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At the time of Theodore Dreiser’s writings world culture was looking to find the psychological reasons for society’s miscreants. Psychology was the new science fad due to the popularity of Freud and other psychologists. People were beginning to delve into the world of the subconscious as the source of their troubles. No longer were all mental illnesses considered maladies of the brain. Some were being able to be treated through the treatment of the psyche, a Freudian term. Hypnotism was a popular method of therapy. By investigating the dreams and hidden memories psychotherapist believed they could find the root of the afflictions of their patients. The lounging couch now so greatly associated with the psychotherapeutic method of free association was just coming into popular use.
This time period reflects the ideas that surrounded Dreiser. Growing up poor in Indiana as the ninth of ten children in a devout Catholic German immigrant family, Dreiser received little formal education as his family moved from town to town. While able to secure a college education at the University of Indiana he only managed to stay enrolled for one year. However, he was voracious reader. One of his favorites was Dr. Sigmund Freud, the preeminent psychologist during Dreiser’s life. This fascination with psychological theories as well as his ability to understand them would become a major trademark of his later work such as Sister Carrie, in which he details the rise and fall of a working girl. It is also predominant in his most successful work An American Tragedy, in which he spins the tale of a psychopathic, overly ambitious young man who will stop at nothing including murder to attain wealth and great status.
Sister Carrie is preoccupied with Dreiser’s statement that society is two concerned with the societal demands for material success. This is the sociological declaration made in this novel. The author makes the reader see this. Take the following passage:
“A woman should some day write the complete philosophy of clothes. No matter how young, it is one of the things who wholly comprehends. There is an indescribably faint line in the matter of man’s apparel which somehow divides for her those who are worth glancing at and those who are not. Once an individual has passed this faint line on the way downward he will get no glance from her. There is another line at which the dress of a man will cause her to study her own.
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Here is the statement of the Sister Carrie, the conflict between human needs and the demands society places on the possession of material goods.
The woman described in this passage is the woman that Dreiser sees as the everyday woman. It is a cynical portrait. If one were to read this passage word for word he would read that the author sees the ideal woman as one who discriminates between men solely by their appearances.
However, this is not the intention Dreiser. He wants us to see the pathetic state of the woman of his culture of the day. She is a person who does not see a true being but rather as model of clothes. The material possessions that they display on their person indicate their status in society and thus denote whether or not they are attractive. The man in question could be the ugliest thing to have ever stomped on Planet Earth, but if he’s portraying wealth he is worthy of every woman’s attractions.
Dreiser is making the point that wealth has taken over the American society so much so that true human desires such as love and lust are sacrificed to the artificial and manufactured desires to acquire material goods.
Carrie Meeber lives in Chicago, the then-Mecca of the cosmopolitan consumer world. She is overwhelmed with the desire to purchase objects and things. They may not be of any significant value but she feels she needs them.
Carrie loses her first job as a low-paid factory worker. When she loses her job she is still overwhelmed by the need to purchase things from the capitalistic society she lives in. Her sister and brother-in-law with whom she boards in Chicago can no longer support her so she becomes Charlie Drouet’s mistress.
By being the mistress of a man who is more in love with romance than her she is able to live a comfortable life in the home of a man who she can be with. But one must realize that she is his mistress because he is paying for her life. She is whoring herself to this salesman to support her lifestyle. However, he never truly pays attention to her as a being because she has no materialistic wealth, she is only good for the sex.
Eventually Carrie leaves Charlie to live with George Hurstwood, a wealthy manager of Fitzgerald and Moy’s, a saloon in Chicago. However, George is married. When his wife learns of the affair George flees with Carrie to Canada with ten thousand dollars he steals from Fitzgerald and Moy’s.
While in hiding in Montreal George never tells Carrie of the theft until an investigator discovers him. He is forced to return the majority of the money after which he descends into apathy and poverty. Carrie eventually leaves him, as she is no longer able to support the lifestyle in which she had become accustomed. George becomes a homeless beggar and eventually commits suicide.
By the finish of the novel Carrie has become a famous, high-paid actress in New York City thus fulfilling her capitalistic dream. But at what cost did this success come? She tapped her sister’s resources which were small enough to begin with. She became a whore to support her need to purchase. She became the participant in the demise of her husband George Hurstwood. Yet in the end she became a great success in New York City. Was it worth it?
An American Tragedy profiles the life and reasons for the crimes of a psychopathic young man. The same theme of capitalism and materialistic needs are mirrored in this novel. The later Tragedy also introduces the idea of harmful effects due to fundamentalist Christianity in early childhood.
Dreiser based this, his most successful novel, on the true-life crime committed by Chester Gillette. Born in Montana to two captains of the Salvation Army Chester worked at a skirt factory in Cortland, New York that was owned by his uncle. There he met Grace Brown. The two dated occasionally but conducted most of the relationship in secret.
In spring of 1906 Brown found herself pregnant with Gillette’s child and she went home to her parents after Gillette promised to take her away on the trip to the Adirondacks. While she apparently assumed this was to be a wedding trip, it is unknown whether Gillette actually promised to marry her.
After months of Brown begging to finally go on the trip Gillette fulfilled his promise. The two began their trip on July 9. On the second day of their trip, July 11 the two rented a boat together.
During the boat trip Gillette attacked Brown with a tennis racket and put her in the water where she drowned, as she did not know how swim, something he knew from previous correspondences with her. Even through Gillette’s insistence that Brown had instead committed suicide because of her plight the jury found him guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
These types of crimes, ones that seem so heinous and unfounded, were once seen as the product of a malformed brain. But due to the newfound popularity of psychology, people were trying to find the reasons for these crimes.
Clyde Griffiths’ descent into immorality begins early on in his life. The two statements that Dreiser is making in this novel are the effects of materialism and fundamental religion (here Christianity) on the makings of the psychopathic individual.
Clyde’s childhood is made up of begging on corners for money with his family as well as attempting to convert them at the same time. He had an understanding very early on in his life of how pathetic his family is. Clyde is acutely aware of how the rest of the world views his jaded parents.
Asa Griffiths and his wife are fundamentalist Christians. They are obsessed with the idea of saving everyone’s soul. While it may seem noble to some, it is largely viewed as a pathetic attempt at conversion. The pitiable family sings Psalms to the passerby. Due to the fact that the children are dragged into this world they often feel separated from their peers, which is largely true.
Clyde is often teased as being the son of the “Praise Lord Jesus” man. It has become very difficult for him to meet girls or to even meet boys his own age. When the rare occasion of peer to peer conversation does occur he rarely knows what to say.
He feels his family has cheated him. His parents stole the possibility of a joyful childhood away from him. His sister when she left to travel with the actor stole the possibility of escape from the hell he viewed his family as.
Eventually Clyde escapes from the pain that is his home life. He runs with girls and drinks alcohol. When his acquaintances steal a car that becomes the catalyst for him to leave once again to avoid apprehension by the police.
Clyde’s fundamentalist background has skewed his view of society. It was not until later on in life that he realized the corruption and crime that existed in the world. All he had known was the poverty that he existed in. He hungered for knowledge and for things he was never able to attain before.
Clyde receives a job with his uncle’s collar factory. He sees himself as quickly climbing the social ladder as feeling he is on his way to success. His desire for social prominence completely overtakes his view of doing the right thing. Here the psychopathic tendencies of Clyde begin to show. He has become so obsessed with the need to get things and get what he wants.
An illicit relationship is begun between him and one of his employees, Roberta Alden. She becomes pregnant with his child. (Note the comparisons here to the Chester Gillette story.) She is hopelessly in love with Clyde. But Clyde is hopelessly in love with his family name and his new circle of friends. This new circle of friends includes Sondra Finchley, a girl of the local aristocracy.
Roberta begins to attempt to have Clyde marry her. He in turn tries to persuade Roberta to abort the child. When this is proven to not be possible Clyde begins to think of other ways to solve this “problem” that he has created. The problem is that he has a tie to a lower echelon of society, one that he cannot be connected with if he wishes to continue to rise in the ranks of the aristocracy. Thus he must get rid of this child, or get rid of Roberta.
Clyde takes Roberta out onto an isolated lake and he “accidentally” murders her. He is convicted of murder and executed.
Dreiser attempts to make a point through the novel that materialistic society is as much to blame in this murder as is Clyde Griffiths’ himself. Our culture today is one that is obsessed with materialistic goods as well as the need to acquire as many of these as is possible. Dreiser is saying that this has extreme ill effects on society and this could be a reason for the existence of psychopaths in society.
The fact that Theodore Dreiser made this statements so early in the theorizing of psychology is a testament to his genius or at least to his reading abilities. Such theories had yet to be introduced on a public scale. He was a great writer. His need to rip apart American society is summed up in the following quote:
“At the height of his success, when he had settled old scores and could easily have become the smiling public man, he chose instead to rip the whole fabric of American civilization straight down the middle, from its economy to its morality. It was the country that had to give ground.” (Nelson Algren, in Nation, May 16, 1959)