Naturalism applies scientific ideas and principles, such as instinct and Darwin's theory of evolution, to fiction. Authors in this movement wrote stories in which the characters behave in accordance with the impulses and drives of animals in nature. The tone is generally objective and distant, like that of a botanist or biologist taking notes or preparing a treatise. Naturalist writers believe that truth is found in natural law, and because nature operates according to consistent principles, patterns, and laws, truth is consistent.
Because the focus of Naturalism is human nature, stories in this movement are character-driven rather than plot-driven. Although Naturalism was inspired by the work of the French writer Émile Zola, it reached the peak of its accomplishment in the United States. In France, Naturalism was most popular in the late 1870s and early 1880s, but it emerged in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and remained in vogue up to World War I.
The fundamental naturalist doctrine is presented in Zola's 1880 essay "Le roman experimental" (meaning "the experimental—or experiential— novel"). In it, Zola claims that the naturalist writers subject believable characters and events to experimental conditions. In other words, these writers take the known (such as a character) and introduce it into the unknown (such as an unfamiliar place). Another major principle of Page 535 | Top of ArticleNaturalism that Zola explains in this essay is the idea of determinism, which is the theory that a person's fate is determined solely by factors and forces beyond an individual's personal control, such as heredity and environment.
While the French initiated and developed Naturalism, Americans are credited with bringing it to its fullest expression. American Naturalist writers include the novelists Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, and Jack London; the short story writer O. Henry (William Sydney Porter); and the poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters. Dreiser's An American Tragedy is considered the pinnacle of naturalist achievement. Other representative works are Dreiser's Sister Carrie,London's The Call of the Wild,Norris's McTeague, and Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.
Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
Best remembered for his Civil War narrative, The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane was born on November 1, 1871, six years after the war ended. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, and later launched his career in New York as a journalist for the New York Herald, New York Tribune, and New York Journal. His first story, the novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, was self-published when he was twenty-two years old. In 1895 The Red Badge of Courage was published, making Crane internationally famous and enabling him to focus on writing fiction for the rest of his short life. Crane died of tuberculosis on June 5, 1900, in Badenweiler, Germany. His body is buried in Hillside, New Jersey.
Crane's major contribution to American literature is his examination of the nature of courage in the novel The Red Badge of Courage, the story of Henry Fleming, a young man who enlists to fight in the Civil War. Through his experiences, Fleming ultimately discovers that he possesses courage but that war is less glamorous and far more brutal than he imagined it would be. With this narrative, Crane takes the characteristics of Naturalism and applies them to a critical period in American history. The result is a work that was immediately embraced by Americans at the time of publication and
continued to be admired and taught into the twenty-first century.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871, Theodore Dreiser enjoyed a successful career as a journalist and novelist. Dreiser left Indiana as a young man and found work in Chicago as a journalist. When his first novel, Sister Carrie, was a failure, he was plagued by self-doubt. But this initial disappointment proved to be unfounded, as he rose to prominence in literary circles, was a finalist for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, and received an Award of Merit from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1945. Dreiser died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California, on December 28, 1945.
In An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie, Dreiser depicts the dark side of the myth of the American dream, a recurring theme in his work. Both novels feature tragic characters who are the victims of their own desires. In any discussion of Naturalism, An American Tragedy is generally held up as the best example. But Sister Carrie also illustrates the movement.
Jack London (1876-1916)
Jack London was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California, and raised by his mother alone after they were deserted by his father. London educated himself by studying at public libraries. As a young man, he worked as asailor, punctuated by periods of homelessness and joblessness. In 1896, he briefly attended the University of California but was unable to finish because of a lack of money. In 1897, he took part in the Klondike gold rush in northern Canada,an experience that fueled his writing although malnourishment affected his health. He returned to Oakland, California, the following year and began to seriously pursue a career in writing. Advances in printing technology made magazines cheaper to produce and resulted in a boom market for short fiction. Within two years, London was earning a more than respectable income as a writer. His second novel, The Call of the Wild, was published and widely advertised by Macmillan in 1903, propelling London to literary fame. London was dogged by claims of plagiarism, stemming from his use of newspaper articles as inspiration and resource for his stories. He died November 22, 1916, at his home in Glen Ellen, California, from complications stemming from kidney failure. Some believe he may have overdosed—on purpose or by accident—on the morphine he was taking to manage his pain.
Frank Norris (1870-1902)
Benjamin Franklin Norris Jr. was born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 5, 1870. He was an artistic and well-educated man, having studied painting in 1887 at the Atelier Julien in Paris and attended the University of California at Berkeley (1890-94) and Harvard University (1894-95). Like many naturalist writers, he worked in journalism as a foreign correspondent. Norris wrote from South Africa for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1895 to 1896, and from Cuba for S. S. McClure Syndicate of New York City as a war correspondent in 1898. He died of appendicitis in San Francisco, California, on October 25, 1902.
Norris is one of the major writers who developed American Naturalism. Critics regard his work as closest to the pure Naturalism described by Zola. His most notable works are McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, The Octopus: A Story of California, and The Pit: A Story of Chicago. Although McTeague: A Story of San Francisco was written early in Norris's career, many scholars consider it his masterpiece. The Octopus: A Story of California and The Pit: A Story of Chicago are two volumes of an unfinished trilogy. In addition to novels, Norris wrote numerous short stories that appeared in publications for a wide range of audiences.
Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Edith Wharton was born January 24, 1862, in New York City to a wealthy family. In addition to writing fiction, she was an acclaimed designer. She designed her famous home, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, which as of the early 2000s has served as a public museum devoted to Wharton's talent and life. Unhappy in her marriage, in 1913, Wharton divorced her husband of twenty-eight years after he was committed to a hospital following a mental break. She left The Mount and settled permanently in France. During World War I, she became involved in charitable works in France, aiding the displaced, the unemployed, and the ill. In 1921, Wharton became the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize, which was awarded for her novel The Age of Innocence (1920). Wharton was a prolific author of over seventy books, including novels, poetry, and memoir. She died on August 11, 1937, in France.
Émile Zola (1840-1902)
Émile Zola was born in Paris, France, on April 2, 1840. During his career Zola wrote novels, short stories, plays, translations, and criticism. He was awarded the position of Officer of Legion d'Honneur in 1888-89. This position was revoked, however, because of Zola's disputes with the French government. Always a controversial figure, Zola had a wide audience among his contemporaries and remains a major figure in French literature in the twenty-first century. He died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning on September 29, 1902, in Paris. Although he was buried in Paris, his ashes were later moved to the Pantheon in Rome, Italy, home to the tombs of many of the greatest thinkers in the world.
Considered the most prominent theorist of Naturalism, Zola wrote the essay "Le roman experimental" (meaning "the experimental—or experiential—novel") in 1880. In it, Zola explains that the role of the naturalist novelist is to subject believable characters to experimental conditions in order to find truth (meaning natural law). The author, in a sense, becomes Page 537 | Top of Articlean experimental scientist. Zola also claims that character is conditioned, determined by heredity and environment. Although Zola is credited as the father of Naturalism, his views are often considered to represent the extremes of the style.
The Age of Innocence
Wharton's novel, The Age of Innocence was published in 1920 and won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. The novel opens in New York City during the 1870s among the social elite. Concerned with changing social values and behaviors, The Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, a young man from a wealthy family who is engage to May Welland, his equal in breeding. Despite himself, Newland falls in love with May's scandalous cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who is visiting from Europe to escape an unhappy marriage. Newland and May marry when it seems impossible that he and Ellen can be together. Years later, he changes his mind and determines to leave May for Ellen when the latter is preparing to return to Europe. At the last second, May tells Newland that she is pregnant and Newland chooses to honor his marital commitment over Ellen. Twenty-five years later, the now widowed Newland and his son are in Paris; they go to visit Ellen. Newland sends his son ahead of him then decides he does not want to ruin his memory of the love of his life and he leaves without seeing Ellen. Andrea J. Sand deciphers the language of flowers used by the Victorian characters of this novel: Newland's flower, often worn in his lapel, is the gardenia, which stands for secret love.
An American Tragedy
Published in 1925 and concerned with social and economic inequities, An American Tragedy is loosely based on a true story and is considered the best example of American Naturalism. It is the story of Clyde Griffiths, whose desire to realize the American dream in his life almost leads him to commit murder. In just one of the novel's examples of irony, Clyde is found guilty of committing murder, even though his intended victim died accidentally.
An American Tragedy illustrates how Dreiser's work demythologizes the American dream. Dreiser felt that, for the disenfranchised, believing in the American dream leads to heartbreak, disappointment, and cynicism. An American Tragedy typifies Naturalism because it concerns an ordinary middle-class man whose sexual impulses and desire to enter a more moneyed class converge to cause him to make extreme choices. Having always dreamed of a better life and having always been told he could create that life, Clyde arrives on the brink of entering the upper echelons of society when a wealthy woman becomes romantically interested in him. The problem is that he already has committed to marry a poor woman who has had his child. This situation is devastating for Clyde because he sees his long-awaited opportunity to fulfill his dreams slipping away. The lure of the American dream proves too strong, and he plans to kill his betrothed.
Upon publication, An American Tragedy received popular and critical acclaim. Some critics suggested that the novel's popular success was due to the post-World War I public's desire to read about individual social accountability. After all, Clyde is found guilty of a crime he intended to commit but did not actually carry out. Critically, the novel is declared a masterpiece and is deemed Dreiser's best work. Although some reviewers claim that the book is inelegantly written, contains bad grammar, and is overly melodramatic, many readers enthusiastically recommend it.
The Call of the Wild
Although it started as a short story, London's The Call of the Wild (1903) soon became a sensationally popular novel. The money London made by selling the rights to the novel enabled him to purchase a boat on which he could disappear and write without distraction. Read all over the world and taught in schools, The Call of the Wild is considered a classic of American fiction.
The Call of the Wild is about a dog named Buck who is taken from his home in California and put on a dog team in the Yukon. In order to survive in his new environment, he must assert himself among the other dogs. He is eventually adopted by a loving man named John Thornton, whose patience and kindness teach Buck to trust and love. This novel is unique among naturalist novels because its main character is an animal, but this is also why it is a good example of Naturalism. The laws of nature are laid bare in
the story of Buck. His interaction with the pack, nature, and people reveals the laws of nature.
McTeague: A Story of San Francisco
In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), Norris disputes the image of the self-reliant American in charge of his or her own fate. Norris takes a typically naturalist approach and portrays people as the products of their environments, genetic traits, and chance occurrences. Norris took almost a decade to complete this novel, and it is his most prominent work. In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, the title character is an unlicensed dentist of below average morality and intelligence. He is an ideal naturalistic character because he is guided by his impulses rather than by careful deliberation or acts of will. In the end, he loses his practice and beats his wife to death when she refuses to tell him where she has hidden money she inherited. Both characters are portrayed as victims. While she is the victim of violence, he is the victim of his own bestial nature.
Readers and critics found the book to be unnecessarily violent and pessimistic. While other naturalist books included violence (most
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notably The Red Badge of Courage), they were not as explicit. This novel is important, however, as a key work of the naturalist movement and as the masterpiece of one of its dominant figures.
The Red Badge of Courage
The Civil War narrative, The Red Badge of Courage (1895) made Crane internationally famous. The style and the stirring, emotional voice of a young soldier captivated critics and readers alike. Veterans of the Civil War praised the book's realistic account of the soldier's experience. Although numerous books containing Civil War narratives were published since the 1860s, The Red Badge of Courage stood out for Crane's contemporaries. The book is a classic of Naturalism and proof of its author's imagination; born in 1871 (six years after the war's end), Crane never served in the war; everything he knew of it was from secondary sources.
The story is about Henry Fleming who is full of youthful adventure and longing to be part of the war. He enlists, only to face doubts about his own courage and romantic attitudes. Crane uses the war as the fictional laboratory into which he places his young protagonist. The war defines an extreme set of environmental variables, and Henry's experiences lead him from uncertainty to confidence in his own character. In the true spirit of Naturalism, Crane portrays Henry's fate as a set of outcomes based on his inborn traits (his drive to be a part of the adventure) and his new environment (the pressures of engaging in battle). Crane uses many typical naturalist techniques such as symbolism, third-person point-of-view, and concrete detail.
Dreiser's first novel, Sister Carrie, was published in 1900. After publication, controversy surrounding the novel focused on the main character's lack of morals and the fact that the outcome suggests that she is rewarded for her sinful ways. Still, many readers and critics find it to be a moving and honest portrayal of a young woman who leaves her rural home to make a life for herself in the city. After briefly working in a Chicago factory, Carrie moves in with a well-to-do salesman and becomes his mistress. Soon, however, she catches the eye of a wealthier older man who leaves his wife and career in order to run away with Carrie. They end up in New York, where they part ways and Carrie successfully pursues a stage career.
As a naturalist writer, Dreiser reveals the harshness of life and the ways in which individuals can seize opportunities to alleviate much of that harshness. While some of Dreiser's contemporaries found the depiction of Carrie's sexual life inappropriate, others found it refreshingly realistic. This novel is also important because it shows Dreiser's early tendencies toward the naturalist style. For example, he takes Carrie out of her comfortable environment (the Midwest) and places her in the unfamiliar big city of Chicago to see how her desires and needs affect her decision-making. The setting, in essence, becomes a set of conditions which cause changes in the character. Other aspects of the novel, such as Dreiser's attention to detail and his portrayal of the struggling lower class, are consistent with the naturalist style.
Naturalist writers apply scientific principles to the fictive world they create. Like scientists conducting experiments, they introduce characters to certain circumstances and then dramatize the
interaction that generates events. Thus, characters' inherited traits and environmental influences determine plot outcome. In some cases, an unexpected opportunity is also introduced to give the character a chance to take it or to ignore it. Given extreme circumstances, desires, and needs, characters make decisions they would not otherwise make. The naturalist writer believes that the characters' true natures emerge in these situations.
Another scientific idea used in naturalist writing is conditioned behavior. Characters learn how to behave when they are exposed repeatedly to the same environmental influences. A character such as Henry in The Red Badge of Courage quickly learns how to behave in order to survive in the extreme circumstances of war. Buck in The Call of the Wild is first conditioned to hate people but laterlearnstotrusttherightman.
Darwinian theories are sometimes evident in naturalist writing. In Sister Carrie, for example, Carrie is inherently stronger than Hurstwood; as a result of his weakness, he abandons all of his comforts and ultimately commits suicide, while self-reliant Carrie enjoys a successful stage career. Society is unforgiving and harsh toward the weak but offers rewards to its strongest members, which suggests that civilized society is as much a forum for competition among its members as nature is for animals.
Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances
Novels of the naturalist movement feature common, everyday people. There are no members of royalty, titans of the business world, or great minds. Instead, naturalist authors choose protagonists like McTeague, a would-be dentist; Carrie, a rural Midwestern girl; and Buck, a mixed-breed dog. These characters lead simple lives, uncluttered by the good fortune and distractions of glamour, wealth, or adventure. They are left only with their limited resources and their innate natures. In rare cases such as Carrie's, a character attains a successful life but finds it ultimately unsatisfying. These characters learn that there are more similarities than differences between the common and the uncommon.
Naturalist authors place these ordinary characters in extraordinary situations. Carrie finds herself first in the big city of Chicago and eventually in New York City, enjoying a glamorous career as an actress. In contrast, her lover, Hurstwood, descends from a lavish lifestyle to living on the street. In the end, his dramatic decision to take his own life is underscored by the cheap motel where he does it.
Henry in The Red Badge of Courage is an ordinary young man who makes a decision to seek the extraordinary by enlisting to fight in the Civil War. He discovers that it is he who is extraordinary in his courage and that war consists of common ugliness.
By placing ordinary people in extreme situations, naturalist writers show their readers that they, too, could find themselves in extraordinary situations. They also show that while some people become extraordinary due to their circumstances, others are destined to remain common.
Naturalist authors use symbolism to subtly convey a wealth of meaning in a few words or images. In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, Norris uses McTeague's tooth-shaped sign as a symbol of how the character would like to perceive himself and be perceived by others. Although he has no license to practice dentistry, he wants the respectability such a profession would bring him. The tooth is gold, which symbolizes McTeague's drive to acquire wealth. In Sister Carrie, Dreiser introduces the rocking chair as a symbol during key moments in Carrie's life. Her rocking in it symbolizes her solitude in the world. As she rocks, she thinks about the state of her life, and the chair moves but never goes anywhere. Still another example of naturalist symbolism is the mountain in The Red Badge of Courage. It is ominous and immovable and represents the power and permanence of nature.
Naturalists are similar to realists in their attention to detail. Naturalist works contain detailed passages describing settings, backgrounds, appearances, and emotions, all of which helps the reader get a specific perception of the characters' lives. Details also give the work a realistic feeling, a sense of being inevitable and true. The objective is to depict a subject wholly and factually. Dreiser uses details to give the reader insight into his characters in Sister Carrie. By describing Carrie's clothing and furnishings in detail, he suggests to the reader how important appearance is to Carrie and to her first lover, Drouet.
A common naturalist pattern is to present a great deal of information at the beginning of the novel and then let the events unfold. McTeague: A Story of San Francisco adheres to this pattern. Norris provides a great deal of information at the beginning, and the events of the story evolve logically from this information. There are no plot twists, shocking turns of events, or unexpected characters. Further, the information given at the beginning is reliable, so the reader is a fully informed observer from the start.
Naturalism began in France in the mid-nineteenth century and lasted until the early 1880s. The principal figure of French Naturalism is Zola, whose 1880 essay "Le roman experimental" was instrumental in the spread of Naturalism to the United States. Zola describes human existence as being determined by environment and genetics, and he adheres to the belief that people behave basically as animals in nature do.
Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were brothers who also wrote in the naturalist style in France during Zola's time. The Goncourt brothers adhered to certain tenets of Romanticism, such as the elite status of the artist, as they explored the realistic tone of Naturalism. Their application of scientific ideas in fiction was a major contribution to the naturalist movement.
The term naturalist is not generally used to describe English literature during the American naturalist period. The Edwardian period (1901-14), however, shares certain characteristics of Naturalism, indicating that attitudes and reading habits were similar among Americans and the British in the years leading up to World War I. Edwardian writers were cynical and questioned authority, religion, art, and social institutions. This is akin to the naturalist method of observing and testing human behavior in an inquisitive manner rather than accepting traditional beliefs uncritically. Both Naturalism and the Edwardian period were dominated by fiction writers rather than by dramatists or poets.
Naturalism in drama was a minor movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century. Playwrights of this style paid special attention to detail in costume, set design, and acting in order to remove as much artificiality as possible. They sought to break down barriers between the audience and the stage, and they were especially opposed to the melodrama that was so popular
with audiences at the time. Some naturalist playwrights embraced social causes of the day, preferring to inform and alarm audiences rather than to provide them with mindless entertainment. As a result of removing artifice from the theater, they hoped that the audience would have a sense that they were watching and learning from real people. Playwrights associated with this style include Henri Becque (French), Eugene Brieux (French), Gerhart Hauptmann (German-Polish), and Maxim Gorky (Russian).
Realistic Period in American Literature
Realism preceded Naturalism in American literature, and the two are closely related. Both aim for realistic portrayals of everyday life, and both incorporate a great deal of detail. Realism arose after the Civil War, a traumatic period in national disillusionment in which approximately 600,000 Americans died. After the Civil war, Americans soberly set about trying to recreate their lives. A new kind of American fiction emerged in the wake of widespread disillusionment.
Public education developed, creating a broader readership, and new laws helped protect copyrights. These developments meant that more writers could enjoy viable careers. Authors of fiction found ready audiences for their unsentimental works. Within Realism, minor movements such as pragmatism emerged. Writers of this period who became prominent include Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James. In poetry, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Page 543 | Top of ArticleSidney Lanier were writing. In drama, little change was evident. The melodrama and fanfare that typified drama prior to Realism continued to find audiences.
Technology and Science
The early 1900s was a period marked by advances in technology and science, creating a social environment in which the intellect was considered superior to emotions and to traditional, blindly accepted beliefs. In 1900 Max Planck opened up a new world of physics when he discovered the quantum nature of energy. Five years later, Albert Einstein developed the special theory of relativity, and in 1915 he developed the general theory. Together, these advances in physics revolutionized scientific thought. This new way of thinking shaped not only the sciences but also the arts, economics, and politics. By the turn of the century, the United States was well on its way to being an industrialized nation. After the Civil War, the spirit of industrialism that had been born in the North took on new fervor. It was time to repair the nation and its economy. Progress was made in the fields of communication, transportation, and manufacturing. In transportation, Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company in 1903 (the same year that Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully flew the first motorized plane) and opened the first automotive assembly line in 1913. General Motors Corporation was founded in 1908.
In the intellectual world, new thinkers revolutionized the ways in which people understood their world. Charles Darwin challenged the traditional religious concept of the origin of human beings; Karl Marx challenged traditional views on economics and social class; and Auguste Comte initiated the philosophy of positivism (which claims that the purpose of knowledge is merely to describe, not to explain, the world) and the field of sociology (which focuses on observing, quantifying, and predicting social phenomena).
Advances in science and technology led to widespread acceptance of rationalism and scientific inquiry. Among the arts, this attitude was especially noticeable in literature. Moving away from the realms of feelings and relationships, writers approached their craft as a medium for understanding the human psyche. Writers were inspired less by the desire to provide readers with escape and more by a desire to depict the world as it is.
Although naturalist novels such as The Red Badge of Courage and The Call of the Wild are now considered classics, critics are often torn on the merits of the movement as a whole. The movement was initially met with suspicion because it was regarded as irrelevant to the American culture and its values. Perhaps because of its French roots, Naturalism was perceived as having little to offer an American readership. The lack of a strong morality presented in many naturalist novels further alienated critics and readers who looked to literature to enlighten and inspire. In his book Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-CenturyAmericanLiterature, Donald Pizer provides a retrospective comment: "We are coming to realize that a generation of American critics has approached American literary Naturalism with beliefs about man and art which have frequently distorted rather than cast light upon the object before them." Conservative reviewers denounced the works of Dreiser, for example, for his unfavorable depiction of the modern American man and woman. Still others, like Joseph Warren Beach in his book The Twentieth Century Novel: Studies in Technique, praise Dreiser for his negative depictions. Beach commends Dreiser's "fearlessness, his honesty, his determination to have done with conventional posturings and evasions." Shawn St. Jean, in examination of Sister Carrie, finds Dreiser's novel to be an empowering tale of fortune derived from both luck and hard work.
In the 1940s and 1950s, critics were quick to distance themselves from naturalist writers because some of them (such as Dreiser) were associated with the Communist Party. During that time, there was intense distrust of anyone with communist leanings. Today, critics legitimize the movement on its own terms, crediting it as a significant and coherent movement that resulted in great literary works.
Many critics have difficulty discussing Naturalism without reference to its predecessor, Realism. The two movements share characteristics (such as attention to detail, common people as subjects, and portrayals of harsh circumstances), but many scholars see Naturalism's reliance on the principle of determinism as its distinguishing feature. This refers to the belief among naturalist writers that people's Page 544
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fates are determined by their environments and/or their genetics. Pizer declares:
The common belief is that the naturalists were like the realists in their fidelity to the details of contemporary life but that they depicted everyday life with a greater sense of the role of such causal forces as heredity and environment in determining behavior and belief.
Critics find Naturalism to be the more pessimistic of the two movements. Pizer comments that another important difference is the way human nature is perceived. He explains:
A naturalistic novel is thus an extension of Realism only in the sense that both modes often deal with the local and contemporary. The naturalist, however, discovers in this material the extraordinary and excessive in human nature.
Critics like Pizer find Naturalism to be empowering because it reveals the humanity, experiences, and emotional states of common and lowly characters.
Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, Bussey asserts that Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie is important because it makes Naturalism accessible and relevant to American women.
A survey of Naturalism reveals that women are underrepresented in this movement, both as authors and as protagonists. Of the major authors—Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris—none are women. Previous movements, most notably Romanticism, included women as contributors and as heroines, yet Naturalism is almost exclusively masculine. This is not to imply that the omission of women was intentional but rather that something about the movement itself spoke to men more meaningfully than to women. Some of the best-known naturalist works represent experiences that, at the time, were exclusive to men. Crane's moving Civil War story, The Red Badge of Courage, is set during the war and relates a soldier's experiences. London's The Call of the Wild is about a dog in the Yukon, where living conditions are harsh and the culture revolves around heavy drinking, gambling, and dog fights. Where in all of this is there a place for women? The answer, ironically, comes from one of the male authors, Theodore Dreiser, in his novel Sister Carrie.
Sister Carrie is unique among the prominent naturalist works because it is about a woman and it speaks to the difficult decisions many women were forced to make in turn-of-the century urban America. The story concerns Caroline Meeber, known as Carrie or Sister Carrie by her friends and family. She leaves her rural home to live with her sister in Chicago, where she hopes to find work and establish her independence. This change of scenery embodies the Naturalist technique of transplanting a character to create a fictional laboratory in which the reader can observe the character's behaviors and reactions.
After working briefly in a factory she becomes a salesman's mistress, sharing an apartment with him and enjoying a nicer lifestyle than she had with her sister. While this choice is not the most moral one, it enables her to get what she wants (a better way of life) by providing what
someone else wants (the company of a pretty girl). Given Carrie's standing as a woman in turn-of-the-century Chicago, she reacts to her new environment within her limited choices. When a wealthier man shows interest in her, she readily transfers her loyalties to him. He eventually disappoints her, however, and having moved to New York with him, she finds that she has more options. She makes a career for herself
in the theater, and no longer needing the security of a man, she leaves him. In the end, Carrie has all the things she thought she wanted, but she remains vaguely unsatisfied with the trappings of her new, independent life.
Carrie is an important character in American literature because she begins as typical of many women of her time: average and faced with few opportunities. Because she is ordinary, she was accessible to women readers at the time and is accessible to women today. She is also a believable character. Dreiser gives her a share of virtue and principle but does not hide her weaknesses and flaws. She is ambitious, unwilling to be involved with a married man, and ultimately self-sufficient, but she is also materialistic, selfish, and jaded. She is, in many ways, a typical naturalistic character, and in this way she has much in common with her male counterparts in other prominent naturalist novels.
In An American Tragedy, Dreiser introduces Clyde Griffiths, whose lack of emotional attachments (even in his romantic life), desire to be a social climber, and opportunism are also manifest in the character of Carrie. Both characters make morally questionable decisions, and while Carrie's decision-making does not have criminal intent as Griffiths's does, she is ultimately rewarded for it rather than punished.
In Frank Norris's McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, the title character loves money, acts impulsively and selfishly, and sustains false appearances to try to recreate himself. He is also quick to sacrifice actual respectability for the appearance of respectability. All of these characteristics are seen in Carrie as well. She longs for a better life, which she defines as a life of material wealth and societal approval. She, however, realizes what McTeague does not: that a Page 546
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better life is only attained when a person's inner world is content and fulfilled. Carrie and Henry Fleming from Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage share qualities, too. Both are innocents introduced into environments that are totally foreign to them, and they both have romantic ideals at the onset. The harshness of their new environments soon becomes evident, however, and these characters surprise themselves by how they react to, and function in, their new realities. Both are, in their own ways, heroic in the end.
Carrie even has something in common with the canine protagonist, Buck, in Jack London's The Call of the Wild. Both experience a dramatic change of environment and are highly distrustful as a result. Unfortunately for Carrie, she does not encounter someone whom she can learn to trust, as Buck does when he is adopted by John Thornton.
Despite the common threads that unite Carrie with the male protagonists of Naturalism, she is unique because of the realities of being a woman. She faces a different array of choices than the male characters face. She cannot learn basic dentistry and practice as an unlicensed dentist like Norris's title character in McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, and she cannot decide between staying home to seek work or becoming a soldier like Henry Fleming in Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Her choices are to become a rural housewife or to move to the city and work in a factory or find a wealthy man.
What is heroic about Carrie is that she accepts her limited choices and through them creates a new set of choices for herself. Her relationships with Drouet and Hurstwood ultimately lead her to becoming a successful stage actress in New York, which enables her to provide for herself in a career she genuinely enjoys. She is inspiring as a woman because of whom she becomes and the circumstances she seeks out, not because she displays nobility in the narrow confines of her given circumstances.
In contrast to Carrie is Crane's title character in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Maggie comes from a poor and violent background, but rather than find her way out of it, she becomes a victim of it. Maggie becomes a prostitute and commits suicide in the end. She does not seek self-sufficiency but rather survival. Granted, Maggie's situation is more dire than Page 547 | Top of Article Carrie's is, but Maggie's character is one who would not seek out or, possibly, even recognize an opportunity for something better. In the eyes of readers at the turn of the century, both characters trade on their feminine wiles to get what they need from men, and although Carrie remains more socially respectable than Maggie does, the premise is the same. Both characters were seen as leading immoral lives for material gain. This may be true, but judgments aside, Carrie finds a way to provide for herself so she no longer has to trade on her virtue to have what she needs. Maggie, on the other hand, loses her battle with hopelessness and ends her life.
Without Carrie, the only major female protagonist in Naturalism might have been Maggie. How unfortunate if the portrayal of women and their experiences in turn-of-the-century America had been limited to Maggie. Although Carrie's story has its share of sorrow, it is hopeful and as optimistic as such a story can realistically be. In the end, she still feels empty; the objects and luxuries she longed to have do not fill her heart or nurture her spirit. She has come to understand this, however, which means there is the possibility that she will seek out what she truly needs as fervently as she sought out what she thought she needed. These feelings of loneliness and confusion are common, and women can certainly relate to them now just as they could then. Carrie is a new kind of heroine in American literature. She is flawed, fallen, and lost, but knows herself better at the end of the story. In this light, she is as important a character to the naturalist movement as the men who dominate it.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Naturalism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Shawn St. Jean
In the following essay, St. Jean discusses Dreiser's unpremeditated composition of Sister Carrie and its organic philosophies of free will and chance.
As we approach the twentieth-century novel, scholars will take stock of where the study of major literary figures has gone and where it has yet to go. What opportunities have been missed? For example, according to literary myth, Theodore Dreiser began his first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), at his friend Arthur Henry's insistence by spontaneously setting down the title and proceeding without a plan. The story's source is Dreiser himself, as he recalled the book's genesis in a letter to H. L. Mencken (qtd. in Swanberg, 82). Even
when controverted by documentary evidence, myths like this one have an inexplicable staying power. Speculating as to why leads to unique insights about the novel's construction.
Years later Dreiser would become famous for the painstaking research and preparation that went into novels like The Financier (1912) and An American Tragedy (1925). These later works have unmistakably crafted plot structures and specific thematic concerns. But Sister Carrie, though by no means an aesthetically inferior work, and, indeed, the one for which the author is today best known, appears to meander through intellectual issues much as its protagonist wanders the streets of Chicago seeking employment. Although filled with intrusive disquisitions by the narrator on all manner of topics, the work poses more questions than answers, and its predominant question is the archetypal one: What forces influence (or control) the lives of human beings? It is perhaps best to believe that Dreiser did not steer his book toward predetermined conclusions, that he struggled along with his protagonists with the meta-question. For one thing, such a view allows us to circumvent a major critical mire: whether the overt philosophy peppered throughout Dreiser's novel forms a consistent or even coherent system of thought and provides a reliable index to its themes. Sister Carrier more closely follows Emerson's model of organicism, in which thoughts grow naturally from events and are spoken in hard words today though they may be contradicted by everything one says tomorrow.
In pursuing his profound life-questions by this method, one natural enough for the intellectual yet inexperienced novelist, Dreiser drew on a self-acquired background in the classics, a Page 548 | Top of Articletradition in which the finest minds of the past pursued the same object as he. And while Sister Carrie is not patterned in a sustained way after any specific myths or classical works, Dreiser relies heavily on tropes learned from the classical literary tradition and carried on by writers of all subsequent ages. The view of human life that emerges from the novel "stems directly . . . from the Greeks" (Mencken, 21), according to terms described by midcentury classicist William Greene:
The problem of fate, good, and evil, then, is not one that admits of any final intellectual solution; it remains partly, to be sure, within the realm of human activity and human suffering, but it lies partly on the knees of the inscrutable gods. That is what Homer and Greek tragedy have said, once and for all. Man is free, but within limits: therefore life demands of him the patient endurance of evil, the hand of compassion for fellow sufferers, and the smile of irony at fortune's ways. Above all, it demands the performance of God's will, which works through us, and which is the source, if not of worldly success (for chance has a part in that), at least of human good and human happiness.
Although the novel deals scarcely at all with "God's will" in a religious form, it has an updated equivalent in the determinism to which Dreiser often (but not wholly) subjects his characters. What the Greeks sometimes called the Moirea (fates), anthropomorphized goddesses under which even Zeus was subject, and other times called moira (the will of the gods) is really analogous, from the perspective of mortals without access to divine intentions, to the forces like heredity and social environment identified by the nineteenth century. In all cultures in all times people have recognized external forces that limit their freedom—thus even nonworshipping peoples have their "gods."
Beyond those forces, human beings are often profoundly affected by change (tyche), which lies halfway between fate and human will. Tyche can refer to events completely beyond any form of divine or human control, or to a realm of man's self-determination, as when Tiresias warns Creon that his decision about Antigone's punishment will determine his own future (Green, 146). Thus human will holds the third part in this cosmic scheme, allowed to operate when the other forces do not and often at crucial moments. Herman Melville poetically described the interaction of these forces; Ishmael's fanciful depiction of the swordmat he and Queequeg weave in Moby-Dick anticipates the fabric of Dreiserian "naturalism":
aye, chance, free will, and necessity—no wise incompatible—all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course—its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions modified by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events. (215)
Dreiser's novels have been the occasions for protracted debates over literary naturalism because of their highly variable reliance on determinism. What twentieth-century critics, who have been less and less rigorously trained in the classics than their nineteenth-century counterparts, have failed to recognize is that close comparative study of authors and their classical influences yields invaluable insight into otherwise baffling problems. Through our eyes a writer like Dreiser appears woefully inconsistent in his philosophy. Adding to the confusion in the case of Sister Carrie, three major characters are (partially) determined by three kinds of external force: Carrie Meeber by poverty, Charles Drouet by desire, and George Hurstwood by social convention. Examining in detail the dynamics of each life here represented demonstrates Dreiser's use of archetypes to expose varied attempts to live successfully and happily.
From the moment Carrie arrives in Chicago from her parents' home in Columbia City she is set to the task of obtaining money. At her sister's home she must earn her keep: "Anything was good enough so long as it paid, say, five dollars a week to begin with. A shop girl was the destiny prefigured for the newcomer." Later, after losing her job because of sickness and reencountering Drouet (both chance events), the drummer insists on giving her two ten-dollar bills upon which Dreiser immediately begins the next chapter:
The true meaning of money yet remains to be popularly explained and comprehended. When each individual realizes for himself that this thing primarily stands for and should only be accepted as a moral due—that it should be paid Page 549 | Top of Articleout as honestly stored energy and not as a usurped privilege—many of our social, religious and political troubles will have permanently passed. As for Carrie, her understanding of the moral significance of money was the popular understanding, nothing more. "Money: something everybody else has and I must get," would have expressed her understanding of it thoroughly.
Both the narrator's socialistic linking of unequal distribution of money to societal ills and the parody of the "popular," the one circular and the other mindless, pursuit of it reveals Carrie's energies as woefully misdirected. Since she has neither the leisure nor the intellectual proclivity to see beyond immediate goals, she imagines that money equals happiness rather than that money may provide a means to happiness— hence her expectations are disappointed later. In fact, her longings are repeatedly undercut by Dreiser. As she reaches each new plateau of wealth and success, she finds something lacking that only more wealth can provide and so imagines happiness to be just one level away: "She would live in Chicago, her mind kept saying to itself. She would have a better time than she ever had before—she would be happy"; "It cut her to the quick, and she resolved that she would not come here [Broadway] again until she looked better. At the same time she longed to feel the delight of parading here as an equal. Ah, then she would be happy"; "[The playhouse] was above the common mass, above idleness, above want, above insignificance. People came to it in finery and carriages to see. It was ever a centre of light and mirth. And here she was of it. Oh, if she could only remain, how happy would be her days."
Modern commentators have called such works bildungsromans or erfahrungsromans because the protagonist learns through experience. Arguably, however, Carrie learns very little. It might be more accurate to say that she is on a quest since she has the final goal of happiness in mind but lacks the knowledge of how or where to seek it. The quest is a universal archetype, and psychologists like Carl Jung have recognized that its object varies greatly but is not as pertinent as the quest itself, which is a desire to fill a void of basic human insecurity. For example, in The Odyssey Telemachus goes on a quest for news of his father Odysseus, who has been missing for nearly twenty years. He doesn't know his father (who left for Troy when Telemachus was an infant) and so doesn't love him or even miss him. And even though Athena knows Odysseus will soon return and so Telemachus's dangerous journey is technically unnecessary, she sends him on the quest for the sake of his own manhood: "let him find news of his dear father where he may and win his own renown about the world" (Od. I. 120-22). The youth had been complaining:
Were his death known, I could not feel such pain—
if he had died of wounds in Trojan country
or in the arms of friends, after the war.
They would have made a tomb for him, the Akhaians,
and I should have all honor as his son.
Instead, the whirlwinds got him, and no glory.
He's gone, no sign, no word of him; and I inherit
trouble and tears—and not for him alone,
the gods have laid such other burdens on me.
The overriding goal of manhood in this epic society is kleos (glory), and Telemachus has none of his father's and none of his own so long as his mother's suitors occupy his home. Though he surely wishes for Odysseus's return, any number of solutions would satisfy his real need, which is a secure place for himself. Quests for the missing father, for hidden treasure, for a holy object, to return home or find a new one, all add up to the same thing in terms of archetypal psychology. Similarly, Carrie seeks a substitute for her true goal of happiness and security, the thing her society values above all else, money.
All quests involve obstacles. These can take the form of tests of strength, intellect, endurance, or will. Often they build character (as when Telemachus escapes the suitors' ambush at sea), or help a person see previous error, as when Odysseus speaks to Tiresias in the Underworld and learns that Poseidon hates him for the blinding of his son, the cyclopean Polyphemus. In his turn, Dreiser forces us to recognize that the actions of other people can be great impediments and a nearly overwhelming factor of determination, nearly equal to fate itself.
In Carrie's case the two men to whom she becomes mistress pose insidious obstacles since, like The Odyssey's lotus eaters, they appear to represent quick and easy paths to happiness. Drouet tempts Carrie with money, and in extending her "first fall" over several scenes Dreiser masterfully demonstrates how external forces, chance, and will all subtly combine. In fact, the event is so anticlimactic that we may scarcely notice, with Carrie, that she has irrevocably Page 550 | Top of Articlechosen a direction in life. This device was to become a Dreiserian hallmark and a major contribution to literary realism: characters mistake profound decisions as meaningless or minor, and so choose carelessly or without thought at all. In Greek epic and drama, such moments—Oepidus's demanding to know the mystery of his birth or Patroclus requesting to wear Achilles's armor into battle—eventuate in ruin, but force a "late learning"—protagonists and audience see the gravity of error in retrospect of calamity. By no means does this suggest fatalism, since proper consideration of one's decisions at the crucial juncture can always prevent tragedy.
Dreiser's technique of protracting moral failures is an antithesis of the kind of high drama exhibited when Mark Twain's Huck decides not to turn in escaped slave Jim: "It was a close place. I took it [the letter to Jim's mistress] up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell'—and tore it up" (270-71). Twain punctuates Huck's moral crisis through irony: the reader knows Huck will not incur divine wrath—go to hell—and that the crisis has been precipitated only through warped antebellum Southern values. However, it has not been illusory to Huck, just as Telemachus never knows that Athena protects him against the suitors' deathtrap. Inner growth occurs regardless of the seeming insignificance of external events.
The difference in Dreiser consists not so much in the scope of events as in the individual's reaction (or lack of) to them. Carrie is hardly equipped to perceive the trap being laid for her, as provincial and beaten down by circumstances as she is. The best she can manage is to waver between desire and some half-formed inhibitions: "He made her take [the twenty dollars]. She felt bound to him by a strange tie of affection now"; "She felt ashamed in part to have been weak enough to take it, but her need was so dire, she was still glad"; "Carrie finally decided that she would give the money back. It was wrong to take it"; "Carrie shook her head. Like all women she was there to object and be convinced. It was up to him to brush the doubts away and clear the path if he could." The pivotal decision of accepting Drouet's money and leaving her sister to live with him is extended over ten pages, though with hardly the concentration that William Dean Howells gave to Lapham's decision between dishonesty and fraud during her overnight vigil. Instead, Dreiser diffuses the significant internal moments, represented by the brief sentences above, with superficial events—Dreiser's and Carrie's conceptions of Drouet, his light conversation with her, a scene in which Minnie suggests Carrie return to Columbia City, a trip to look at new jackets which is repeated with Drouet, and a dinner date—that deflect our and Carrie's own attention from her dilemma. Indeed, the precise moment of commitment passes without a reflective thought from either the narrator or Carrie:
The saleswoman helped her on with [the jacket], and by accident it fitted perfectly.
Drouet's face lightened as he saw the improvement. She looked quite smart.
"That's the thing," said Drouet. "Now pay for it."
"It's nine dollars," said Carrie.
"That's all right—take it," said Drouet.
She reached in her purse and took out one of the bills. The woman asked if she would wear the coat and went off. In a few minutes she was back and the purchase was closed.
Closed as well are Carrie's remaining options. Unemployed and thus paying no board, she cannot bring the jacket home to her sister. Yet she blinds herself to the fact that she has made a contract with Drouet: "The deeper she sank into the entanglement, the more she imagined that the thing hung upon the few remaining things she had not done. Since she had not done so and so yet, there was a way out." But the only alternative is laid out by the drummer: to take her own apartment, subsidized by him. "She thought a long time about this. Finally she agreed." Though this last narrative statement appears to show a moment of decision comparable to Huck's, there is nothing left to think about—Carrie only "imagines" a way out which is already closed. It is as if Huck had already mailed the letter and then sat down to think about the consequences.
It is crucial to notice the interaction of forces that has taken place. Drouet perceives Carrie's untoward circumstances, her narrow life with her sister and her lack of means. Through persuasion and a primitive psychological understanding, he manipulates Carrie into accepting his money. Chance events, her original illness and the "accidental" fit of the jacket, conspire to aid him. Finally, Carrie makes a decision not Page 551 | Top of Articleto accept the money but then spends it voluntarily. There can be no denial of free will at this point, but Carrie yields to desire for instant gratification versus the consideration of long-term consequences. Aeschylus had similarly shown the abdication of will as a source of doom in Agamemnon. Upon his triumphant return from Troy, Agamemnon is begged by his adulterous wife Clytemnestra to walk on a crimson carpet, unwittingly to his death:
Cly: Now, my beloved one,
step from your chariot: yet let not your foot, my lord,
sacker of Ilium, touch the earth
Ag: Such state becomes the gods, and none beside.
I am a mortal, a man; I cannot trample upon these tinted splendors without fear thrown in my path.
Cly: O yield! The power is yours. Give way of your own free will.
Ag: Since you must have it—here, let someone with all speed
take off these sandals, slaves for my feet to tread upon.
And as I crush these garments stained from the rich sea
let no god's eyes of hatred strike me from afar.
Though Carrie is hardly guilty of the damning hubris exhibited here, she has the same opportunity to make her own choice between moral imperative and human persuasion. In the end, however, not even the "late learning" which presumably comes to Agamemnon during his offstage murder lights on Carrie. Unreflectively riding the wave of events, she seldom looks back.
The entire pattern is repeated when Carrie leaves Drouet for Hurstwood. Rather than rehearse what has already been shown, however, it should prove far more useful to reflect on Dreiser's use of the timeless love triangle, also the subject of Aeschylus's drama. Drouet first introduces Carrie into conversation with Hurstwood as an object with which to impress the manager: "Thus was Carrie's name bandied about in the most frivolous and gay of places, and that also when the little toiler was bemoaning her narrow lot, which was almost inseparable from the early stages of this, her unfolding fate." Ironically, it is not her name which has been bandied—Drouet identifies her as "a little peach"—and the two men continue to objectify her in conversation after conversation. Though each desires her, the idea is to present the facade of male indifference buttressed by the eternal notion that women are beneath notice. However, fated through Drouet's ambition to cultivate Hurstwood's favor, Carrie meets the manager. He compares favorably to the drummer, an indefatigable flirt who promises to marry Carrie but delivers only material comfort and spiritual neglect. Hurstwood does the same with his own wife.
During one of Drouet's trips Hurstwood visits Carrie and begins his seduction. One is reminded of Aegisthus, who seduces Clytemnestra while Agamemnon wars at Troy. Like Drouet, Hurstwood uses Carrie's restlessness as a substitute for affection for him:
"You are not satisfied with life, are you?"
"No," she answered weakly.
He saw he was master of the situation—he felt it. He reached over and touched her hand.
"You mustn't," she exclaimed, jumping up.
"I didn't intend to," he answered easily.
She did not run away, as she might have. She did not terminate the interview, but he drifted off into a pleasant field of thought with the readiest grace. Not long after, he rose to go and she felt that he was in power.
The same scene has occurred in countless works in all ages. Here it is significant that Carrie relinquishes her power willingly. She opens the door for the manager to press his suit. For example, Hurstwood contrives, through his social connections, to make Carrie's first stage appearance a success. His acquaintances respond "like Romans to a senator's call." She shines in her performance and the secret rift between the rival men deepens: "He walked away from the drummer and his prize, at parting feeling as if he could slay him and not regret.... 'The fool,' he said, now hating Drouet. 'The idiot. I'll do him yet. And that quick. We'll see tomorrow."
Though himself a force over Carrie, Hurst-wood too subjects himself to fate and chance through prior choices. As manager of a popular Chicago watering hole, Hurstwood's most important role is to mingle with the affluent clientele. His life is entirely defined by social protocol. Struck in a loveless marriage, he dares not make mistakes:
He could not complicate his home life, because it might affect his relations with his employers. They wanted no scandals. A man, to hold his Page 552 | Top of Articleposition, must have a dignified manner, a clean record, a respectable home anchorage. Therefore he was circumspect in all he did, and whenever he appeared in the public ways of an afternoon on Sunday. it was with his wife and sometimes his children. He would visit the local resorts or those nearby in Wisconsin and spend a few stiff, polished days, strolling about conventional places doing conventional things. He knew the need of it.
Like Agamemnon about to stroll on the carpet, Hurstwood "deprecate[s] the folly of the thing" that will bring about his own doom. Ironically, he knows of others who have been exposed: "It was all right to do it—all men do those things—but why wasn't he careful? A man can't be too careful. He lost sympathy for the man that made a mistake and was found out." But in his pursuit of Carrie he forgets his objectivity: "That worthy, on the contrary, had formulated no plan of action, though he listened, almost unreservedly, to his desires." Dreiser's narrator explains the unwritten laws with which the manager trifles:
Many individuals are so constituted that their only thought is to obtain pleasure and shun responsibility. They would like, butterfly-like, to wing forever in a summer garden, flitting from flower to flower, and sipping honey for their sole delight. They have no feeling that any result which might flow from their action should concern them. They have no conception of the necessity of a well-organized society wherein all shall accept a certain quota of responsibility and all realize a reasonable amount of happiness. . . . Many such an individual is so lashed by necessity and law that he falls fainting to the ground, dies hungry in the gutter or rotting in the jail and it never once flashes across his mind that he has been lashed only in so far as he has persisted in attempting to trespass the boundaries which necessity sets.
The repeated word "necessity," a rough equivalent with the Greek ananke, connotes those things which are necessary for the greater good and so subject the individual. In the case of transgression, "life has been misunderstood." We have seen that Hurstwood understands well society's rules, and he has hitherto abided by them. His lapse, then, comes not through ignorance nor even some kind of character flaw. It is a miscalculation, a hamartia:
He did not feel that he was doing anything which would introduce a complication into his life. His position was secure, his home life, if not satisfactory, was at least undisturbed; his personal liberty rather untrammeled. Carrie's love represented only so much added pleasure. He would enjoy this new gift over and above his ordinary allowance of pleasure. He would be happy with her and his own affairs would go on as they had—undisturbed.
His literal moira, or "ordinary allowance of pleasure"—a dispensation from the urns of Zeus—fails to satisfy the manager. Many have seen his theft of ten thousand dollars from the tavern safe, the dramatic center of the novel, as the nexus of Hurstwood's decline. Yet it is only the peripeteia, the reversal of fortune brought on by this earlier hamartia, since he only does it in order to fly with her. His wife has found his affair out; she has locked him out of the house and obtained a lawyer; and she holds most of his assets in her name. He finds he cannot do anything to prevent the turn of events but "think," delay, and "wish over and over that some solution would offer itself." He, in his turn, has become "like a fly in a web." Even at this point there are avenues open to him—like obtaining his own lawyer—he does nothing until the fateful night he finds the safe ajar.
We might justifiably wonder if anything besides love or desire brings on Hurstwood's hamartia. In his case, the Greek adage "Whom gods destroy they first make mad" provides a clue. He even agrees to marry Carrie (who doesn't yet know he is already married) to convince her to leave Drouet:
His passion had gotten to that stage now where it was no longer colored with reason. He did not trouble over little barriers of this sort in the face of so much loveliness. . . . He would promise anything, everything, and trust to fortune to disentangle him. He would make a try for Paradise, whatever might be the result. He would be happy, by the Lord, if it cost all honesty of statement, all abandonment of truth.
Dreiser's narrator refers several times to Hurstwood's loss of reason, expressed here as ate, delusion rooted in excess. Try as he might, he cannot induce the same rational loss in Carrie: "She was listening, smiling, approving, and yet not finally agreeing. This was due to a lack of power on Hurstwood's part, a lack of that majesty of passion that sweeps the mind from its seat, fuses and melts all arguments and theories into a tangled mass and destroys, for the time being, the reasoning power." Meanwhile, his lack of reason, or ability to make sound decisions takes on a unique form of determination.
Hurstwood's moment of crisis at the safe is almost painfully drawn out in the novel. As he closes up one night he discovers the safe has been left open by a careless cashier. The temptation to steal the money inside, thus enabling him to fulfill his rebellious fantasies, prompts him to remove the money and transport it back and forth from the safe to his office. The narrator mixes philosophic commentary right in with the spectacle:
The wavering of a mind under such circumstances is an almost inexplicable thing and yet it is absolutely true. Hurstwood could not bring himself to act definitely. He wanted to think about it—to ponder it over, to decide whether it were best. He was drawn by such a keen desire for Carrie, driven by such a state of turmoil in his own affairs, that he thought constantly that it would be best, and yet he wavered. . . .
He went over and restored the empty boxes. Then he pushed the door to for somewhere near the sixth time. He wavered, thinking, putting his hand to his brow.
While the money was in his hand, the lock clicked. It had sprung. Did he do it? He grabbed at the knob and pulled vigorously. It had closed. . . .
At once he became the man of action.
If we apply the concepts of the famous passage from Chapter VIII, in which Dreiser's narrator discourses on the power of instinct versus free will, directly to this scene, we see a strange consistency. The most prominent characteristic of both passages is "wavering"; if we take Hurst-wood to be representative man here, his "reason," or need "to think it over" is at war with his "desire" for the rewards the money will bring, most notably Carrie. In his paralysis, or inability to act on his own, he becomes a "wisp in the wind", settling where the "forces of life" deposit him. Note the extreme ambiguity of the sequence "the lock clicked. It had sprung. Did he do it?" It is almost as if, in the face of his refusal to act, the "forces of life" deprive Hurstwood of agency and act for him. But on the other hand, we see him decide that "he would do it before he could change his mind." A paragraph later, he says, "I wish I hadn't done that. By the lord, that was a mistake." Hurstwood himself seems to accept responsibility at that moment. But at this crucial juncture, Dreiser's usually overobliging narrator refuses to decide the issue. We get cryptic phrasing and rhetorical questioning, just when we want answers.
In the face of such narrative ambivalence, there is nothing for readers to do but reach into their own repertoires, beliefs, and experiences, and extrapolate an answer. The Greeks might compromise by citing ananke, necessity—the fate that manifests itself, not remotely like moira, but in moments of crisis—as the force at work here, but modern readers have access to no such concept. For the reader that believes in free will and responsibility of the actor, Hurstwood is guilty. For the reader who sees life as ultimately beyond personal control, the manager is innocent. At least, these are the apparent choices, and while readers can afford to defer their decisions indefinitely, most critics do take a side.
But consider again Dreiser's stance in Chapter VIII. He tells us that man is guided sometimes by reason, sometimes by instinct, "erring" and "retrieving" at intervals. It is doubtful, during Hurstwood's apparent surrender to instinct,that Dreiser would apply the categories of guilt and innocence to Hurstwood at all, since "on the tiger no responsibility rests." It also seems likely that on another night Hurstwood might just as well have not taken the money, and gone home. As the narrator tells us, "The true ethics of the situation never once occurred to him." His only fear is whether he will be caught or not. And it is this fear that drives him to flight and the kidnapping of Carrie, and indeed, to his eventual death. At the moment he abdicates choice at the critical juncture (the closing of the safe), his subsequent choices begin to dwindle to the vanishing point. He never even allows himself to consider another course of action. And the fact that he appears determined for the rest of the novel tends to obscure the fact that choice has at some point been available, even though the protagonist does not avail himself of it. A third choice, somewhere between guilt and innocence, now becomes available to readers—that the protagonist's deterministic muddle is, in reality, self-imposed. Outside forces don't deprive him of choice, he won't accept choice, the primary manifestation of free will. Thus a kind of "variable" determinism becomes viable: the world goes on even when we refuse to, and can affect us whether we act or not.
After detectives track the fleeing couple and force the ex-manager to return most of the stolen money in exchange for amnesty from prosecution (all without Carrie's knowledge), they settle in New York City. Thus begins Hurstwood's mental and moral decline. He cannot accept Page 554 | Top of Articlethat burning his bridges through the original theft has irrevocably lowered his position in society. He rejects the idea of becoming a bartender. Like Agamemnon, he ensures ate (ruin) and nemesis (retribution) by his hubris (pride beyond merit). And like Odysseus returned home, he will eventually be humbled into beggary, though no god intervenes to reserve his transformation. He asphyxiates himself in a fifteen-cent flophouse, repeating the mantra he had learned looking for work, "What's the use?" In other words, he despairs that he can take effectual action any longer and chooses the only option left, a "distinguished decision" to choose the time and manner of his death, thus investing it with some vestige of honor.
In the face of Hurstwood's apathy Carrie realizes that "she herself had been drifting." He even meets her suggestions that she might obtain work as an actress with derision:
"If I were you I wouldn't think of it. It's not much of a profession for a woman."
"It's better than going hungry," said Carrie. "If you don't want me to do that, why don't you get work yourself?"
There was no answer ready for this. He had got used to the suggestion.
"Oh, let up," he answered.
The result of this was that she secretly resolved to try. It didn't matter about him. She was not going to be dragged into poverty and worse to suit him. She could act.
Her resolution to act, in the dual sense of the word, marks the parting of their ways, and, more importantly, a major turning point of growth and fortune for Carrie. Even against the painful memories of her job searches in Chicago and repeated rebuffs at agencies and theaters, Carrie obtains a place as a chorus girl. Interestingly, though the play is not named, the chorus girls wear "pink fleshings," "imitation golden helmets," "military accoutrements," and carry short swords and shields. Carrie's looks and energy soon earn her the captaincy of the line, complete with "epaulets and a belt of silver." These "new laurels" mark the former country girl-turned-mistress as a warrior in her own right. Her rise to fame and fortune is marked by hard work and chance events. The contrast to Hurstwood's fatalism, his retreat to the "Lethean waters" of newspapers and Carrie's old rocking chair, and his lotus-eater-like addiction to ease emphasizes the crucial role of free will in engaging the machineries of fate and chance.
By a creative blurring of disciplinary boundaries, then, of adopting the critical tools of classicists, which were well known to nineteenth and early twentieth-century writers but more and more alien to literary critics today, we can explore the idea that the works of so-called literary naturalists may not be, as has been charged over and over, wildly inconsistent. They may instead follow an ancient paradigm—one that explained human existence for a near-millennium and continued to occupy the likes of philosopher Lequyer, Renouvier, Bosanquet, and Bergson in France and C. S. Peirce and William James in America—and one that fell into disuse only relatively recently with disciplinary shifts and splits in the academy.
Source: Shawn St. Jean, "'Aye, Chance, Free Will, and Necessity': Sister Carrie's Literary Interweavings," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring, 2001, pp. 240-56.
Beach, Joseph Warren, The Twentieth Century Novel: Studies in Technique, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1932.
Dyer, Daniel, Jack London: A Biography, Scholastic, 2002.
The Jack London Online Collection, http://london.sonoma.edu/ (accessed July 18, 2008).
Lee, Hermione, Edith Wharton, Knopf, 2007.
The Mount: Edith Wharton's Estate & Gardens, http://www.edithwharton.org/ (accessed July 18, 2008).
Pizer, Donald, Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
Sand, Andrea J., "Wharton's The Age of Innocence," in the Explicator, Vol. 62, No. 1, Fall 2003, p. 23.
St. Jean, Shawn, "'Aye, Chance, Free Will, and Necessity': Sister Carrie's Literary Interweavings," in the Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring 2001, pp. 240-56.
Brown, Frederick, Zola: A Life, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
This detailed account of Émile Zola's life demonstrates his importance as a writer, thinker, Page 555 | Top of Articleand political figure. This biography took fifteen years to compile and includes information from Zola's personal correspondence.
Fast, Howard, ed., The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, Elephant, 1989.
Although he is known mainly for his novels, Dreiser was also a short-story writer. Here, Fast collects the best examples of Dreiser's short fiction.
Fleissner, Jennifer L., Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism, University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Fleissner examines gender roles, history, domesticity, representations of women in naturalist literature, and the literary output of women during the naturalist period.
Kershaw, Alex, Jack London: A Life, Griffin, 1999.
Kershaw examines London's exciting, short life in this fast-paced biography. He includes London's literary efforts, his adventurous spirit, his social and environmental concerns, and his unpopular views.
Norris, Frank, The Best Short Stories of Frank Norris, Ironweed Press, 1998.
This is the first collection of Norris's short fiction, and critics praise the publisher's selection of these fourteen stories from the more than sixty available. Norris's naturalistic tendencies are evident, even though these stories are a departure from the novels for which he is better known.
Wertheim, Stanley, A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia,Green-wood, 1997.
In this single volume, students will find information about Crane's short life along with analysis of his works, characters, settings, and prominent issues of his work and times.