Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
Number 33 on the Modern Library’s list is a novel by Theodore Dreiser called Sister Carrie. Dreiser has another novel on the list, called An American Tragedy (#16). He could as well have given Sister Carrie that title. Instead he named it for not just the main character, but for the main character held in a certain perception. Carrie Meeber is someone’s little sister. The name Sister Carrie also invokes religious sisters—nuns. Both little sisters and nuns are pure and uncorrupted, which Sister Carrie is not.
I imagine this story’s attitude is one of disapproval or disappointment about the track Carrie’s life took. I imagine Sister Carrie in the eyes of this novel is seen as a fallen woman. I read her more as an admirable character, a woman who followed her own bliss and did for herself. Carrie is also a typical woman of her time—not a traditional one, but a representative one—making her own way in the world rebelliously and without apology. Carrie is a triumphant character.
The second main character, George Hurstwood, is a tragic character. When applied correctly, “tragic” doesn’t mean merely sad or heartbreaking. It means also something born of destiny. A tragic character is one whose fate is in some way preordained by his own decisions and actions, maybe by his own personality. When the tragic end comes, especially in well-wrought literature, its heartbreaking qualities and its inevitability arrive together. Pathos is suffering of the innocent; tragedy is suffering of the not-innocent, who are not the same as “bad” (their suffering would be something else—justice, maybe). George is a not-innocent who sets his own destiny in motion by a bad decision.
The novel also tracks the idea of the American Dream—great fortune achieved by a person not born to it. This ideal set America off from the old countries, where birthplace was seemingly immutable: If you were born a younger daughter to a small-town working class family (as Carrie is), you grew up to be a woman who married a small-town working class man and produced more of your same kind (as her sister attempts to do). Carrie achieves instead a certain flavor of the American dream, reaching fame and fortune through strategic relationships. She meets along the way similar self-made people, men especially, including George. Her sister and brother-in-law disapprove, and their disapproval also serves to push Carrie into the very realms they look down on, or perhaps are jealous of, as they struggle in maintaining their class standing as the country industrializes and the cities, where the work is, become like testing grounds for surviving or thriving, or neither.
George started out a man who could help Carrie achieve the material lifestyle she desired, but as Carrie rises, George declines. He commits a theft in the service of his wooing of Carrie, and the rest of his life unfolds from the basis of that act. Carrie acts in an amoral fashion, some would say; George acts criminally. Carrie treats people callously; George puts his future at risk for the sake of pleasing her. Carrie gains the material success she desired. George loses his comfort and the dignity and respect he once had. Their fates do not seem to fit, moralistically speaking. They are literary fates, and also true and realistic.
Sister Carrie is a powerful story with indelible characters. It gives a very interesting portrait of America at a turning point in the country’s economic (and thus social) development. Of the many vibrant scenes, one sticks in my mind especially: George is destitute in New York City, hoping to have a place to sleep that night, and he encounters a man who is a huskster for the homeless. This man stands in the middle of Times Square and cajoles, like a carnival barker, passers-by to donate the price of a bed in a flophouse, and thereby one by one gets this long line of homeless men off the street for the night. Here are the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the forgotten, the capitalistic and the socialistic, the flip sides of the coin that is America, illustrated in 1900 as vibrantly as they play out even today.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.