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The novel Sister Carrie, written by Theodore Dreiser, is considered by many to be the first modern American novel. Dreiser is also regarded as one of America’s greatest naturalists, as he was one of the early writers of this period. Dreiser certainly used his writing in Sister Carrie to escape the romanticism period and focus on depicting real everyday life in the bustling cities of America during the Gilded Age. Although the novel was published in 1900, it takes place a century before in 1889 Chicago. Through this work of literature, we can learn about the role human nature plays on morality through character’s desires, gain insight about the American culture and make connections to modern society.
Sister Carrie is quite different than the traditional literature of its time because it takes a different approach to the concept of moral decisions and their consequences. Although the characters have a struggle with conscience throughout the entire novel, the role of morality has no clear effect on how the characters stand as the novel comes to its close. For example, Carrie and Hurstwood are both pushed by their own desires to commit actions that are morally wrong, but these actions have no role in their future. It seems as if the author is making a commentary on how people who commit ethically wrong actions rarely have consequences when chasing the American dream, as Carrie becomes a rich and famous actress despite her dishonesty when cheating on and leaving both Drouet and Hurstwood. Although Sister Carrie teaches the lesson between wrong and right, it expresses that people often choose to do the wrong thing because they are blinded by their own ambition. It is embedded in human nature, whether we recognize it or not, to act out of our own self-interest. This is explicitly shown through the money-hungry actions of Carrie, who will do whatever it takes for her to be economically and socially at the top.
At the turn of the 20th century in America, consumerism was hitting its stride. The department store was up and coming, and Americans wanted nothing more than flashy material goods. Having the newest or most expensive things was an obvious sign of wealth and being apart of the esteemed upper class. Many people during this time, Carrie Meeber included, had the ultimate dream to find a way out of the lower class and into this select group. In Sister Carrie, the true American culture is revealed through the overwhelming obsessive feelings over money. Carrie and Hurstwood’s bickering about money is reflective of the life of an American, and Carrie’s cravings for a new dress or piece of jewelry represent the wants of an American woman. However, it is revealed at the end of the novel that although Carrie has all wealth she could imagine, she has no one to share this wealth with or her time with. She has isolated herself from all those who cared about her, and she is left alone and unhappy. The story of Carrie’s life is the perfect example that money truly can not buy happiness.
The themes of Sister Carrie are so connected to modern society it is simply uncanny. The importance of wealth and class is just as important today as it was in the late 19th century. Similarly, the presence of a strong female character that becomes more successful than the men around her is significant to the movement of feminists in the 21th century. Through its lessons of human nature and morality, its account of the consumerism ideals of American culture, and connections to themes of modern society, Sister Carrie is truly a timeless American classic.
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