Sister Carrie

The Value of Reputation in Dreiser’s Materialist America

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...

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