Third Dreiser Lecture

I started with Carrie as Dreiser's American dreamer -- a lot like Fitzgerald's Gatsby a generation later: going into the city to "make it" -- whatever "it" is, full of "wonder and desire" (cf. 115), "carrie"ing with her the same longings that the novel suggests are building the shining city of Chicago out of the prairie -- to longing to "be somebody," find fulfillment, escape desire.

That led me to Dreiser's brilliant decision to make his representative American dreamer an actress, and to the theme of theatre in Sister Carrie. In the modern world of the city, theatricality & performance are what people turn to to create the appearance of a meaningful life. As TD develops the trope, "theatrical make-believe" defines the whole world of the novel, both the onstage realm of Carrie's career and the offstage realm in which she, & all the other weightless citizens of the city, "put in their appearances" (cf. 113), display their "selves" as parts they play. Broadway in NYC, for example, is both the center of the plays, & the street on which New Yorkers parade in the new clothes they wear as costumes, staring and being stared at (pp. 285-86). Clothes as costumes, work as performance (cf. Hurstwood "under the gaslights" at Fitzgerald & Moy's, pp. 40-41), being "somebody" (vs. being "nobody") as a matter of looking the part, the "solid substantial air" of significance, worth, etc. -- we looked at these aspects of modern life as TD represents it.

"Carrie Madenda" is just one of the many created roles Carrie plays -- she's also "Mrs. Drouet," "Mrs. Murdock," "Mrs. Wheeler" (though she's never married); her big break on stage comes when she says "I am yours truly"; Drouet & Hurstwood fall most deeply "in love" with "her" while she's onstage speaking as Laura in Under the Gaslight. For her part, she was much more deeply attracted to the parts first Drouet and then Hurstwood seemed to play than to the men themselves, and throughout their clothes speak more eloquently to her than they ever do. I compared "performance" in Sister Carrie to what Crane is doing with symbols and stories in Red Badge. By the parts they play or aspire to, the clothes they wear, the "appearances" they keep up, the characters in this material world seek to create the illusion, for others but also for themselves, of a meaningful life.

I didn't have enough time for it, but I tried to suggest how, although circumstances & larger forces play a "determinant" role in Hurstwood's "decline," TD also suggests that at the heart of Hurstwood's failure is his inability to sustain the "air" of a meaningful performance: i.e. his descent into being "nothing" is what happens when one cannot keep up the illusion, can no longer believe in the "part" one plays as "going somewhere" (cf. p. 316, vs. the first role Carrie plays, offstage, the first time she goes into the city, to avoid "being gazed upon and understood for what she was" --p. 16). Theatre comes "alive" when the lights come up -- but at his end in total Hurstwood strips himself of all clothes, turns out the light, "quits his attitude" (458), and having lived through the illusion of meaning, dies. I read Hurstwood's suicide scene as a kind of "anti-theatre," pure reality unredeemed by the shining illusions that sustain the "air" of meaning. "What's the use?" was TD's original ending for the novel. But he went on to write the last section, coming back to Carrie, un-closing the question of whether life has meaning if you're not blinded by the lights. "She was saved in that she was hopeful." She's like the consumer about to purchase the material thing she craves -- sure that this is the "thing" that will bring an end to craving. As TD says, "there is nothing in this world more delightful" (63-64) than that moment. And in Sister Carrie there is no other "world" beyond "this" one.

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