Second Dreiser Lecture

"Did he do that?" (p. 243) -- that's what Hurstwood thinks at the moment the safe locks, leaving him with $10,000 in his hands. Legally he's a thief. Morally he's broken one of the ten commandments -- thou shalt not steal. But according to the Naturalistic conception of character TD is developing, we have to see him essentially as a victim of circumstances, as the novel works hard throughout the scene of Hurstwood & the money (Chapter 27) to show. I began with the way Naturalism denies individuals freedom of choice, or a conscious will, & with the implications of this for holding them responsible for their acts. Henry Fleming is a deserter, Carrie is a "fallen woman" (in conventional 19th C. moralistic terms) -- but the narratives don't "blame" or "judge" them morally (cf. way TD's narrator discusses Carrie's "fall" on pp. 70-71 and 85-88). This is what got Sister Carrie in trouble when it first appeared in 1900. Conventional readers expected Carrie to be punished for her "sins"; instead she goes on from man to man to incredible success as an actress. Realists in the generation before had actually worried about allowing novels to reflect an amoral universe -- & Mark Twain, for example, is careful to include the scene where the King & Duke "get theirs," get tarred & feathered. In 19th C works of fiction were supposed to preserve the "fiction" that virtue would be reward, vice punished, but another of the new elements in Naturalism of the 1890s is its representation of an amoral universe.

Hurstwood, for example, does "suffer" drastically after running away from Chicago with the money & Carrie, but TD doesn't present his long fall into misery & death as a "punishment" for a "crime." Instead, it's a kind of Darwinian story of how, having lost his "place," needing to begin again in New York "the battle for place and comfort," Hurstwood becomes "unfit" for "survival." Economic circumstances, chemic compounds in his body (cf. 302), etc., all drive him toward his bleak end. His fall through the ranks of society, from near the top to the very bottom, urban homelessness, allows TD to dramatize the idea of the city as a realm of competitive forces that, even as they "carry" Carrie to the top, drive Hurstwood inexorably downward. To me, the description of Hurstwood's "decline" is the most doctrinally "Naturalistic" aspect of the novel -- he becomes smaller and smaller, more and more helpless to even pretend to control his fate: the "manager" we first meet in Chicago becomes the "helpless manager," then "the ex-manager."

But to me, most subtly Naturalistic aspect is Carrie's "rise." Through it TD explores the same question that Crane evokes through Henry in battle -- not "survival," but meaning; not life itself, but the question of whether life has meaning. I started this issue by comparing Carrie to the other "desireful" woman we've met, Edna Pontellier (cf. p. 107, where narrative says that Carrie "awakened in the matter of desire"): Edna's desires are for passion, ecstasies; Carrie's are for "things" -- clothes, shoes, etc., are the literal "matter" of her desire. But TD insists she isn't "greedy" (cf. 115). It isn't things she ultimately wants, but what they represent: fulfillment, the end of desire. To me that's the issue the novel explores most brilliantly: the gap between Carrie's essentially metaphysical longings (the pilgrimage she's on for some kind of salvation, redemption from desire), and the purely material world in which, according to the novel, she exists. When she makes shoes, they are brutely material things, stinking of leather & sweat. When shoes call to her to buy them in a department store, however, they've been endowed with some transformative magic: they promise a new self, happiness, a better life. In many ways Sister Carrie a great study of America as a consumer culture, with the new department stores as cathedrals where, through some capitalist version of transubstantiation, leather and machine oil are transformed into eucharistic "shoes," which promise to redeem Carrie's life from its lack of fulfillment. But I think even more resonant is the way in this book TD makes his representative American, his Carrie who carries our longings, an actress -- because "theatre," "performance," "make-believe," "image/status/appearance" are what everyone in those brightly lit cities turns to to fill in the gap between the essentially spiritual needs of the psyche and the material facts of existence. That's what we'll go on with Friday: Carrie & theatricality.

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