"Aye, Chance, Free Will, and Necessity": Sister Carrie's Literary Interweavings,
By Shawn St. Jean

The Midwest Quarterly, v42, (Spring 2001): 240-256

Reviewed by Danielle Alexander

In his article, Shawn St. Jean situates himself, within the scholarly conversations surrounding Dreiser's Sister Carrie, as one who trained in the classics, can offer a comparative study of Dreiser's text and its classical influences. St. Jean argues that the central question about which the novel is concerned -- "What forces influence (or control) the lives of human beings?" -- is an archetypal one that invokes an ancient paradigm (240). In recalling such Greek terms as moira (the will of the gods), ananke (necessity), ate (ruin), hubris (pride), tyche (chance), and hamartia (tragic flaw), St. Jean paints a picture of Sister Carrie that quite closely resembles a Greek epic poem; he makes appropriate (although, oftentimes, not very compelling) associations between the circumstances in which characters in the novel find themselves and those situations in which such various characters as Zeus, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Odysseus find themselves. He suggests that the story of a quest, for example, one of the obvious archetypal features of an epic, strongly informs the novel. St. Jean likens Telemachus's quest for manhood and glory with Carries quest for money. The obstacles that become inevitable aspects of this quest are factors that play an important role in determination. For Carrie, the two men in her life, Drouet and Hurstwood , represent these obstacles that at once contribute to her moral ruin and her social development. Hence, St. Jean ultimately finds that nineteenth-century naturalism has not strayed very far from the ways in which the ancient Greeks attempted to explain the human condition.
But as invested as this article is in the act of comparing, (ironically enough) perhaps the most interesting, salvageable, and relevant (to our class) part of the article is the part wherein St. Jean contrasts two texts -- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Sister Carrie. In this section, he claims that while Huck has enough foresight to think (although mistakenly) that he will "go to hell" for tearing up the letter that reveals Jim's whereabouts, Carrie never has that keen sense of perception when it comes to her own actions: "The best she can manage is to waver between desire and some half-formed inhibitions" (246). I think that such a distinction elicits some interesting questions about the role that impending moral (rather than material) punishment plays in the decision-making process. Is there a strategic reason why God or morality is not one of the many forces with which the characters have to contend in the novel? How is the option to end up in either heaven or hell different from the option to be rich or to be poor, respectively? Might Dreiser be challenging the notion that poverty is a kind of punishment? Indeed, I think that the question with which Dreiser is most concerned is the one that might read: what are the moral and social consequences for he or she who thinks that poverty is the material equivalent of hell? I stray here from St. Jean's interests as a subtle way of saying that the article, although interesting, is not the most riveting piece of scholarship that I have read. A discussion of Sister Carrie's relevance to today's American society seems more fruitful than one that harps on the novel's obvious debt to the Ancient Greeks. Indeed, as Professor Railton has demonstrated, although flies play a significant role in realists text, they play a significant role in ancient Greek and nineteenth-century naturalist's texts as well. I thought that, without St. Jean's having to tell us, we have always had the sense that "like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods."