Theodore Dreiser is considered one of America’s greatest naturalists, notable because he wrote at the early stages of the naturalist movement. Sister Carrie was a movement away from the emphasis on morals of the Victorian era and focused more on realism and the base instincts of humans.
Sister Carrie went against social and moral norms of the time, as Dreiser presented his characters without judging them. Dreiser fought against censorship of Sister Carrie, brought about because Carrie engaged in affairs and other “illicit sexual relationships” without suffering any consequences. This flouted prevailing norms, that a character who practiced such sinful behavior must be punished in the course of the plot in order to be taught a lesson.
Dreiser has often been critiqued for his writing style. In 1930 Arnold Bennett said, “Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know.” Other critics called his style “vulgar,” “uneven,” “clumsy,” “awkward,” and “careless.” His plotlines were also decried as unimaginative, critics citing his lack of education and claiming that he lacked intellectualism.
However, Alfred Kazin—while criticizing Dreiser’s style—pointed out that Dreiser’s novels had survived and remained influential works. Michael Lydon, in defense of Dreiser, claims that his patience and powers of observation created accurate depictions of the urban world and the desires and ambitions of the people of the time. Lydon said that Dreiser’s intent was to focus on the message of Sister Carrie, not on its writing style.