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Through the social criticism of Theodore Dreiser, the plight of the poor is compared against the actions of the rich. In both An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie Dreiser presents characters who are driven “by ignorance and in ability to withstand the pressures of the shallow American yearning for money, success, fashion -- dreams about which Dreiser himself was indeed an authority” (W.A. Swanberg 254). Throughout his career, Dreiser wrote for a variety of periodicals in order to earn enough money to support himself. His success there lead him to write novels, which in turn guided his path to fame and fortune.
Mirroring the life and ambition of Dreiser, the characters in An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie demonstrate the same goals and hopes for their lives. Like Dreiser, both Clyde and Carrie came from modest roots. In American society at the turn of the century, however, it is money that ultimately makes the man. As a result, both characters spend their lives working their way into this mold, even at the cost of compromising themselves.
Within the book An American Tragedy, a poor boy is working his way up to become known. In his society, a name is known for the amount of money its holder makes. His actions in and out of work reflect what his social life of popularity will become. He strives for richness and a life of prosperity, but it is not always what he wants. His choices with love have to be that of wealth and success or he is dishonored.
This character, Clyde, takes a series of miscellaneous jobs to help him succeed. His first high paying job was as a bell hop in a hotel frequented by the rich. From there he went on to work at the shirt factory owned by his extremely wealthy uncle, Uncle Griffiths. Beginning in the wash rooms, Clyde eventually worked his way into a managerial position keeping tab of the payroll. While at the shirt collar factory Clyde engages in a relationship with Roberta, one of the workers under his charge. Clyde then falls in love with Sondra, a woman of the upper class. Not long after, he discovers that Roberta is pregnant. Rather than jeopardize his own rise into the upper class, Clyde must find a way to get rid of Roberta. His only thoughts are that of murder, but he lacks the courage to do it himself.
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In Sister Carrie, Carrie Meeber is a young woman traveling from her country home to the city to live with her sister. Upon arriving, she is fascinated by the fast and flashy city lifestyle. Carrie soon discovers, however, that it is only the wealthy who can enjoy this side of city living. Rather than work as a lowly employee in a shoe factory, Carrie allows Drouet, a rich man who is drawn to her inexperience, to support her. Soon thereafter, however, Carrie meets Hurstwood, a similarly wealthy man who, without her knowing, is already married. Hurstwood falls in love with Carrie and, in an attempt to convince her to run away with him, steals a large sum of money from his workplace and runs off, taking her with him
Hurstwood ends up returning the money and the couple eventually move to New York. There Hurstwood is unable to find work and Carrie grows increasingly unhappy with their lack of money and incognito state. Carrie then pursues work in the theater as an actress, becoming a celebrity almost overnight. As Carrie catapults into fame and fortune she forgets Hurstwood, which in turn leads him to suicide at the novel’s end.
What both novels portray is the pursuit of the American Dream at the turn of the century. The idea behind the American Dream concept is that, through hard work and moral goodness, anyone can rise from poverty into riches. “If they can do it, so can I.” Dreiser’s characters, however, are not completely moral and reliant on hard work to gain their success. In this society the ends justify the means. Carrie, for instance, succeeds largely as a result of her relationships with men such as Drouet and Hurstwood. She spends very little time in the novel actually working her way up from a low-paying, low-status job.
Similarly, the story of Clyde Griffith’s demonstrates the extremes to which people were willing to go in order to reach success. Like Carrie, Clyde spends little time working, rising in society by making friends with the upper class social elite. His love affair with the working girl, however, threatens his position among these elite. Finding no other way out of the situation that would allow him to remain among the upper class, Clyde decides to eliminate this obstacle and kills Roberta.
What Dreiser demonstrates in both novels is a criticism of the American obsession with money and high social status. However, the truthfulness of these accounts demonstrates Dreiser’s acceptance of this society. Though he may not approve of it, he cannot, and does not, deny its existence. As a result, he does his best to understand it.
In trying to understand the society, Dreiser attempts to present an honest account of American life. His inspiration for these two novels came from actual events. An American Tragedy was based on a number of cases involving killers who “[were] motivated less by hatred than by the passion to rise in society and thus, as Dreiser saw it, was a recurrent and bloody indictment of the nation’s false standards” (W.A. Swanberg 253). Cases he studied included: the 1891 murder of Helen Potts by Carlyle Harris; the 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette; and the 1911 murder of Avis Linnell by Reverend Clarence Richeson.
Similarly, Dreiser based Sister Carrie on the life of a woman he knew quite well, his own sister Emma. “Emma, who in 1886 had eloped from Chicago with ... [L.A.] Hopkins, became, with fictional changes, Sister Carrie. Hopkins became George Hurstwood, and Chapin & Gore, the ‘truly swell saloon’ where Hopkins rifled the safe, became Fitzgerald & Moy’s. Much of his plot came ready-made” (W.A. Swanberg 83). Dreiser’s portrayal of Carrie’s life was in some respects more fact than fiction.
Mirroring the life and ambition of Dreiser, the characters in An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie demonstrate the same goals and hopes for their lives. Like Dreiser, both Clyde and Carrie come from modest roots. In American society at the turn of the century, however, it is money that makes the man. As a result, both characters spend their lives working their way into this mold, even at the cost of compromising themselves.
The idea driving both novels is that it is the money that makes a man. The upper classes, with their pockets full of money and stylish clothes, are virtually idolized by the American population at large. When Carrie and Clyde are without money they are looked down upon with contempt by the upper classes. Once they have money, Clyde and Carrie are able to adopt the fashions and pastimes of the wealthy, ultimately making their way into the elite society.
Although both novels were based on fact, only An American Tragedy met with critical success. Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s first novel, was not successful “because [it] depicted social transgressions by characters who felt no remorse and largely escaped punishment” (Nina Baym 791). Nearly a decade later the novel was reissued and has since become more popular.
“Dreiser was more fascinated by ideas and human destinies than he was in love with language. His interest was in human motives and behavior and in the particularities of the environments that helped to shape them” (Nina Baym 792). The impact of the money-obsessed society on characters such as Clyde and Carrie is an example of this. How each of these characters lives and strives for success demonstrates the degree to which they are influenced by wealth and high society.
In conclusion, much of Dreiser’s work is based on a comparison of the lifestyles of the poor to the lifestyles of the rich. Those with money also have the power in society which is something that everybody wants. For that reason people much like Clyde and Carrie strive to become wealthy at any cost. Dreiser examines this and concludes that it is because the society at large that people place such a great emphasis on money.