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					Sister Carrie and Social Environments

How Social Environments Destroy the Human Nature

     Theodore Dreiser is considered to be one of the six major novelists of the United

States, and Sister Carrie , his first novel, has been called “the novel which, except

perhaps for Huckleberry Finn, made the most trenchant criticism of American


     This novel is set in the two big cities in America---Chicago and New York of the

late 19th century. In this novel, Carrie leaves her home at eighteen and takes the train

to Chicago. She dreams for a better life in big cities. On the train, she meets the

charming salesman-Drouet and is deeply attracted by his appearances. After Carrie‟s

moving into her sister‟s apartment, she realizes that the Hansons expect her to find a

job and pay them rent. After several days of searching, Carrie finds employment in a

shoe factory. Although she woks hard at her job, only discovering that the salary is too

low for her to pay rent and purchase clothes for the winter. When almost ready to

head home, Carrie accidentally meets Drouet and not long before she moves to live

with him. Drouet introduces Carrie a more refined and elegant way of life in a wine

bar, there she meets Hurstwood, a far more elegant man than Drouet. Though at that

time, Carrie feels guilty for Drouet, the moment Hurstwood woos her, she accepts him.

When Hurstwood‟s wife finds out their affairs in a pacnic, Hurstwood stoles the

money and cheats Carrie to elope to NewYork. In NewYork, when Carrie finds

Hurstwood can‟t provide what she wants, she leaves him without hesitation to search
for her own life. At last, Carrie becomes a successful actress, she gets what she wants:

money, beautiful clothes, luxurious apartment, and so on. But she becomes unhappy

with her state in the world. Rocking in her chair, she is confused with her future.

     Carrie, an ordinary girl who rises from a low-paid wage earner to a high-paid

actress, and George Hurstwood, a member of the upper middle class, falls from his

comfortable lifestyle to a life on the street. Neither Carrie nor Hurstwood earns their

fates through virtue or vice, but rather through random circumstance. Their successes

and failures have no moral value; this stance marks Sister Carrie as a departure from

the conventional literature of the period. The author exposes the corruption and

erosion of the capital society through the experiences and characters of Carrie.

     At the end of the novel, Carrie‟s personal dream has been realized. She has

money and lives in luxurious hotel. However, is she happy? Does she really realize

the true meaning of life? In her rocking chair, by her window, shall she dream such

happiness, as she may never feel? To answer these questions, it‟s highly necessary to

investigate the social environments Carrie lives in.

     “It is inevitable for the people who live in the capital society to be affected by the

capital moral principles and social regulations.”②The nature of capital society is

searching for money at all costs. Carrie is in humble origin and she is a typical

working class in economy. However, she occupies all the defects of the penny

bourgeoisie in nature: selfishness, ignorance, hypocrisy and greediness. She looks

down upon the working class, and she is fanatic to the life style of the bourgeoisie. In

other words, she is the typical representative of the American penny “As harps in the
wind, the latter respond to very breath of fancy, voicing in their moods all the ebb and

flow of the ideal”.③

     When the novel was published, Sister Carrie was often accused by the critics as

the character who betrayed the soul and the human body, lost ethics and morals. In

this novel, the heroine is portrayed as the role that is urged by the desire. However,

generally using the word “desire” would neglect the differences among all sorts of

driving forces behind Carrie‟s behavior and different needs in her self-realization

process. She first striving for the livelihood, then to molds herself perfectly.

   The word “desire” explains Carrie‟s motive from the interior, but advocating the

money and the desire for material of the glorious city is the external causes, which

lures Carrie and changes its destiny. In order to become a part of this city and not to

be neglected by the crowd, Carrie starts ideal self- molding. It is precisely in this

process that Carrie‟s self-awareness is awakened gradually.

     To Carrie, she desires for all luxurious things. New clothes and automobile

represent the social class which a person locates. These things are precisely she

longed for and needs. She hopes that she could put on more expensive and beautiful

clothes and drive the lordly horse-drawn vehicle. In fact before Carrie and Hurstwood

came to New York, she contacted three kinds of people: her brother –in-law, diligent

but desolate; Drouet and Hurstwood, rich and attentive to women; the men in the

factory who was enthusiasm but vulgar. In front of these men, Carrie chose Drout and

Hurstwood who located on the higher social stratum and lived in the richer lives. In

brief, Carrie portrayed the self-perfect image by the reflection of herself in the mirror
and the tolerance to the people around her. Though the interior elements influences

Carrie a lot, the social environments plays an important role in the process of Carrie‟s


     What are the social environments of the late 19th century and early 20th century?

The economic activity increased as a result of new inventions. The story of American

economic growth is a story of people inventing new devices and processes, starting

new businesses and launching new ventures. For each of their endeavors, money is

needed. At that time, black Americans and members of some immigrant groups were

refused work or were forced to work under even more unfavorable conditions than the

average worker. Entrepreneurs also took full advantage of the lack of government

oversight under the doctrine of laissez-faire, to enrich them by forming monopolies,

eliminating competition, letting high prices for goods and producing poor quality

merchandise. These social environments produced many poor people and beggars.

The gap between the poor and the rich was enlarging. Also, at that time, the American

women were beginning to be influenced by consumerism. They began to challenge

the standards of traditional morality, and they never believed that “the duty for women

is to bear and bring up children” “women are suitable for being mothers”, and so on.

Instead, they believed that they should dress themselves up beautifully, make

themselves charming and sexy, and enjoy sex to their hearts‟ content. Therefore, in

order to make their husbands happy, they do their best to choose the cosmetics and

beautiful clothes. Meanwhile, they wouldn‟t like their children to interfere in their

private life. What‟s more, they considered their sexual life with their husbands, not the
means to continue their life, but experience for amusement. Critics of American

consumerism have described the deliberate evocation of acquisitive desire as

conspiratorial, if not criminal, a secret attack by “hidden persuaders”. “The ultimate

meaning of desire is death”. However, the death of desire in Characters who seem

beyond consumerism like the hopeless Hurstwood, cannot buy anything when they

come to the end of desire. When Hurstwood does not want anything more, he dies.

Because of wanting more things, Carrie goes on living, dreaming of happiness.

Perhaps, she will never realize it. Thus she remains forever the producers‟ ideally

insatiable consumer.

The luxurious life of the big city stimulates the increase of Carrie‟s desire, which in

the end stimulates her desire for money, which leads her to the final degenerate. Just

influenced by the consumerism, Sister Carrie shows her endless desire for material

things. By getting materials, Carrie meets the desire for rights, because money,

beautiful clothes and luxurious houses signify one‟s status and rights.

     Carrie was a poor country girl. “When she boarded the afternoon train for

Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin

satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and yellow leather snap purse, containing her

ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister's address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars

in money. It was in August, 1889. She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and

full of the illusions of ignorance and youth.”④ Lived in bitter conditions of that

social economic environments, Carrie wanted pleasure. She wanted position and yet,

she was confused to wonder what these things might be.
     Every hour, the kaleidoscope of human affairs threw a new luster upon

something and there with it she desires the all. The struggle between success and

failure, rich and poor, happiness and suffering have always been playing roles. When

she first met Drouet, “All the time she was conscious of certain features out of the

side of her eye. Flush, colorful cheeks, a light moustache, grey fedora hat. His suit

was of a striped and crossed pattern of brown wool, new at that time, but since

become familiar as a business suit. The low crotch of the vest revealed a stiff shirt

bosom of white and pink stripes. From his coat sleeves protruded a pair of linen cuffs

of the same pattern, fastened with large, gold plate buttons, set with the common

yellow agates known as "cat's-eyes." His fingers bore several rings--one, the

ever-enduring heavy seal--and from his vest dangled a neat gold watch chain, from

which was suspended the secret insignia of the Order of Elks. The whole suit was

rather tight-fitting, and was finished off with heavy-soled tan shoes, highly polished,

and the grey fedora hat. He was, for the order of intellect represented, attractive, and

whatever he had to recommend him, you may be sure was not lost upon Carrie, in this,

her first glance. ”she felt the society was unfair. Later when he met Hurstwood, “she

met a man who was more clever than Drouet in a hundred ways. He paid that

peculiar deference to women which every member of the sex appreciates. He was

not overawed, he was not overbold. His great charm was attentiveness. Schooled in

winning those birds of fine feather among his own sex, the merchants and

professionals who visited his resort, he could use even greater tact when endeavoring

to prove agreeable to some one who charmed him. In a pretty woman of any
refinement of feeling whatsoever he found his greatest incentive. He was mild,

placid, assured, giving the impression that he wished to be of service only--to do

something which would make the lady more pleased.” she thought that money could

buy anything. Therefore she moaned “money, money. What appealing thing. Money

can spare many difficulties.”⑤ Therefore she strived for the success of material and

realized her dream of happiness at the cost of her conscience and purity. As she was

influenced by the social environments and poisoned by the consumerism, she became

indifferent and unsympathetic. Therefore, when Drouet couldn‟t provide the things

she needed she leaved him. When Hurstwood became completely poor she abandoned

him. She didn‟t know Hurstwood‟s death. In this social economic environments,

Carrie completely changed. She became a woman without feeling, without love and

without sympathy.

“If, unfortunately, the fly has got caught in the net, the spider can come forth and

talk business upon its own terms”.⑥ So when maiden hood has wandered into the

moil of the city, when it is brought within the circle of the rounder even though it is at

the most out rim. Big cities have their own life style. Big cities have their own arms to

defeat their enemies and catch their followers. Fine clothes, luxurious life style,

delicious foods, enough money and all kinds of leisure attract Carrie deeply like

magic sticks. Carrie is the victim of a voracious city. The beauty of the city is an

illusion and a trap which like music, too often relax, then weakness, and then perverts

the simpler human perceptions.

     Wandering through the city, Carrie is a perennial outsider looking at glamorous
interiors through plate-glass windows which were becoming common in the city

office building windows and the displaying windows of Chicago‟s new department

and stores. These glass windows revolutionized the relationship between insider and

outsider by reflecting an image of the outsider upon goods arranged inside. In effect,

plate-glass changed the concept of shopping from satisfying to creating desire. Carrie

discovers Chicago‟s great department stores on her weary quest for “a likely door”.⑦

When the door of a shoe factory opens, Carrie enters hopefully but only to discover

that she should have been looking for an unlikely door, a magical door to which the

key was money.

     Carrie was also influenced by the luxurious life style in big city. In Chicago, she

compared her shabby shop girl clothes to the elegant fashions of lady shoppers who

elbowed their way past her to buy dainty, delicate and dazzling goods that were

displayed in department store. Invidious comparison lighted a flame of envy in

Carrie‟s heart. It was the envy that aroused Carrie‟s mediated desires. She began to

want the clothes and something more incorporated in contemporary definitions of

consumerism that other women had.

     The spectacle of the big city pleased Carrie immensely. The color and grace of

the big city caught her eyes. Men in flawless top coats, high hats, and silver-headed

walking sticks elbowed their way past Carrie. Ladies rustled in dresses of stiff clothes,

shedding affected smiles and perfume. Carrie noticed among them the sparking of

goodness, the sparking of greatness and the splashing of happiness. The roughed and

powered cheeks and lips, the scented hair, the large, misty and languorous eyes, and
the appealing smiles were very common. At the beginning she awaked to find that she

was in fashion‟s crowd, in a show place and such a show place! Jeweler‟s windows

gleamed along the path with remarkable frequency. Florist shops, furrier‟s harbor

dashers and confectioners are all followed in rapid succession. However, at that time

Carrie was not in elegant colored clothes. However, at that time, Carrie was not rich.

Compared with those people, she felt shamed. Therefore, she decided that she would

not become her again until she looked better. At the same time she longed to feel the

delight of living here as an equal one.

     In Chicago, the population at the late 19th century still ranged about 500, 000,

millionaires were not numerous. The rich had not become so conspicuously rich as to

drown all moderate incomes in obscurity. The attention of the inhabitants was not so

distracted by local celebrities in the dramatic, artistic, social, and religious fields as to

shut the well-positioned man from the viewpoint. In Chicago the two roads to

destination were politics and trade. The sea has always been full of whales. A

common fish must disappear wholly from view remain unseen. There is a more subtle

result of such a situation that, though it does not always taken into account, producing

the tragedies of the world. The great created an atmosphere that reacted badly upon

the small. This atmosphere is easily and quickly felt. Walking among the magnificent

residences, the splendid equipages, the gilded shops, the restaurant and residences;

scenting the flowers, the silks and the wines; drinking the laughter springing from the

soul of luxurious content and the glances which gleam like light from defiant spears;

feeling the quality of the smiles which like flattening swords, and you shall know
what is the atmosphere of the high and mighty society. Someone would argue that

such is not the kingdom of greatness; however, so long as the world is attracted by

this and the human heart views this as the desirable realm, it will remain the realm of

greatness. Also, the atmosphere of this realm will create its desperate results in the

soul of man. It is like a chemical reagent. One day of it, likes one drop of the other,

will affect and discolor the views, the aims and the desire of a person‟s mind, which

will be dyed in after a long time. A day of it to the untried mind is like opium to the

untied body. A drawing is set up which it gratified shall eternally result in dreams and


     However, we must pay close attention to the truth that no evil could come out of

the contemplation of experiment-decorated chamber of the beautiful clothes of the

luxurious life style and of the power of the great. The worst effect of such things

perhaps is stirring up in the material minded ambition of arranging people‟s lives

upon a similarly splendid basis. In the last analysis, it would scarcely be called, the

fault of the decorations, but rather the fault of the innate trend of the mind. Such a

scene might stir up the less expensively dressed to emulate the more expensively

dressed. Carrie, this young poor country girl, cannot help striving for the material

happiness because of the appealing and attractive atmosphere of the big cities.

However, in the last analysis it is not the real material but the material mind adding to

the special social environments which leads Carrie to the final “material success”.⑦

Conscience and social atmosphere, which is more important? Which does have more

power? It is difficult to answer. It is also very hard to tell the right from the wrong.
     It is a common phenomenon that when we are alone, when there is no comparing,

we think we are the perfect. Without comparing with the great, we think we have

arrived at the final aim when we make just a little progress. Our civilization is still in

a middle stage, scarcely beast in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct scarcely

human. It is not yet wholly guided by reasons. We see man was removed from the

lairs of the jungles, his innate instinct dulled by too new approach to free will. His

free will was not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect

guidance. He is becoming too wise to hearten instinct and desire. He is still too weak

to always prevail against them. He is even as a whisper in the wind, moved by every

breath of passion asking now by his will and now by his instincts, erring with one,

only to retire by the other, falling by one only to rise by the other, a creature of

incalculable variability. For Carrie, she follows what her craving leads. She is as yet

more drawn than she draws. We take it for granted that every person has the right to

look for better life, however, which way can we choose? Arriving at the final aim by

legal and diligent way or by beauty or something like that? Carrie chooses the latter.

For, she sees the enormous gap between the rich and the miserable poor. Comparing

with others, Carrie is ashamed. Because she has no money, no fine clothes, no

luxurious rooms and no portion. Here jealousness becomes the evil.

     The gap between the rich and the misery of herself stimulates Carrie to strive for

material at the cost of anything: position and power take on peculiar significance. And

the stimulation is strengthened by contrast with her own distressing state. Also she

feels ashamed in the face of better-dressed girls who passed by. She feels as though
she should be better served, and her heart revolted. These are the result of the

overwhelming comparisons.

     When Carrie first went to Chicago she had nothing but four dollars and an old

yellow bag. For the first time she met Drouet, she thought that he must be fortunate.

He rode on trains, dressed in such nice clothes. He was so strong and he ate in these

fine places. He seemed quite a figure of man. Later Drouet met Carrie again and on

that particular evening they dinnered at “kectors”, a restaurant of some local fame

kectors, with his polished marble walls and floor, its profusion of lights, its show of

china and silverware, and above all, its reputation as a resort for actors and

professional men, seemed the proper place for a successful man to go. However, to

the complete contract, the machine girls impressed her even less favorably. They

seemed satisfied with their condition with a sense of “common”. What‟s more, she

realized it was the right thing that the bosses look down upon the workers and that the

workers were supported to work on without requiring much. At last, she feels that it

would be exceeding gloomy if she would live with these people.

     All these facts and comparisons made her understand that it was in hell all these

days. You would starve to death in the streets and no one would help you. Gradually,

Carrie was aware of the importance of money in this capital society. So she changed

in such a society.

     The further insight into special American life, which Dreiser gives us, nowhere

explicitly but implicitly throughout, is a sense of its extraordinarily atomized nature,

the general lack of any real social or even personal ties between individuals. “The ties
between individuals are relied on money, position and indifference.”⑧

     When the reader meets Carrie in the novel for the first time, she has just left her

parents‟ home. Yet never again any reference to them comes back – no letters, no talk

between the sisters, no expectation to a visit, not even, a passing thought. When

Carrie moves to Drouet`s apartment, she lives at most forty or sixty blocks – two or

three miles – away from her sister‟s. Again it is as if they had vanished from the


      When Hurstwood settles in New York, he misses the respected and luxurious

surroundings of his Chicago position, but there is no thought of his wife, children,

long-time employers and individual friends.

     Transplantation is not always successful in terms of flowers. It requires

sometimes a richer soil, a better atmosphere for its natural growth. It would have been

better if Carrie‟s acclimatization had been more gradual and less rigid and less

indifferent. It would have been better if she had not secured a position so quickly.

Living in this special social environments, where money and position prevails, and

care and love looses, is inevitable for a person to change. Having lost the capacity of

competition, Hurstwood has lost all his money and position. He becomes a mouse in

the church. He begs in the street. In his hardest time he thinks of Carrie. However,

after one frightening glimpse of Hurstwood at the stage, Carrie, as far as we know,

never thinks of him again. His rare thought of her is an impersonal vision of her as an

inhabitant of “the walled city” of wealth, which he had once occupied, rather than any

memory of a lover or companion. Until now, Carrie has completely changed. When
she left Drouet, she wondered whether it was right or wrong. When Carrie has left

Hurstwood, she felt sad and sorry for him. Because Hurstwood had offered her help,

without which Carrie could not make success. However, now, she has changed. She

became unsympathetic. “In her life, money and position are the most important

material. This is the result of the social environments. Carrie becomes a victim of

American society and American dream.”⑨ Of course, we indeed learn lessons from


       Individualist realizes that this thing primarily stands for and should be accepted

as a moral due that it should be paid out honestly as the stored energy, but not as a

usurped privilege. Many of our social religions and political troubles will pass away

permanently. “The old definition of „Money‟--something everybody else has and I

must get, too.”⑩ expresses Carrie‟s understanding thoroughly. Under the lure of

money, she has fallen into the abyss of materials. Living in such social environment,

Carrie has been completely poisoned by pure material enjoyment.

       A lovely home atmosphere is one of the flowers of the world, in which there is

nothing tender, nothing more delicate and nothing more calculated to make strong and

just the natures cradled and nourished with it. The impetus of having luxurious life

and getting more money leads Carrie into the big city. The desire for luxurious family

life makes her lose the basic principles of human morals and become the final slave of


       In her mind, the family life in the big city is happy and comfortable. However,

the fact of her sister‟s family disappointed her very much. Her sister and
brother-in-law live in a small closet and “Mrs. Hanson, after the first greetings were

over, gave Carrie the baby and proceeded to get supper. Her husband asked a

few questions and sat down to read the evening paper. He was a silent man, American

born, of a Swede father, and now employed as a cleaner of refrigerator cars at the

stock-yards. To him the presence or absence of his wife's sister was a matter

of indifference. Her personal appearance did not affect him one way or the other.”

They lack money, suffering the pressure from the work. Living in her sister‟s family

she must pay for the board and dinner. At first Carrie had no work and no money.

Therefore when Drouet gave her money and provided her broad and bright apartment,

she accepted them.

     After Carrie‟s eloping with Hurstwood to New York, Hurswood loses all his

money and his competition. To the extremely contrast, Carrie‟s disappointment with

the flat is even greater. She becomes an actress. She can earn more and more money.

However, Hurstwood is a mouse in the church. He has no work and loses the precious

elegance. Carrie becomes disgusted with such a man, “such a family”. After finding a

job, Carrie becomes delighted. She feels that she has gained the social position in the

world. People recognize one‟s ability. With her state‟s changing, the home atmosphere

becomes into her able. “It is all poverty and trouble there. It becomes a place to keep

away from. It is a sitting place for Hurstwood. He sits and rocks, rocks and reads,

enveloping in the gloom of his own fate. The cruel and poor family atmosphere and

the desire for better life induced Carrie to abandon her family unsympathetically.
     Sister Carrie ends with an unlikely Carrie, a young woman, who has found

everything she wants. In Chicago, a fixed relationship between stimulus and response

determines female behavior and transform an innocent young American woman, a

small town girl from the Midwest, into a consumer. Her desire, her insatiability seems

synonymous with a sense of lack she finds irreducible, seeing what others have and

she lacks, this unconsummated and consuming woman believes that she must have

more, and that having more will allow her to become more and more the person she

sees herself capable of becoming. This desire for self-actualization a culturally

inscribed individualistic desire turns Carrie into a consuming woman whose genetic

similarities should not remain hidden by differences in appearance. In Dreiser‟s novel,

poor Sister Carrie accepted two soft, green, handsome ten dollar bills for desirous self,

and when she had “in hand” a hundred and fifty dollars, Sister Carrie, the actress

found herself rich beyond belief and, for a moment‟s happy.

   The end of Sister Carrie shows Dreiser‟s Carrie, the naive poor country girl has

arrived at “her final success” at the cost of her purity and conscience. However, what

is the essence and importance of this? Of course we must admit that Carrie is rich in

material at last. But, what is the use just for material success and luxurious life style?

Rocking in her chair, she feels confused with her future. We arrive at the conclusion

that, spirit, morality, purity and conscience are more important. If most people pay

their extreme attention to money, if most people lose the basic principles as human

beings, if most people reach the material success by hooks and cooks, we dare not

imagine what real happy we can get?
   By writing this paper, we take it for granted that the influence of the social

environments is overwhelming. We also take it for granted that it is inevitable, for the

people, who live in certain society must be affected by the social environments.

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