiser brought to the figure of Hurstwood. The novel's heroine, however, puzzled many reviewers, who found her to be, as William Marion Reedy put it, "real" but "paradoxically . . . shadowy.'' l Words like "shadowy," "nebulous," "paradoxical" expressed the uneasiness early critics felt about the character. Even the book's admirers tended to think that its "extraordinary power . . . has little to do with the delineation of foolish, worldly wise Carrie."2 There was, moreover, little agreement about what sort of woman Carrie represented some: saw her as "calloused" and driven by "hard cold selfishness!" while others used terms of endearment that matched Dreiser's own sentimental language for his "waif amid forces."3 Ninety years later, the situation hasn't changed much. The contradictions in Carrie's character - a narcissistic young woman in whom self interest yet who on "her spiritual side . . . was rich in feeling . . . for the weak and the helpless"4 - have encouraged critics to see her as everything from a Victorian vamp and golddigger to "a naive, dreaming girl from the country, driven this way and that by the promptings of biology and economy, and pursued on her course by the passions of her rival lovers."5

Some readers attribute the wide range of critical responses to what they consider the young author's shaky grasp of Carrie's makeup. Behind this judgment lies a more general sense that Dreiser possesses as F. O. Matthiessen said, "very little of the psychologist's skill in portraying the inner life of his characters."6 Certainly Dreiser's way of assigning motivation to characters lends itself to this charge. In the post-Freudian literary culture that shaped our views of the novelist, Dreiser's insistence on the physiological determinants of mental states and his habit of building narrative around characters' responses to environmental stimuli have led to assumptions of psychological naivete.

Figures like Hurstwood and Clyde Griffith tend to be treated as exceptions to Matthiessen's point, mainly-because Dreiser is most skillful at character analysis when he can unite his naturalistic themes to stories of psychic and social dissolution. Hurstwood's psychology, for example, unfolds under conditions so absolute that they do indeed seem to determine his fate: mid-life crisis, the effects of an emotionally arid family life, the lure of a young woman, the influence of alcohol, the stress of isolation, and the depression that follows upon business ruin and the loss of social identity Placed in an industrial urban America that had not yet developed the rudiments of modern social services, Hurstwood's movement to skid row and suicide is historically appropriate as well. And yet, despite the sense of inevitability that accompanies these external forces, Dreiser's overriding sense that character is destiny remains the central fact of Hurstwood's story. Put another way, Dreiser never allows us to forget that the major determinant of Hurstwood's tragedy, what gives his case its compelling logic, is that his was a mind "not trained to reason or introspect" or to "analyze the change that was taking place in his mind and hence his body" (339).

With Carrie Meeber, Dreiser set out to write a different and subtler story, one that demanded a more complex psychology than his physiological analysis could account for. Dreiser's problem was to draw a character for whom the regressive self-seeking need for the commodities and comforts that constitute the "good life" in America ice is increasingly in tension with the positive, though often misguided, quest for "beauty" and self-expression. The contradictions in Carrie that disturb many critics were for Dreiser the central drama of her inner life. She is a character whose destiny is unclear because her identity, from beginning to end, is only in the process of being formed.

Carrie's identity may be in perpetual flux, but she possesses one trait that, like a Renaissance character caught in the grip of a prevailing humour, essentially defines her. Near the end of the novel, Robert Ames, who comes closest to being Dreiser's voice in the novel, submits to Carrie "one of those keen observations which was the result of his comprehension of her nature." He recommends Hardy's novels to her, because she shares with them a "gloomy" mood. But he quickly corrects himself: "'Not exactly gloomy,' he added. 'There's another word - melancholia, sad. I should judge you were rather lonely in your disposition'" (481).

At the end Carrie remains melancholy, as she begins to see that all she has aspired to including fame, cannot satisfy her needs. As she leaves Ames, who is showing a good deal of interest in her, she feels not hope or elation but "very much alone, very much as if she were struggling hopelessly and unaided, as if such a man as he would never care to draw nearer. . . She was already the old, mournful Carrie - the desireful Carrie, -unsatisfied" (487).

The old, mournful Carrie. Ames's "keen observation" describes Carrie's essential character, not just an effect of her time in the city. Ignoring the psychological aspects of her character, criticism has traditionally centered on the economic and social facets of Carrie's rise with its classic contrast in the decline of Hurstwood.7 But a stress upon the importance of the despairing, melancholic side of Carrie's mind, in which the emphasis is on an inner "fall" that coexists with the famous rise, suggests the extent to which in Dreiser's fiction the exterior sources of misery (and pleasure) are finally at the mercy of more potent inner conflicts. What distinguished Dreiser in 1900 from his more socially progressive contemporaries like Upton Sinclair and Jack London is that in his writing such factors as poverty, class conflict, the plight of women and workers - all the forces that drive Carrie - are not so much condemned as they are accepted, and even welcomed, as occasions to dramatize preexisting states of mind.

To say this is to recognize Dreiser as a psychological realist, as much attuned to the psychic tensions within his characters as to the powerful social and physical agents that attend their careers. This is not to deny what everyone recognizes as Dreiser's tenacious attachment to a tangible world teeming with such forces, or the powerful hold this world exerts on his characters. Carrie is often shown as a victim of external events, and particularly in her responses to men she appears to be dominated "by conditions over which [she] had little control (106). These conditions take on the power of universal law, to the extent that Dreiser often pays for his reliance on such forces with a certain lack of individualization, and at times just fuzzy thought. The novel's plot hinges on factors like the turn of the seasons, so that in Sister Carrie it is axiomatic that the "fall" always follows winter. The story is crowded with such contingencies, which keep Carrie so busy fighting off deprivations at the Hansons - joblessness, illness, abduction, poverty - that she has little time for self-scrutiny. Carrie's obsessive worries about clothes, money, and shelter keep in the foreground the city's hypnotic effect on her and displace from the center of her consciousness any extended reflection on the origin of her pains.

Yet these forces function effectively in the novel precisely because psychologically they suggest the original sources of Carrie's melancholy. Winter approaches, but even in the security of her new flat Carrie feels old fears that beset her alone: "Somehow the swaying of some dead branches of trees across the way brought back the picture she was familiar with, when she looked from their front window in December days at home. She paused and wrung her little hands" (76). The city, in all its social density, offers a host of such unsettling forces, which Dreiser in his best books (including those about himself uses to explore the ways his already maimed, anxious dreamers meet their fates.

A problem develops, however, when we try to locate the origins of Carrie's conflicted nature. The difficulty asses in part because Dreiser deliberately obscures the details of Carrie's life in Wisconsin- a strange omission for a writer who stressed the importance of formative years on the development of character. All we see of her Columbia City relations is contained in part of one sentence: "A gush of tears at her mother's farewell kiss, a touch in her throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review" (3). These verbal snapshots of family and hometown leave us with unanswered questions about their relation to Carrie's later career. What these people and places have to do with Carrie's decision to leave; how her compulsive desire for clothes and material goods might reflect certain deprivations as a child; why she might be attracted to men who provide such things; why she is depressed or feels worthless without them; why winter oppresses her; why she attempts unsuccessfully to reestablish herself as part of a family, first with Minnie, then in "marriage" to Drouet and later to Hurstwood; why she keeps Ames at a distance; or what the experience of separation may have had to do with all this - Dreiser rarely makes such questions part of Carrie's conscious thought.

Carrie's lack of reflection on such matters has led Ellen Moers - who otherwise thought that the "central fact about Dreiser's work" is that he "wrote like a brother"9 - to conclude that Carrie's story was strangely not about "daughter and parents," that such relations are "notably absent not only from the foreground of the novel but also from the background of his heroine's mind."' The note of surprise is warranted. We know from his writing about other sisters, brothers, and parents that for Dreiser the ties to home were never light or easily broken. My argument is that Dreiser not only wrote like a brother in the creation of his first fictional sister; but also, with a good deal of psychological insight, he built his heroine's inner life around family relations that are very much in the background of her mind.


The first chapter of Sister Carrie gives us a glimpse of Carrie at the moment she "leaves her home at eighteen" and before she has had a chance to either fall into saving hands or "become worse" by assuming a foreign "standard of virtue." Dreiser uses the train ride into Chicago to establish both Carrie's characteristic mood and, in a sketchy yet telling way, the origins of her personality. At eighteen this country girl has passions and inner conflicts that are not at all simple. There is, in fact, much that Carrie is not conscious of in her feelings and motivations - an element of unconscious desire and wish that Dreiser underscores by surrounding her journey into Chicago with language taken from the imagery of dreams and of urban myths going back to Sodom and Gommorah. Carrie's path will be crossed "by forces wholly superhuman"; and, as if to signal the end of her adolescence, she enters the city at "that mystic period between the glare and the gloom of the world when life is changing from one sphere or condition to another" (10).

Carrie's deepest unconscious desires, before she is exposed to the "cunning wiles" of the city, partake of "wild dreams of some vague, far-off supremacy which should make it [the city] prey and subject, the proper penitent, groveling at a woman's slipper" (4). The city as a subject of conquest, in her fantasies projected as a male figure, foreshadows the punishing side of her relations with men - just as her feelings of inferiority at the glitter of Drouet's presence suggest the equally strong sense of unworthiness in her personality. With her wild dreams of conquest remaining below the surface of consciousness, she comes to Chicago with certain conventional ends in mind: a new home, a life with her sister Minnie, and a job.

Instead she meets Drouet, who tempts her with flattery, with his purse and greenbacks, -with sexual overtures; and Carrie begins to "drift" as his "luring" succeeds. On the train, Drouet accidentaly calls up one of her most painful memories of home. When he mentions the names of the Columbia City merchants Morgenroth and Gibson, Carrie is "aroused by memories of longings the displays in the latter's establishment had cost her" (7). Full of light and color, Drouet can dispel Carrie's unhappy mood. But not for long. When she notices his clothes, she became conscious of al inequality . . . [of being] shabby. She felt the worn state of he shoes." When the drummer mentions some of the major sights of Chicago, she senses an "ache in her fancy of all he described" an' she feels her "insignificance in the presence of so much magnificence " (7). Though they are "both unconscious of how articulate all their real feelings were," they are sensitive to the sexual under- current between them. Drouet is no Ames, however, and from the start he misses Carrie's deeper emotion. As he continues to expand on the wonder of Chicago, Carrie shuts out his words:

"She did not hear this very well. Her heart was troubled by a kind of terror. The fact that she was alone, away from home, rushing into a great sea of life and endeavor began to tell. She could not help but feel a little choked for breath - a little sick as her heart beat so fast." (10)

Terror, large inhibitions, a sense of her insignificance along with unconscious dreams of conquest, memories of unsatisfied needs, psychosomatic symptoms, sudden mood swings - all these Carrie brings to Chicago with her, a figure whose unconscious yearnings and fearful temperament will determine the city's effect upon her.

Carrie's fears on the train are extreme, but they have a realistic component. Dreiser's method of exploring the inner world of his characters is to draw realistic surface tensions that, as in a Rembrandt portrait, point to more irrational elements below the surface. Carrie's panic attack passes when she meets her sister at the station, but it is replaced by other, more primal anxieties. For Carrie, Minnie "carried with her much of the grimness of shift and toil" ( 11). In contrast to Drouet, Minnie recalls the life she had left behind, and Carrie finds that "she was very much alone" with her sister, "a lone figure in a tossing, thoughtless sea" (12). Carrie's response brings to life Dreiser's first, rather abstract comment on her inner life. She was, he stresses, "not conscious" that the "threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken" (3).

Dreiser was acutely aware of the implications of this condition. The scene with Minnie at the end of Chapter 1 dramatizes beautifully what he explains with a heavier hand a few chapters later. There he traces the effect of Hurst wood's home life on his state of mind: the manager lacks a "lovely home atmosphere" which makes "strong and just the natures cradled and nurtured within it." In language that echoes the imagery used to explain Carrie's relation to her family, Dreiser concludes that those who miss this nurturing never know the "mystic cords which bind and thrill the heart." Those, like Carrie, for whom the cords don't bind very strongly, have been denied the family's "tolerance and love" and as a result "The song and the literature of the home are dulled" (81). The language is full of the sentimental cliches of the day, but it points to the hidden drama behind Carrie's first "perfunctory embrace" of Minnie on the train platform. "Sending back the shadow of a smile," Drouet leaves, smugly aware that for Carrie the conscious domestic ties are in conflict with more primitive and anarchic drives.

Carrie quickly begins to think of Minnie's place on West Van Buren street as "home" (65), and with good reason, since it is for her an urban version of Columbia City. She soon feels about the Hanson flat what she feels about her old home: "Columbia City - what was there for her? She knew its dull little round by heart. . .Now to turn back on it and live the little old life out there - she almost exclaimed against it as she thought" (65). She had left Wisconsin because she was "dissatisfied at home" (15), but lift with her sister only revives "the old Carrie of distress." Dreiser makes Carrie's first period in Chicago duplicate her past life of deprivation, and so gives us a concrete sense of the roots of Carrie's psychic life without actually portraying (as he would for his second fictional "sister," Jennies Gerhardt) the specifics of her early life. He thereby collapses the conventional dichotomy between the provinces and the city found in the popular fiction of his day, and imposes a burden of psychological complexity on what has been described as "an old, old story: the restless country girl who comes to try her luck in the big city and never goes home again.''11

What exactly do we know about Carrie's Wisconsin/Chicago family? Dreiser quietly conflates the characteristics of the two families, as he does Carrie's response to them. We learn that her father works in a flour mill, and that they are relative newcomers to Columbia City (and America). Carrie is "two generations removed from the emigrant" (4). Her father is therefore of the same generation as Sven Hanson, who, as the son of a Swedish father, still spoke English with "a certain Swedish accent, noticeable in his voice" (13). Of "a morbid turn of character," the silent, gloomy Hanson takes Carrie in mainly for financial relief, though the fiction of family bonds is perfunctorily observed. Like the Hansons, the Meebers are not settled economically, nor do they have deep ties to any place: "Once the family had thought of moving [to Chicago]. If she secured good employment they might come now" (3).

We also know that Carrie's early home life did not provide her with the guiding voice of a "counselor. . . to whisper cautious interpretations" (4). The guiding voice of the family - the counselor, traditionally the father's voice - is conspicuously absent in Carrie's life. Hanson does nothing to change this situation. He perpetuates the role of a parent who offers no careful direction to the young girl, playing instead on her sense of inadequacy. Dreiser stresses that Carrie is an easy mark for Drouet's early seductive advances because she "had no excellent home principles fixed upon her. If she had, she would have been more consciously distressed" (78). She hasn't even routine conventional "habits" to fall back on: "If any habits had ever had time to fix upon her, they would have operated here" (77). Dreiser thus links Carrie's weak sense of identity and her lack of a strong inner censor - and consequently her "fall" - to this early lack of guidance.

Because she had no early parental mentor "Her conscience . . . was no just and sapient counsellor" (89). Carrie's conscience only expresses the weak "voice of the people" which for her "was truly the voice of God" (89). Carrie's conscience proves to be no match for "the voice of want." When conscience speaks to her before the mirror at Drouet's flat, she argues with herself: "What else could I do? I was so bad off. Where could I have gone? Not home again - oh, I did not want to go there." In answer, her conscience orders her to return: "Step into the streets, return to your home, be as you were. Escape!' 'I can't. I can't,' was her only reply" (91).

Carrie's dread of resuming home is connected to certain key memories. Her sensitivity to the poor and downtrodden - as well as her own fear of that fate - stems from mixed feelings of pity and shame over her father's lot in life. The streets call up many associations that center on a recurring memory.

"Her old father, in his flour-dusted miller's suit, sometimes returned to her in memory - revived by a face in the window. A shoemaker pegging at his last, a blastman seen through a narrow window in some basement where iron was being melted, a bench worker seen high aloft in some window, his coat off, his sleeves up - these took her back in fancy to the details of the mill. She felt, though she seldom expressed them, sad thoughts upon this score. Her sympathies were ever with the underworld of toil from which she had so recently sprung and which she best understood." (146-7)

There is, then, a division in Carrie that suggests some of the earliest sources of her conflicts and depressions. She both identifies with and seeks to flee "the underworld of toil from which she had so recently sprung." Her sympathies spring from her identification; but her melancholy comes from a sense of shame which follows her through the city streets, where conscience nags but is no match for the intense fears which stem from the thought that she herself might end that way. "She would stand and bite her lips" at the sight of poorly clad girls and "the white-faced, ragged men who slopped desperately by her in a sort of mental stupor" (145).

Carrie's unresolved tensions, based upon painful memories of her childhood, are most apparent in her relations with men. She measures their worth in direct proportion to their ability to provide her with the food, shelter, clothing, and pleasures that were missing during her early years. It was the "nature of her longings," Dreiser reminds us at the end of the novel, that alone explains Drouet's and Hurstwood's "influence on her life" (369 N). Carrie's noted lack of passion with men is the result of her desire to satisfy more basic needs than the sexual. Her fears and insecurities make the free play of sexual love impossible for her, as she seeks from men what she lacked at home - and takes out on them her guilty anger at what she recurrently experiences as abandonment. As a result, Carrie's first concern is for her immediate needs. Yet her narcissistic self-involvement is primarily neither that of the golddigger nor of the incipient artist but of a woman whose deprived childhood made the fear of further want her strongest emotion 12

It is appropriate, then, that Carrie's initial temptation is imagined as a tension between seducer and family. Minnie's first question at the train station, "'Why, how are all the folks at home' - she began -'how is Father, and Mother?'" (11) is "answered," but we do not hear the answer. Instead we see Carrie looking away from her sister toward Drouet: "When he disappeared she felt his absence thoroughly" (12). Drouet's presence brings a new "atmosphere" into Carrie's life, one that is contrasted with the more usual depressive feelings she associates with her family. In this way Dreiser taps the unconscious yearnings and fears in Carrie, as he begins the story of a waif who was not "cradled a child of fortune." The language of cradling and nurturing is not fortuitous. Dreiser understood the implications of Carrie's upbringing and made it memorable in the image readers recall most often: Carrie's incessant rocking in her chair, a classic symptom of those who are not nurtured and made to feel secure in early childhood.l3

Carrie flees from the Hansons as she would from her parents. "'Sven doesn't think it looks good to stand there,' [Minnie] said. 'Doesn't he?' said Carrie. 'I wouldn't do it any more after this'" (72). With her letter, she defies and breaks with the stern father and with the sympathetic but helpless mother. Carrie always leaves furtively, irretrievably breaking all bonds, because her primary relation to home and family is full of rebellion and shame. However passive in personal encounters, Carrie has the capacity for "mental rebellion" (55) which she directs toward her new home as well as toward Columbia City.

Her flight from the Hansons continues the pattern that began with her leaving Wisconsin and that also continues in her domestic relations with men. Finally she leaves them, as she left her family, with pity in the memory of them and guilt in the leaving - and with the inability to be anything but lightly bound to anyone. After she goes to live with Drouet, she one day passes the Hanson flat: "She could see it through some open lots, the front curtains half drawn. Minnie was in the kitchen getting supper. For a moment Carrie winced perceptibly. It was like a slap in the face" (101). Yet she could not return: of the surrogate father figure of Sven "She knew she did not like him" - a feeling she comes to have for all the men in her life. Years after she leaves Drouet, she remains "ashamed of her conduct" (436). In her last relationship, with Hurstwood, she relives the Hanson - and family -situation of want: "Her mind went back to her early venture in Chicago, the Hansons and their flat, and her heart revolted" (345). Once more she leaves a note and flees guiltily. When she decides to leave, it is not only with a sense of self-justification; again "she felt very much like a criminal in the matter" (435).

Carrie's need for men always includes marriage and reflects her desire for respectability as well as for security. She is in fact rather obsessive on this point.l4 When she does "marry," it is to a man whose daughter is her age. There is "no great passion in her" for Hurstwood, but unlike Drouet he agrees to Carrie's major demand: "You must marry me" (301). Such is the intensity of her desire that she blocks out the fact of his bigamy, a repression that Hurstwood (as well as many readers) finds hard to believe. But the strength of her underlying needs - "for the first time in her life she felt settled and somewhat justified in the eyes of society" (313) - again take us back to the anxieties of Columbia City.

Columbia City chose to define (and limit) Caroline Meeber in a very specific way: "'Sister Carrie,' as she had been half affectionately termed by the family" (4). There is in the title of the book a clue to the fate of its heroine. As Carrie's passions are for those things that she dreamed of finding at home, so family relations shape her story. To be a "kept" woman for Carrie is to be in the position of a daughter who is "half affectionately" called "sister." She is poorly kept at the Hansons by her real sister, then goes to Drouet, who is a "brotherly sort of creature in his demeanor" (60) and who proclaims his triumph in terms that appeal to Carrie: "Now you're my sister" (70). Minnie announces Carrie's departure to Sven with the elegant "Sister Carrie has gone to live somewhere else" (74). The familial locution here has a formal ring to it. It declares that Carrie is carrying her conflicted sisterhood beyond the confines of Columbia City and the Hansons to all the figures and places in the novel - to Drouet, to Hurstwood, and finally to the chorus line and the theater. At the end, Carrie's presence is felt not so much as lover, friend, or even actress, but as a dependent sister.


Among Sister Carrie's most famous scenes is Carrie's acting debut in Augustus Daly's melodrama Under the Gaslight. Carrie plays Laura, a girl her own age who is threatened with banishment from society when it is discovered that she is really the daughter of riffraff. Carrie assumes the role with a moving sympathy that surprises everyone, including herself. In manuscript Dreiser prepared for this moment by establishing the theater as the arena where one enters the realm of dream and the unconscious. It would, he says, "require the pen of a Hawthorne . . . to do justice to that mingled atmosphere of life and mummery" that Carrie was experiencing. Such a world breathes of the other half of life in which we have no part, of doors that are closed, and mysteries which may never be revealed" (176).

Within this world of mysteries, Carrie finds a voice. Laura is, Dreiser tells us, a character full of "suffering and tears" (160), and Carrie finds in the sentimental plight of Daly's heroine a mirror of her own aspirations and fears. 15 "This part affected Carrie deeply. It reminded her somehow of her own state" (163). At the time, Carrie is being courted by Hurstwood, whose social position "affected her much as the magnificence of God affects the mind of the Christian" (129). During the performance, Carrie enters imaginatively into the part only after Laura is threatened with a return to that underworld of toil from which she came and is rejected by her lover - "the society individual who was to waiver in his thoughts of marrying her, upon finding that she was a waif and a nobody by birth" (167). After her nervous start in the opening scenes, Carrie suddenly brings the part to life as she "began to feel the bitterness of the situation. The feelings of the outcast descended upon her" (184).

Laura's nightmare, with its source in the discovery of her family origins, is realized when she is brought to court for disobedience to her supposed father. On stage Carrie becomes, in the fancy of her role, "some beggar's child" (162). Because Dreiser intended Under the Gaslight to function as a "play within a play," that is, as an index to Carrie's real-life drama, he transfers the climax of Daly's play to the fourth act; and he skips over the fact that the last act of pure melodrama - complete with a train track rescue - shows Laura to be the real insider and her cousin Pearl the actual beggar's daughter. "In a few minutes, the last act [V1 was over" (193) is all the notice Dreiser gives of the play's real finale. It is Carrie's identification with the Laura who is abandoned by society and family that defines her ability as an artist of the pathetic.

In Daly's play the fantasy is that such a character has the power and nobility to give up her respectable lover, Ray. The climax of Carrie's role comes in a scene where Laura sublimates her own fears and desires with an impassioned and self-aggrandizing speech to Ray about the true love of a "virtuous lady": "when misfortune and evil have defeated your greatest purposes - her love remains to console you... love is all a woman has to give . . . " (192). Carrie can feel on stage the selfless love she can never feel in real life. Her unconscious desires breathe life into the melodramatic role of Laura, so that she moves her real offstage lovers to believe, for the first and only time, that she is speaking to them from the heart.

Although we never see Carrie in another major role, her stage successes are all charged with this sort of emotional transference. "If you wish to be merry, see Carrie's frown" (448) reads one of her first newspaper notices. Carrie's blues are the source of her appeal and of the particular chemistry she arouses in the audience, even in popular comedy. An opportunity comes in the role of "a silent little Quakeress"; though Carrie has no lines, her demeanor captivates the audience, partly through its comic incongruity to the stage burlesque. But her frown also expresses that mixture of coyness and dependence that had attracted Drouet and Hurstwood: "It was the kind of frown [men] would have loved to force away with kisses. All the gentlemen yearned towards her" (447).

If, as critics have noted, Dreiser modeled Carrie's meteoric stage success partly on the career of his brother Paul Dresser, then the wide mood swings that afflicted Paul surely contributed to his portrait of Carrie.'6 Dreiser associated Carrie's (and Paul's) creativity less with extraordinary talent or intellectual insight than with an "emotional greatness" that gives imaginative expression to the world's common sorrows. As a type of "one who feels, rather than reasons" (369 N), Carrie exhibits a melancholy which is, in this scheme, a function of her creative sensibility: "The thing in her that could sink and sink and make her feel depressed was a finer mental strain" (69). Carrie's ability to see "glimpses of the misery of things becomes, within the course of the novel the quality that defines the heart of the artistic personality.

Given what little we see of Carrie's talents, the seriousness Dreiser brings to his romantic portrait of her as an "artist" is unconvincing. Since we never see Carrie advance to the point where she takes Ames's advice to enter the "dramatic field," her growth in sensibility is measured less by her acting than by her response to the works of Hardy and Balzac that Ames recommends. The final scene with Carrie finds her absorbed in Pere Goriot, aware of the worthlessness of her early reading. When she chides Lola Osborne for thinking of sleigh riding during the snowstorm, Carrie gives us the only clue to her interest in the book: "'Oh dear,' said Carrie, with whom the sufferings of father Goriot were still keen. 'That's all you think of. Aren't you sorry for the people who haven't got anything tonight'" (495). Instead of identifying with Eugene de Rastignac' her counterpart in Balzac's novel, Carrie broods over the fate of Goriot. Goriot ends his days in destitution and goes to his grave unattended by his daughters, who send servants in their place. Given Carrie's memories of her father and the sad thoughts they evoke, the sufferings of Goriot naturally touch her. But her sad thoughts remain just that, and she sits fixed in her familiar posture, unable to move beyond her brooding meditations. While Hurstwood goes unattended to his grave, Carrie lives out her old "wild dreams of . . . supremacy"; and in leaving him she, like Laura in Daly's play, escapes the pain of being a "beggar's child."

Carrie pays a price for this freedom: insofar as she brings these motives into her relations with men, Carrie perpetuates the conflicts of her childhood. In manuscript Dreiser developed Carrie's flirtation with Ames to the brink of a possible union. The two meet again when Carrie has achieved all she most desired: She has a new "sister" in Lola; an anonymous provider who indulges her with a new "home" at the Waldorf; and in Ames a new "lover" from the West whose guiding voice of counsel offers her cautious interpretations of the world she faces. Ames is, in fact, the sort of man Carrie might marry if she were able to free herself of her neurosis and enter into a satisfying relationship. Dreiser wisely heeded Arthur Henry's advice and resisted that solution to Carrie's problems. A consummated relation with Ames would have destroyed the inner logic of Carrie's character and created a melodramatic resolution in the spirit of Under the Gaslight. Instead, Dreiser leaves Carrie wondering whether "such a man as he would [ever] care to draw nearer" (487); and in fact answers her doubts in the epilogue, where he assures us that, even had she succeeded with Ames, there "would lie others for her" (369 N). She remains, in short, "the old mournful Carrie - the desireful Carrie, -unsatisfied."

Carrie's story, then, is only partially one of material and artistic | rise.l7 There is also the downward drag of spiritual decline that | inhabits all of Dreiser's novels, and that is captured in Sister Carrie | by Hurstwood's final "What's the use?" - the line that ends the l novel in manuscript. This downward pull fills the novel with a depressive air that attends even Carrie's final stage triumph. Hearing the applause of celebrity, she still feels "mildly guilty of something - perhaps unworthiness" (450). That her depression remains after she has attained more than she desired in the way of material goods and fame points to Dreiser's major theme. "She had learned that in his [Hurstwood's] world, as in her own present state, was not happiness" (369 N). Hurstwood's "What's the use?" is echoed in the epilogue, where Dreiser uses his own charged rhetoric to express his inarticulate heroine's feelings: "Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel" (369 N). Dreiser voices Carrie's longings and fears at the end, as her lament of loneliness, sadness, hopeless struggle and isolation, of evil forces at work in the world - the feelings, that is, of an anxious child - dominate the final pages.

In these pages Dreiser invites us to share Carrie's sorrow by identifying it with the condition of the world itself. The origin of this impulse is Dreiser's own depressive temperament, which in his work and in his life he made persistent attempts to evade or, as in the epilogue to Sister Carrie, to find relief from in philosophy. Despite his fictional preference for sisters, financiers, and unimaginative sons of weak parents, Dreiser was a consistently autobiographical writer, and Carrie no less than Eugene Witla is partly a vehicle to explore his own psychic life. Dreiser was prone to identify the conflicts of his own inner world with the way of the world at large. He invested his first heroine with his own somber view of the nature of things. Yet he gave her not just his perplexities but the capacities he himself banked on for personal salvation. Emotionally maimed as she is, Carrie has the ability to "dream" and to "hope." Yet at the end her more basic and darker inner convictions have been confirmed: she is stripped of the illusion that happiness could be found in men or material goods - or even in fame as an artist. The resolution, such as it is, is not to move outward into the world but to rock in the chair, a kind of perpetual circular motion that brings back the old, mournful self essentially unaltered by knowledge or experience.

Like her creator in 1900, Carrie is pre-Freudian, and her motives remain something of a mystery to her. "Oh, the tangle of human life! How dimly as yet we see" (454). Even the sage advice of Ames - an extension of the wise voice of the narrator - cannot alter the inner person. In effect, Dreiser made Carrie's main adversary the melancholic part of her own mind. But he could find no way of relieving her sufferings. In the epilogue, he challenges the exterior causes of gloom - her physical and material needs; and he redirects our focus to less tangible yearnings, like the pursuit of beauty and the unsatisfied hunger of the imagination, that provide appropriate metaphors for Carrie's melancholic state of mind.

The authorial voice - in a way the fourth main character in the book - remains in the position of Carrie at the end; figuratively speaking, he sits in his rocking chair with Pere Goriot in his lap, rocking and dreaming, as he applies philosophical balm to Carrie's wounds - wounds that are contiguous with the world as he imagines it. At the close of the published novel, the intrusion of the narrator in the epilogue, florid and strained as it is, allows Dreiser to bring us back to the repressed and confused Carrie in all her easeful melancholy. After our trip with Hurstwood, ending in the despair of his final moments, the blue dreamer in her rocking chair is a great relief.


1. William Marion Reedy, "Sister Carrie," St. Louis Mirror, 10 (January 3, 1901); 6-7. Reprinted in Critical Essays on Theodore Dreiser, ed. Donald Pizer (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), p. 158.

2. Anonymous, New York Commercial Advertiser, December 19, 1900. Reprinted in Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception, ed. Jack Salzman (New York: David Lewis, 1972), p. 4.

3. For a good sample of the early reviews of Sister Carrie, see Salzman, The Critical Reception, pp. 1 - 54.

4. Sister Carrie, eds. John C. Berkey, James L. W. West III, Neda M. Westlake, Alice M. Winters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), p. 145.1 will quote from this edition because it captures Dreiser's rendering of Carrie's character at an earlier stage of composition and therefore more fully than the first edition published by Doubleday, Page, the edition which is the basis for the text of the Norton Critical Edition. I will also quote from the Norton Critical Edition, however, when I wish to cite a passage not in the Pennsylvania Edition. All citations from the Pennsylvania Edition will be followed in the text by page numbers in parentheses; all citations from the Norton Critical Edition will be followed in the text by page numbers and "N" in parentheses.

5. Ellen Moers, Tvvo Dreisers (New York: Viking, 1969), p. 107.

6. F.O. Matthiessen, Theodore Dreiser (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951), p. 85.

7. For recent, provocative treatments of this theme, see Philip Fisher, "The Life History of Objects: The Naturalist Novel and the City," in Hard Facts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 153-78; Amy Kaplan: "The Sentimental Revolt of Sister Carrie," in The Social Construction of American Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp.140-60; and Walter Benn Michaels, "Sister Carrie's Popular Economy," in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 29-58.

8. Among the few critics to address the question, Kenneth S. Lynn shrewdly focuses on Carrie's "depressed, dissatisfied" personality Lynn argues that these symptoms reflect the pathology of the gold digger, and he concludes that "Dreiser's instinctive knowledge of his heroine led him to describe quite accurately an attitude of mind which he did not consciously understand." ("Theodore Dreiser: The Man of Ice," in The Dream of Success [Boston: Little Brown and Company, 19551, p. 34. ) Carrie does, of course, have something of the gold digger about her, as is often the case with this type of personality.

9. Ellen Moers, "The Finesse of Dreiser," American Scholar 33 (Winter, 1964): 109 - 14; reprinted in Pizer, Critical Essays, p. 201.

10. Moers, Two Dreisers, p. 100.

11. Ibid., p. 99.

12. The connection between an emotionally deprived childhood and narcissism is discussed in Alice Miller, Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self, trans. by Ruth Ward (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

13. For discussions of this condition see "Stereotypy/Habits Disorder," in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, ed. Robert L. Spitzer, third edition revised (Washington, D. C.: American Psychiatric Association: 1987), pp. 93 - 5; and Harry Harlow, Determinants of Infant Behaviour (London: Methuen, 1961), p. 89. I am in debt to Dr. Robert Catenaccio for leading me to these sources and for the many hours of discussion about Dreiser and other matters over the years. For different views of Carrie's rocking, see Donald Pizer, "Sister Carrie, " in The Novels of Theodore Dreiser (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976), pp. 67, 82; and Philip Fisher, Hard Facts, pp. 154-6.

14. For a good discussion of Carrie's "domesticity," see Kaplan, Social Construction of American Realism, pp. 144 - 5.

15. See Donald Pizer's discussion of Dreiser's use of Under the Gaslight in Novels of Theodore Dreiser, pp. 41-2.

16. The best analysis of Paul Dresser's emotional instability is in Richard Lingeman, Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907 (New York; Putnam's, 1986), pp. 392-6.

17. Warwick Wadlington makes a strong case for the existence in Carrie of a "core of innate psychic activity that exists buried in all [Dreiser's] characters, rising fitfully, 'opportunistically' to the surface only when an external reality seems to promise fulfillment,'' in "Pathos and Dreiser," Southern Review 7 (Spring 1971): 411-29; reprinted in Pizer, Critical Essays, p. 222.