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In his novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser’s portrait of American materialism coincides with his characters’ values as they strive to promote their images. Critics of Sister Carrie often point out the inadequate human relationships Dreiser forms; however, perhaps Dreiser chooses not to focus on individuals directly talking to one another, but instead, he devotes attention to how people talk about one another. Dreiser’s characters constantly construct biases toward other characters based on speculative gossip, accentuated by class discrepancies. For example, Julia Hurstwood, insecure about her crumbling marriage, perhaps finds solace in gossiping with her daughter about families with less money than her own. Even a minor character like Drouet’s chambermaid attempts to socially progress as she recognizes Drouet’s support for Carrie and dismantles their relationship through gossip. Moreover, Dreiser reveals the increasing importance of newspapers and free press in America; specifically, Hurstwood takes substantial measures to avoid scandal whereas Carrie obsesses about the publicity she receives for her acting career. Yet, the gossip that characters thrust upon others stems from the deluded thinking that an individual’s reputation outweighs all else in determining class hierarchy, enforcing America’s materialist values.
Dreiser’s portrayal of the Hurstwood family dinner suggests the treatment of reputation as a materialist concept as the family discusses other families’ fortunes and misfortunes. George Hurstwood Jr. announces his intention to visit a nearby resort and see his friend’s new steam launch. His statement prompts economic discussion raised by his parents who probe the Fahrway’s financial situation and offer insights. George says the new steam launch costs “over two thousand dollars” (79), and he learns from his friend Jack that the Fahrway’s medicinal shipping industry now expands to Australia and Cape Town. George’s gossipy hearsay promotes the Fahrway’s image. In effort to spite the Fahrway’s social climb, Mrs. Hurstwood bitterly discloses the Fahrway’s past as she exclaims, “Just think of that! And only four years ago they had that basement in Madison Street” (79). Mrs. Hurstwood’s remark has no essentially applicability to what George discusses, yet she introduces it as a means of condemning the Fahrway family and elevating her own. While the Fahrway’s overseas expansion incites awe from George’s awe, it likely incites jealousy from Mrs. Hurstwood since the Fahrways are evidently wealthier than the Hurstwoods.
Of course, Mrs. Hurstwood also seizes the chance to put down the less wealthy Griswold family as soon as her daughter Jessica raises concerns over Martha Griswold’s dramatic skills. Mrs. Hurstwood questions, “Her family doesn’t amount to anything, does it? They haven’t anything, have they?” (80). Mrs. Hurstwood’s rude questions hint not only at Martha’s alleged lack of talent but more significantly, at the Griswolds financial situation. In turn, Jessica compares the Griswolds to church mice, complementing Mrs. Hurstwood’s intent to slander. Mrs. Hurstwood’s bias likely stems from her subconscious thinking that putting down others by gossiping about them will somehow make her feel more secure about her own family and materialist lifestyle. Perhaps she deludes herself into thinking that she can protect her reputation by gossiping about other families, but Dreiser later overturns this attitude as her husband creates a scandal, marring her reputation.
As Dreiser’s protagonist Carrie makes her way into society, she, too, begins to recognize the value of one’s reputation. Also, Carrie’s outlook on gossip evolves quickly throughout the novel, for she first rejects the banter that occurs amongst the factory girls. On her first day, she hears the other girls gossiping lightly about men, but Carrie concentrates only on her work and feels “there [is] something hard and low about it all” (38). She also notes feeling more imaginative than the girls’ due to their lighthearted gossip as if she elevates herself above them. Ironically, Carrie cannot escape the material worth of one’s image and the gossip that follows it, affirming Dreiser’s critique on America. She moves into an apartment with Drouet and befriends her neighbor Mrs. Hale whose “gossip…[forms] the medium through which [Carrie] sees the world” (94). Carrie evidently now joins Mrs. Hurstwood in perceiving others and constructing biases based on the gossip she hears. Dreiser now exposes gossip as a means of discussing others’ behaviors and the need to either condemn or copy those behaviors as he writes, “Such trivialities, such praises of wealth, such conventional expression of morals [sift] through [Carrie’s] mind” (94). And, in this regard, Carrie learns to imitate others so as to know what is conventional and project such conventions onto others, advocating her image. Carrie may seek to feel secure about her image, just as Mrs. Hurstwood wishes not to be talked about in a negative light, but Carrie’s role as the fallen woman of the novel certainly invites gossip. For example, Mrs. Hale watches Carrie come home one evening from her upper window and thinks to herself, “[Carrie] goes riding with another man when her husband is out of the city. He had better keep an eye on her” (119). Of course, Dreiser foreshadows Drouet’s negligence in that Drouet will lose Carrie, but Mrs. Hale adds to the critique of reputational interests in that she previously gossips with Carrie and now could potentially gossip about her.
Mrs. Hale witnesses Carrie’s affair inclusively, however, with Drouet’s housemaid who, hopeful for Drouet’s affection, utilizes her bias against Carrie in an effort to socially progress. The housemaid has no name; Dreiser argues that even an unnamed character within his story can damage another’s reputation and attempt to elevate his or her own. Yet, she gossips to the cook about Carrie’s affair because she despises Carrie and pities Drouet, and consequently, “a hum of gossip [is] set going which [moves] about the house in that secret manner common to gossip” (119). Several chapters later, Dreiser exposes the ill-mannered intentions of the housemaid who thinks Carrie and Drouet are married. Carrie leaves to meet Hurstwood, and Drouet returns to the apartment looking for her. He questions the housemaid and then flirtingly chats with her, admiring her ring. She casually asks about Hurstwood and then reveals that he visited Carrie “a dozen times” (177) while Drouet traveled. She even delights in gossiping, smiling as she says, “That’s all you know about it” after Drouet counters her claim. Dreiser describes the housemaid as a “mischievous newsmonger,” suggesting her intentions as a social climber. Again, the housemaid puts down Carrie and feels more comfortable with her reputation as she grows closer to Drouet by disclosing information. Drouet continues to deny her gossip until she fools with “with an air of one who [does] not intentionally mean to create trouble” and says, “He came lots of times. I thought you knew” (178). The housemaid’s motives later create a rife in Drouet and Carrie’s relationship; Dreiser shows that even though Carrie’s business does not concern the morally questionable housemaid, the housemaid seizes the chance to appeal to Drouet, potentially gaining his affection and a place in society.
Hurstwood articulates the consequences of unfavorable publicity as evidenced by his efforts to cover up his scandals. Even before initiating the affair with Carrie, Hurstwood knows that he might lose his jobs over any scandal, and he takes measures to keep his matters “circumspect” by visiting “conventional places [and] doing conventional things” in public (81). Dreiser says that, “[Hurstwood loses] sympathy for the man that made a mistake and was found out” (82), which foreshadows Hurstwood’s commitment to keeping away negative press coverage. When his wife seriously threatens to hire a divorce attorney and a private investigator, Hurstwood’s primary concern is, “How [will] the papers talk about it?” (207). He knows that he will lose his job if the newspaper mentions his wrongdoing, so he complies with his wife’s demands. Moreover, after he flees to Montreal with the stolen money and Carrie, he anxiously checks the morning papers to find that “very little [is] given to his crime, but it [is] there, several ‘sticks’ in all, among all the riffraff of telegraphed murders, accidents, marriages, and other news” (253). The fear of being caught and having his name tarnished by the press drives Hurstwood to send the money back to Fitzgerald and Moy. Hurstwood keeps his scandals from newspaper, showing that he thinks of his reputation as a materialistic possession.
While Hurstwood avoids media attention, Carrie indulges it after breaking from Hurstwood and becoming an actress on her own. She knows that a favorable representation by the press can strengthen her position as an actress, and through this bias she desperately seeks to be written about. Her friend Lola introduces her to several gossipy theatre tabloids, and gradually, Carrie “[longs] to be renowned like others, and read with avidity all the complimentary or critical comments [make] concerning others high in her profession” (390). Carrie receives a speaking part in a play after the original actress quits, and soon after, she finds her expectation fulfilled as one newspaper describes her as “one of the cleverest members of the chorus” (391). Soon after, Carrie earns more media spotlight, and one newspaper even publishes her picture. In a sense, Carrie comes full circle with gossip in that she recovers from being talked about by the housemaid and gains a favorable reputation by theatre critics. Of course, Dreiser adds irony to this dynamic in that the papers know Carrie by her stage name Carrie Madenda. Carrie Meeber never accrues the attention she seeks. Indeed, while Carrie Drouet’s behavior unsettles the housemaid and Mrs. Hale, Carrie Madenda’s performance pleases the press, and Carrie’s reputational interests disable her from embracing her true name and fulfilling her dream.
As gossip pervades Sister Carrie, Dreiser examines a key force that drives individuals. Americans of the era seem to consider reputation in a materialistic fashion, constantly seeking to either bolster or defend their names. Dreiser’s characters who engage in gossip have varying intentions, but they all share the view that one’s reputation is a principle determinant in America’s class system. Dreiser proves that the fixation about class hierarchy propagates gossip and fuels biases, keeping characters from recognizing their own interiorities and achieving their American dreams.
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