Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sister Carrie

I finished Sister Carrie today. Though it wasn’t a great book, it wasn’t bad either. It was bleak and dreary, from its depictions of turn-of-the-century industrial Chicago to New York’s Bowery and ‘skid row’, and I like bleak and dreary.

Here’s a summary: Carrie is riding a train from her hometown in Wisconsin to live with her sister in Chicago. On the train, she meets Charlie Drouet. Drouet notices that she is pretty and innocent, so he starts talking to her, because he likes women. Carrie, being naïve like she is, likes him because he pays attention to her and looks nice. They exchange addresses. Carrie obviously came to Chicago with “big city dreams,” not realizing how hard she would have to work to earn her keep. Carrie’s sister (Minnie) and her husband (Sven) charge Carrie a not-very-fair amount for her room and board, and I got the impression that they were going to use the extra money to pay off another house that they had somewhere. Carrie has trouble finding work, and gets a backbreaking job in a shoe factory. Carrie’s dreams of living it up are obviously dashed. Then one day she runs into Drouet. He loans her some money, and eventually tells her that he’ll get her an apartment and furnish her with whatever she needs (clothes, food, etc). She agrees and secretly moves out of her sister’s house. Drouet and her pretend to be husband and wife when they can, and he continuously promises Carrie that he’ll marry her, but she increasingly grows disillusioned with him. In the meantime, Carrie meets Drouet’s friend, Hurstwood. Hurstwood is an old wealthy man who is the manager of a restaurant/bar. Carrie becomes infatuated with Hurstwood, probably entirely due to his money and the life that he lives. Hurstwood falls in love with Carrie, but fails to tell her that he’s married. He and Carrie start talking about running away together, and he promises to marry her if she goes with him. They set a date to go.

In the meantime, Hurstwood’s wife finds out that he’s been gallivanting about with Carrie, and is going to sue him for divorce. The date that he is to run away with Carrie arrives and passes, but she never shows up to meet him – because she found out from Drouet that he is married. In light of this news, Drouet discovers what was between the two of them, and gets mad that she was going to leave him, “after all he did for her” and moves out. One night, Hurstwood shows up and tells Carrie that Drouet was injured and that she was to come with him. She believes him and goes. They get on a train, and head to Montreal. On the way, Carrie realizes that there was no injury…Hurstwood just used it as an excuse to get her away. Hurstwood has stolen thousands of dollars from the safe at his work, and is fleeing, but Carrie doesn’t know all that. From Montreal, they are going to New York. Carrie has big dreams of New York now, and isn’t so upset that Hurstwood has essentially kidnapped her. In order to avoid being persecuted, Hurstwood decides to give back most of the money that he stole. So, now he and Carrie are in New York, neither have jobs, etc. After a failed business venture and some unsuccessful attempts to find a new job, Hurstwood gives up bothering (except for a two day stint as a street-car scab in Brooklyn). Their situation becomes more and more dire, when Carrie finally decides to try getting a job as an actress. Because she is pretty, she gets some lucky breaks. Her talent is discovered, and she starts to bring in the money. Now Hurstwood is the dependent one, and eventually Carrie’s salary can no longer support them both. She moves out, and moves up in the world, becoming a very successful and wealthy actress, while Hurstwood is driven further down the social ladder, ending up a bum and killing himself in a flophouse. In the end, we see that even though Carrie has achieved everything she ever wanted, she still isn’t happy.

Most, if not all of the characters in this book were unlikeable. First of all, Minnie and Sven: they were clearly taking advantage of Carrie for their own gain, and didn’t exactly enquire after her when she disappeared with Drouet. Drouet: this ladies man kind of strings Carrie along on promises that he will marry her…though she isn’t exactly pitching a fit about their arrangement. Then she falls for Hurstwood because he’s richer than Drouet. And he deceives her too, first with promises of marriage, then he kidnaps her, fakes a marriage with her that he knows isn’t legal but she thinks is, and doesn’t seem real enthusiastic about taking care of her in New York. Granted, however, again it isn’t that she really complains of the situation until they start to run short on money, at which time it is pretty much justifiable to complain about the situation. So what does Carrie do? She gets a damn job. Good for her. Of course it’s mostly on the pretext that she’s pretty, but she rises in the acting world fairly quickly, and decides not to let Hurstwood mooch off her anymore. I don’t blame her, because it really is his own fault about his situation, mainly due to his theft of the money. So, I kind of feel sympathetic for Carrie in a way, because everyone around her is deceiving her. But on the other hand, until she decides to get a job, she is kind of just swept along with the desires of the men in her life.

I know that this book has a reputation for being poorly written, but to be honest, it’s a lot better written than a lot of books that are being published today. And we see that even more than 100 years ago, Dresier understood that materialism and consumerism are not going to make you happy. We haven’t learned very much.

I am also reading The End of Alice by A.M. Homes. It is thus far a very uncomfortable book.

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