Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser
You know that book that you've read a million times, underlined until the pages are raw, discussed and analyzed until you've gone over every last word with a fine-tooth comb?
Yeah, Sister Carrie is that book for me.
And while I couldn't for the life of me tell you what I ate for breakfast yesterday, I CAN tell you every step in my Dreiser journey. I first picked up Sister Carrie at a used book store while on vacation with my family. I was around 15. It sounded interesting, and I had never read any Dreiser before, so I gave it a shot.
Four hundred pages later and I threw down the book with a "wha?" The story had been interesting, but the main character? Flatter than a piece of paper, and far less interesting. I was puzzled, but my TBR pile was HUGE so I moved on.
A few years later, in college, I read it again, and, as with my first experience with Thomas Mann's books, I suddenly was obsessed with Sister Carrie. Somehow, I had changed enough in those few years to appreciate the depths of the story that had eluded me earlier.
If you've never read Sister Carrie, it's loosely based on the life of one of Dreiser's sisters, who runs off with a married man (with disastrous results). In the novel, Carrie, a naive young woman from Wisconsin, moves first to Chicago and then New York, working her way up the ladder in the entertainment business with the sort of luck seen only in Forrest Gump. She falls in with various men who help her reach her ultimate goal: to become a chorus girl/actress in variety shows. What's so disturbing about the novel is that Carrie never seems to raise a finger to reach her goals, but she attains them nonetheless. She's totally trusting and a perfect target for advertisers. The "conspicuous consumption" that Thorstein Veblen critiqued around this time seems to be a perfectly reasonable aspiration for Carrie. But she's empty.
Woven around and through Carrie's narrative are several others that show the reader what life was like for people of every socio-economic class at the turn of the twentieth century. Dreiser writes about a railroad strike, breadlines, upper-class penthouse dwellers, lower-middle-class working families in rowhouses, etc. He asks us to consider Carrie's life amongst these others and decide if we do in fact wish to condemn her for her choices: living with a man without marrying him, running off with a married man, desperately seeking a job in a theatre company because she's obsessed with beauty and wealth and pageantry.
Because this novel became more intriguing the more I read it, I used it in my senior English thesis, I used it for my grad school application, I wrote and talked and thought about it until I felt that I owned the text. And I've gone on to read many more Dreiser novels. I wouldn't say that he writes the most beautiful prose in the world, but his writing is indeed powerful.
Because of heavy and often draconian editing, Sister Carrie exists in two versions: one ends with a truly depressing scene involving a man who has fallen far and fallen hard, and the other ends with Carrie beginning to question the meaning and purpose of her life. The latter version is longer and more interesting (in my opinion). Sister Carrie was the first in a long line of novels for Dreiser, who became one of the most well-known (Naturalist) writers in early-twentieth-century America. Many people condemned Carrie for one reason or another, but it is indeed a masterpiece.