The Theodore Dreiser novel Sister Carrie can be viewed from a critical standpoint as a critique of conspicuous consumerism which pervaded metropolitan Americans during the late nineteenth century. The central figure in the novel is one Carrie Meeber, an eighteen year old girl traveling to the big city of Chicago in order to experience life. A Wisconsin farm girl, Carrie dresses true to her ordinary circumstances. She wears a plain blue dress and old shoes, and observes a demure, lady-like disposition. She initially feels twinges of sadness at leaving her parents and her home but quickly puts those feelings aside in order to take in everything about her beginning adventure. Dreiser uses the image of the young impressionable woman fresh from the Plains as a model of America before the great rush of industrialist thinking.
An America which prided itself on its work ethic and good sturdy morals, this new America which arrived courtesy of railways and an improved transportation system is sordid and miserable, fueled by the never ending desire to constantly be better. Carrie is a vehicle through which Dreiser is able to navigate through this new society and examine it, depicting the transition from innocence to reality, from unpolluted and wholesome to dirty and congested. In this new and supposedly improved America doing bigger and better is the only way to go and effects the way in which everyone in that society acts and in fact it can be argued that need is the major influence when it comes to the decisions made Carrie and most everyone in the novel .
For example , Carrie s fascination with Chicago is not the opportunity to spend more time with her sister or to explore the number of cultural things newly available to her , it is to have the chance to buy things and move up in the world . Her desire for material goods and the status that these things represent is the driving force in her life including most notable the men she keeps company with, from the moment that Carrie Meeber steps foot on that train from Columbia City, she becomes a vehicle with which the author uses to both examine the art of conspicuous consumption and condemn it.
Carries assent from the ambiguity which is associated with being a member of the lower class to fame and fortune on the Broadway stage begins with the introduction of Charlie Drouet into her life, the narrator notes that Drouets wardrobe was such that it was calculated to elicit the admiration of susceptible young women (Drieser 4) . The narrator also notes that Carrie notices what he is wearing and becomes
conscious of an inequality. Her own plain blue dress, with its black cotton tape trimmings, now seemed to her shabby. She felt the worn state of her shoes.(Dreiser 4).
This is the first instance in which the reader is clued in on to the fact that Carrie is clearly displeased with her lot in life and is looking for a way to change it. The ways in which she was brought up no longer are applicable to her life now; working hard is no longer a guarantee that you will become wealthy so she needs to find a way to move up in the world using an entirely new set of rules. While on the train Carrie sizes Drouet up and makes note of what he is wearing and what that means about where he stands on the socio-economic ladder and filing all of that information away for a day when it would come in handy.
Carrie, as an ambitious and strong woman embodies the social values of the consumer culture and the constant need to always be better and to have better, all she longs for is material wealth and the prestige which comes with it. Initially her meeting with Drouet only lasts the duration of the ride to Chicago and at the train station they Carrie continues on to her sisters home, it is there that Dreiser introduces the reader to an austere depiction of what life is like without the burning desire to constantly participate in the capitalist world wind outside . Drouet reappears just as Carrie is a lost as to how exactly she is supposed to become somebody while working at a go-nowhere job surrounded by nobodies.
Carries sister Minnie and her husband Sven are a couple who are seemingly immune to the badgering of society to buy bigger and better , they are penny-wise and hard-working two things which leave little time for the frivolity which Carrie was so looking forward to in the city . When Carrie first arrives in their home she is struck by the dull manner in which her sister and her family live their lives
She felt the drag of a lean and narrow life. The walls of the rooms were discordantly papered. The floors were covered with matting and the hall laid with a thin rag carpet. (Dreiser 13)
At the home of Minnie and Sven the bygone days before the arrival of American consumerism are alive and very well through Sven and Minnies lifestyle the socio-economic extreme of no purchasing or acquisitions of a frivolous nature the reader is given the impression that neither husband nor wife consider the little extra money they may have in any way to be discretionary income. The serious manner in which they live their life holds absolutely no appeal to Carrie especially in a city in which anything was available to you so long as you had the means to finance it. Throughout the novel Dreiser richly describes the opulent lifestyle Carrie observes while walking through the city, the narrator notes
Carrie passed along the busy aisles, much affected by the remarkable displays of trinkets, dress goods, stationery, and jewelry. Each separate counter was a show place of dazzling interest and attraction. She could not help feeling the claim of each trinket and valuable upon her personally, and yet she did not stop. (Dreiser 21)
Carrie is absolutely mesmerized by all of the shiny things that she sees so much so that her next thought after admiring all around her was to immediately feel ashamed about the way she looked and her perceived inadequacies were immediately made apparent. Her next encounter has Drouet taking her out to dinner at a restaurant and picking up the tab, in addition to that he gives her some spending money so that she could go to the stores, the narrator notes
The poor girl thrilled as she walked away from Drouet. She felt ashamed in part because she had been weak enough to take it, but her need was so dire, she was still glad. Now she would have a nice new jacket! Now she would buy a nice pair of pretty button shoes. She would get stockings, too, and a skirt, and, and-- until already, as in the matter of her prospective salary, she had got beyond, in her desires, twice the purchasing power of her bills . (Dreiser 62)
Her relationship with Drouet leads her to a life that only a few weeks prior she had only dreamed of she initially felt ashamed of accepting things from him but soon comes to the conclusion that Drouet is not a bad man, that he is only a kind soul who has seemingly dedicated himself to the task of keeping Carrie comfortable. Everything was going along swimmingly, Carrie did not love Drouet and neither did he to an extent and both parties were perfectly content to merely cohabitate with him in exchange for access to the theatre and fine restaurants.
Following closely behind Charlie Drouet on Carries journey on up through Chicago society is George Hurstwood, Hurstwood is even better off than Drouet however Carries relationship with him is a tad more complicated only because Hurstwood is in lust with Carrie and needs her to remind himself of the strapping, virile young man he was before his wife and children began leeching money from him. One could infer that because of the atmosphere in which the relationship was fostered contributed to the demise of Hurstwood. The reason that the Hurstwood-Meeber relationship failed so spectacularly was that emotions began to be introduced into the equation, Carries need for Hurstwood was merely fiscal and so when they had to flee to New York and he could no longer keep her in the manner to which she had become accustomed she ditched him to continue her socio-economic climb. Due to his affection for Carrie Hurstwood lost all those things which drew the very same affections from Carrie, after a miserable few months in New York with Hurstwood sitting around doing nothing and Carrie being forced to work sours the relationship immensely
His eye no longer possessed that buoyant, searching shrewdness which had characterized it in Adams Street. His step was not as sharp and firm. He was given to thinking, . The new friends he made were not celebrities. They were of a cheaper, a slightly more sensual and cruder, grade. He could not possibly take the pleasure in this company that he had in that of those fine frequenters of the Chicago resort. He was left to brood. (Dreiser 317)
The decline of Hurstwood and the success of Carrie can be attributed to their character and their motivations in life. While Hurstwoods drive stems from an emotional place, Carrie is strictly business she has a plan and will do anything necessary to ensure that her plan comes to fruition and while she engages in romantic relationships in no way are they distractions from the ultimate goal which is to be accepted in those circles which she admired from afar upon her arrival to Chicago. Theodore Dreiser, through Carrie and her beaus, traces the path of consumerism and its fatal effects to the American society of yore; no longer will those who have enough ever be satisfied again
Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. 1900. New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2000