THE naturalism of Theodore Dreiser may be approached through a study of his personality, the sort of experiences he had in his forma- tive years, and the philosophical speculations which grew from his ex- periences and his reading.
A warm, boundless human sympathy;
- a tremendous vital lust for life with a conviction that man is the end and measure of all things in a world which is nevertheless without purpose or standards;
- moral, ethical, and religious agnosticism;
- contact with the scientific thought of the late nineteenth century which emphasized the power and scope of mechanical laws over human desires;
- belief in a chemical-mechanistic explanation of the human machine—an explanation which substantiates his materialism while it does full justice to the mystery of consciousness and the vital urge;
—these are the elements which Dreiser brings to the Creation of his novels.
It must be emphasized that his awareness of the shifting, cyclical quality of human and natural affairs arises as much from experience as from his contact with literary models or scientific thought. His determinism, again, loses its force because he is more interested in the mystery and terror and wonder of life itself than in tracing those forces which might account for and so dispel the mystery. Science is not, to him, the wonderful high priest of benign Nature, because he has seen too many of the evils of industrialism and the malignancy of natural forces. But life is eternally seeking, searching, striving, throbbing—life is the single positive element in a cosmos of ruthless flux. And the pathetic fortunes of people in this cosmos of pur- poseless change are the main concern of Dreiser’s novels.
The present study will trace the development of Dreiser’s naturalism through his six novels, showing how, in three distinct stages he has taken three different attitudes toward the body of ideas just described, which have resulted in three kinds of naturalistic novels.
In the first stage he was expounding his conviction of the essential urposelessness of life and attacking the conventional ethical codes which to him seemed to hold men to standards of conduct that had no ational basis in fact, while they condemned others without regard to what Dreiser thought might be the real merits of their situations. The first half of this program—expounding the purposelessness of life—is the backbone of his first novel, Sister Carrie, published in 1900. Through a queer juxtaposition of incidents, and with only small regard for the worthiness of their impulses, one character achieves fame and comfort while another loses his social position, wealth, pride, and finally his life. Into this novel Dreiser has brought all the vivid reality of his own experience with the dreary, beaten, downtrodden life of those who have no money, no background, no sophistication, and no especial talent. With a deep compassion that never assumes the right to pass moral judgment upon the actions of his characters, he shows Carrie Meeber coming to Chicago from the country, drearily passing from one ill-paid and health-breaking job to another, and at length, jobless and depressed at the thought of having to return defeated to the country, falling in and setting up housekeeping with one Drouet, a “drummer” whom she had met on the train as she first entered the city.
At this crucial instance begins Carrie’s rise in the world. As a “fallen woman” she is in no wise judged; and even more astonishing, Drouet is shown to be flashy, crude, essentially shallow, but nevertheless at the antipodes from villainy. He is good-hearted and generous; in fact he has every intention of marrying Carrie—although he does not ever do so. With this social and financial advance over the miserable narrowness that characterized the home life of the sister with whom she had been living Carrie begins to recognize class differences, to long for better things, even to sense that Drouet is not on the heights of sophistication and culture.
Drouet’s friend Hurst wood represents the next higher level of poise, wealth, and understanding. He is manager of a prosperous saloon, he owns a fine house, and his family is eagerly climbing the social ladder. When he meets Carrie he falls desperately in love with her and, in what almost amounts to an abduction, abandons his family, steals $10,000 from his employers, and flees with her through Canada and into New York.
From this point the fall of Hurstwood and the rise of Carrie are depicted in antiphonal relationship. Hurstwood’s degeneration is a marvelous representation of the meaningless, almost unmotivated sort of tragedy that art had, until then, conspired to ignore. His wife’s grasping jealousy and pettiness impel him towards Carrie, and his being seen with her gives his wife grounds for a divorce action. It is by the merest chance that he finds the safe open on the very night when he had planned to disappear. His theft of the $10,000 results from a nervous impulse which he is too weak to resist.
He is later forced to return the money, but he never recovers his self-esteem. In New York he takes a half interest in a second-rate saloon and after a time loses his investment. Then he dawdles, first looking for jobs, finally sitting in hotels instead of looking; at length he stays at home, reading newspapers endlessly and hoarding the little money he has left. The change in his character from an affluent good-fellow to a seedy miser is as convincing as it is tragical.
Some men never recognize the turning in the tide of their abilities. It is only in chance cases, where a fortune or a state of success is wrested from them, that the lack of ability to do as they did formerly becames apparent. Hurstwood, set down under new conditions, was in a position to sec that he was no longer young.
Carrie stays with him as long as she can; but when she gets a place in a stage chorus she leaves him in order to room with a girl who is dancing in the same chorus. Hurstwood goes down and down—to poverty, destitution, begging, starvation, and finally suicide. The story of his downfall is perhaps the most moving one that Dreiser has written.
Carrie, on the other hand, rises rapidly from the moment she leaves Hurstwood. She graduates from the chorus to a minor r61e: Evidently the part was not intended to take precedence as Miss Madenda [Carrie] is not often on the stage, but the audience, with the characteristic per- versity of such bodies, selected for itself. The little Quakeress was marked for a favourite the moment she appeared, and thereafter easily held attention and applause. The vagaries of fortune are indeed curious.
The last sentence of this newspaper account of Carrie’s first step forward on the stage emphasizes the major theme of the book—how curious are the vagaries of fortune. As Hurstwood is drawing nearer to his sordid death, Carrie climbs rapidly until she is earning what was to her an unheard of salary, living in one of the finest hotels in the city, and receiving countless proposals and attentions from men as far superior to Hurstwood at his best as he had been to the flashy Drouet. “Even had Hurstwood returned in his original beauty and glory, he could not now have allured her.” The book ends on a note of uncertainty. Carrie is not to be thought of as having attained any final goal. She is still longing and wondering — an illustration of the devious way by which one who feels rather than reasons, may be led in the pursuit of beauty. Though often disillusioned, she was still waiting for that halcyon day when she should be led forth among dreams become real.
Shocking to contemporary readers—or reviewers, for there were few if any readers at first—was the amoral attitude from which Sister Carrie was written. Nowhere is there a moral pointed. There is no inevitable punishment for transgression, no suggestion that there ought to be. In one passage Dreiser even appeals to Nature as against conventional moral standards and intimates that the only evil in what is ordinarily considered sinful comes from the codes which call it evil, rather than from the deed itself:
He (Drouet] could not help what he was going to do. He could not see clearly enough to wish to do differently. He was drawn by his innate desire to act the old pursuing part. He would need to delight himself with Carrie as surely as he would need to eat his heavy breakfast. He might suffer the least rudimentary twinge of conscience in whatever he did, and in just so far he was nil and sinning. But whatever twinges of conscience he might have would be rudimentary.
What is perfectly natural or spontaneous is good: the brooding mind makes sin. Morals may thus be rigid, unrealistic; but they do reflect a life force which goes deeper than the simple mechanist is willing or able to perceive. To Dreiser some such mystical principle represents the force which perhaps lies behind the wonder and terror and mystery of life. It is the recognition of this urge that makes life so positive and wonderful to him and that makes him doubt the rigidly “scientific” approach to problems of human conduct:
For all the liberal analysis of Spencer and our modern naturalistic philosophers, [he writes], we have but an infantile perception of morals. There is more in the subject than mere conformity to a law of evolution. It is yet deeper than con- formity to things of earth alone. It is more involved than we, as yet, perceive. Answer, first, why the heart thrills; explain wherefore some plaintive note goes wandering about the world, undying; make clear the rose’s subtle alchemy evolving its ruddy lamp in light and rain. In the essence of these facts lie the first principles of morals.