Sister Carrie

Sister Carrie Study Guide

Sister Carrie, published in 1900, stands at the gateway of the new century. Theodore Dreiser based his first novel on the life of his sister Emma. In 1883 she ran away to Toronto, Canada with a married man who had stolen money from his employer. The story as told by Dreiser, about Carrie Meeber who becomes the mistress of a traveling salesman, is unapologetically told and created a scandal with its moral transgressions. The book was initially rejected by many publishers on the grounds that is was "immoral". Indeed, Harper Brothers, the first publisher to see the book, rejected it by saying it was not, "sufficiently delicate to depict without offense to the reader the continued illicit relations of the heroine". Finally Doubleday and Company published the book in order to fulfill their contract, but Frank Doubleday refused to promote the book. As a result, it sold less than seven hundred copies and Dreiser received a reputation as a naturalist-barbarian.

Sister Carrie sold poorly but was redeemed by writers like Frank Norris and William Dean Howells who saw the novel as a breakthrough in American realism. Charges of obscenity were brought against the novel, soon making Dreiser a cause celebre for many young writers. However, the publication battles over Sister Carrie caused Dreiser to become depressed, so much so that his brother sent him to a sanitarium for a short while.

The struggles in getting Sister Carrie published were not undertaken without foreknowledge. Dreiser allowed many cuts and changes to be made to the original manuscript by his wife Sara (known as "Jug") and his friend Arthur Henry. From the 1981 publication of the unedited manuscript by the University of Pennsylvania Press, it appears that Dreiser welcomed the edits and changes although later in life he described the publication of Sister Carrie as one of suppression. Dreiser scholars are still torn over whether the extensive editing helped or harmed the original manuscript.

One of the main problems with the book has been the ending, where it seems that Carrie is rewarded for her illicit relationship. Dreiser wrote as a Realist, and believed that fiction should not merely depict an idealized version of life for readers, but should show how people really felt and thought about things. The scandal of the book is that Carrie is able to move in with the salesman and thereby improve her lot in life. Although Dreiser does not leave her happy at the end, he certainly does not punish her for her actions.