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    The Ironies of Social Standards in Sister Carrie Essay

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    To this day, Sister Carrie remains one of the most controversial novels of its time. The remarkably realistic characters and contentious situations created by Theodore Dreiser illustrate the double standards within a growing American society at the turn of the twentieth century. Naturalism plays a large part in the development of each character and their pathetic inability to evade their trivial fates Theodore. The perverse fascination and distaste surrounding this incapability mirrors a society”s hypocrisy of its own social standards.

    For his first novel, Dreiser opted to paint a realistic portrait of America for what it really was- materialistic Gerber 52. “The money ideal would be exposed as the great motivating purpose of life in the United States: one”s relative affluence at any level of society determining the degree creature comfort one might enjoy, the measure of prestige one might own, and the extent of social power one might command” Gerber 52-53. Sister Carrie completely reiterates America”s obsession with money because there is not one character whose own status symbol isn”t determined economically Gerber 53.

    At the end of the Civil War, big business boomed and there was now a preoccupation with “conspicuous consumption” Ward. Capitalism roared and consumers began to see each other for what they thought they really were: money. Dreiser first describes his Caroline Meeber not by her opinions or actions, but by what she owns: “a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, …and a small yellow snap purse” Dreiser Sister 3. Although Carrie cannot afford a real alligator-skin satchel, she owns an imitation so that she appears to be something she is not Ward. False appearances are a reiterated theme throughout Sister Carrie.

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    Upon entering Chicago and meeting Drouet, the reader becomes attentive to Carrie”s fascination with the upper class. “In addition to representing consumerism, Carrie also serves as a symbol of the American middle class. Carrie is `ambitious to gain material things”” Ward. Entering a department store to find a job, Carrie leaves with an unsatisfied desire to own things that she cannot. Carrie sees how much the city has to offer her. She longs for the luxury and wealth of the other shop dwellers Balling 23. All of the fancy items tempt Carrie although she cannot manage to pay for any of them; “thus a capitalist economy manipulates the desire of the consumer without ever completely satisfying it” Ward. This unfulfilled yearning compels the consumer to work long hours just to struggle to buy more items Ward. With each purchase, the need for material things grows while never completely satisfying the consumer. Carrie”s dream of satisfaction is hastily broken when she realizes she must work in an unpleasant job to get what she wants.

    In Sister Carrie, money is a main objective at the beginning of many relationships. Carrie”s fascination in Drouet is instigated by his money. “Handing her the money gives him the opportunity to touch her hand, the first step of physical intimacy with her” Ward. In a society in which wealth is associated with individual merit, Drouet begins to stir up yet another person into materialism. Through this, he can “conduct his life on a splendid basis” because Carrie looks to him with desire Balling 25. A world of possibilities is opened to Carrie through Drouet. She has now become an “insider” to the world of prosperity, excitement, and satisfaction Balling 29.

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    In meeting Hurstwood, Carrie can only look further upward. He is the symbol of the enlightened, capitalist man Ward. His life with Julia is one greater than Drouet”s. Unlike Hurstwood, Drouet is awkward and imitative in his dress and actions. This flashy lifestyle screams that he is performing a role Ward. Hurstwood spends just as noticeably, but he does it with a great deal of taste. Overall, while Hurstwood looks like the legitimate article, Drouet just comes off as a fake Ward. Carrie soon takes notice.

    Although they live a far more affluent lifestyle than Drouet and Carrie, Hurstwood”s family is not satisfied. As Carrie craves nice clothing and trinkets, Julia and Jessica are saddened that they cannot afford a European summer vacation Ward. Again, the reader is introduced to the reoccurring theme of the compelling influence behind consumer society: unfulfilled desire Ward.

    After Hurstwood and Carrie”s affair and escape to New York, Hurstwood soon finds himself having to think carefully about small disbursements like rent and cab fare. Although he has sufficient money to invest in new businesses, he turns down many prospects because they are too low-class for him Ward. Not only is his money very important to him now, but so is his respectability. Having to live so frugally as he searches for a job humiliates him Balling 61. The importance of Hurstwood”s reputation to himself underscores the materialism in America. Being who you are to yourself is not as important as being someone to others Gerber 60-61.

    Once Carrie meets Mrs. Vance, she reenters the world of “conspicuous consumption” Ward. As soon as she finds someone wealthier than she, Carrie again becomes displeased with her life. It seems as if Carrie then sets new goals for herself as she is exposed to new socio-economic levels Ward.

    Hurstwood”s decline pushes Carrie further away from him. Mrs. Vance”s decision to cut off her connection with Carrie because of Hurstwood”s appearance exposes the “dehumanizing nature of consumer society” Ward. While Hurstwood gradually sinks toward deprivation and suicide, Carrie once again moves foreword and appears on stage Thorp 472. Carrie”s “constant drag to something better was not to be denied” Thorp 472. Her choice to leave him is almost completely motivated by finances, as was her decision to marry him Ward.

    The richer Carrie gets, again, the farther up she looks. “Despite hardly knowing what to do with all of her money, however, she still suffers from unsatisfied desires” Ward. Carrie”s newfound theatrical success does not bring her happiness as she expected, just more urges. “Although she has now gained an identity that is independent of Hurstwood”s and Drouet”s desire for her, she is still dependent on the desire of the public” Ward. Even after Carrie has come so far, she still looks towards others” opinions of her to make her happy.

    By the end of the novel, Carrie is still dissatisfied. She still experiences the unceasing discontent that is the major force behind consumerism Ward. A consumer-based society can only survive if there is always something more to want. “With eyes so fixed on mountaintops yet to be attained, they never stop to wonder this way madness lies” Gerber 53. As Carrie reaches the top, she and the reader no longer know what she desires. “The brutal forces governing life dictate that any achievement permitted a human creature be diluted by dissatisfaction” Gerber 56.

    At this time in America “life had much to do with `chemisms” and `magnetisms”; it was dominated by invincible material forces; and of these the drives for power, money, and sex were primary” Gerber. Sex and the relationships between men and women were solely based on finances, just as were Carrie”s relationships with Drouet and Hurstwood. Even Dreiser himself expects Carrie to do nothing more than rely on a man. “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse” Dreiser Sister 3. This statement also implies that Carrie or women in general uses seduction to get what she wants Thorp 472.

    “Dreiser makes of her a symbolic figure who must sacrifice a certain amount of innocence in order to make progress of any kind. Thus Carrie”s dream is the American Dream as well; it is a dream of rich finery, financial success and power” Balling 30. When Drouet offers Carrie the twenty dollars, he is essentially buying the prospect for sex Ward. Because she owes him money, she feels tied to return his kindness with the only material object she owns- her body. Exposed of all its trimmings, Drouet and Carrie”s relationship is no more than a form of prostitution. Because Carrie is paid more for her body than she is for her employment, she realizes that “a woman”s most marketable product is sex” Ward.

    While Carrie illustrates the life of a modern single woman, Julia demonstrates the typical, unhappy married women. Hurstwood attributes his wife as an ornament of his success by regarding her as one of his possessions Ward. Again the marriage serves as a contract to declare her job as a wife: to give Hurstwood sex in exchange for his money Ward.

    The pragmatic morality and hypocrisy of a male”s role in a marriage is apparent through Hurstwood”s actions. While he keeps a close eye on Julia and all of her interactions, he does not condemn men”s extramarital affairs; he only approves if they are carried out discreetly Ward. This disjunction between people”s conduct and the figure they stage is maintained by a web of lies Ward.

    Paying close attention to Drouet as he compliments other women, Carrie takes note and tries to develop her identity largely based on what he craves. Through this imitation, she becomes simply a manifestation of masculine desire; Carrie substantiates the conventional idea that women are nothing more than role players Ward. “Sister Carrie presents women”s identity as virtually non-existent: men can be genuine, but women can only try to imitate” Ward. Carrie, again, knows no identity without conceding to a man Markels 533.

    As a reflection of masculine desire, Carrie cannot express any desires of her own- except for her need for conspicuous consumption. Rather than feeling happiness from her own desires, Carrie is pleased only when others desire her Ward. Carrie”s need for attention again upholds the conventional standard that a woman only has social standing when a man desires her Phillips 553.

    Dreiser”s approach of retelling life how it really has created a great deal of unexpected controversy. “The sum and substance of literary as well as social morality may be expressed in three words- tell the truth” Dreiser True 473. This statement made by Dreiser himself was in response to critics against the publication of Sister Carrie. The depiction of a “fallen” woman in a success story was considered completely immoral Riggio.

    As Dreiser entered the literary scene in the early 1900s, a conventional style of writing had already been set into tradition. The function of literature “was to appeal to man”s `higher nature”, to inspire him through the depiction of man”s capacity to achieve the ethical life to seek such a life for himself” Pizer Dreiser”s. Basically, the didactic method of literature was there to create an ideal society. When Sister Carrie came along, most reviewers held upon the fundamental circumstances of the novel- a young woman has two forbidden sexual affairs without experiencing either “material loss or moral degeneration” Pizer Dreiser”s. Also, since God was not mentioned once in the novel, Sister Carrie was considered immediate grounds for dismissal Pizer Dreiser”s.

    Such debate surrounding a novel can really only prove one point: “it is a story of real life, of their lives” Notman 474. All of these situations- materialism, seduction, adultery, bigamy, and theft- were actually occurring in real life Thorp 469. This denial of Americans” own lives further reiterates the hypocrisy in a growing capitalist society. In a brief essay entitled “True Art Speaks Plainly”, Dreiser concluded “a true picture of life, honestly and reverentially set down, is both moral and artistic whether it offends the conventions or not” Dreiser True 474.

    Dreiser”s Sister Carrie deals with the sordid side of everyday life. Although his characters are mixtures of moral and corrupt, “unable to assert their will against natural and economic forces”, he rarely passes judgment on them Theodore. These extraordinarily convincing individuals and the litigious circumstances created by Theodore Dreiser demonstrate the ironies within an emergent American culture after the Civil War. Materialism and capitalism in a booming economy, conventional standards of men and women”s roles, and the denial of the American public in response to the novel all prove that Sister Carrie was ahead of its time in portraying the authentic and pessimistic view of real existence.

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    The Ironies of Social Standards in Sister Carrie Essay. (2018, May 29). Retrieved from

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