“People in general attach too much importance to words. They are under the illusion that talking effects great results. As a matter of fact, words are, as a rule, the shallowest portion of all the argument. They but dimly represent the great surging feelings and desires which lie behind. When the distraction of the tongue is removed, the heart listens.” ― Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
This was my introduction to the world of Theodore Dreiser more than forty years ago when I was devouring American literature in high school. His journalistic prose style, while sometimes prolix, was just right for me and I read his novels about Frank Cowperwood and the massive An American Tragedy. But before Clyde Griffiths' downfall there was the story of Sister Carrie, published on November 8, 1900 to a prolonged uproar, that riveted me as she succumbed to the advances of vastly more experienced men. A Pamela some 150 years on, Carrie also confronts temptation, making the leap from her small town to Chicago and, feeling that she had few options, into the calculating arms of the travelling salesman, Drouet. After overcoming her doubts about sharing the salesman’s apartment, she stands before the window looking into her "never wholly convincing” conscience:
"It was only an average little conscience, a thing which represented the world, her past environment, habit, convention, in a confused way. With it, the voice of the people was only the voice of God.
“Oh, thou failure!” said the voice.
“Why?” she questioned.
“Look at those about,” came the whispered answer. “Look at those who are good. How would they scorn to do what you have done. Look at the good girls; how will they draw away from such as you when they know you have been weak. You had not tried before you failed.”
Carrie moves up the social ladder to the wealthy George Hurstwood. Fleeing an unhappy marriage he takes her to New York City. There things take a turn, for while the book is of course about Carrie herself as the story goes on, it becomes more of Hurstwood’s tale. Yes, Carrie is still the force driving it, but we are given two separate lives—as Carrie manages to thrive, Hurstwood becomes homeless, helpless. The handling of these characters and their tragic lives makes this a great book by one of America's best writers.
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