Naturalism in Sister Carrie

Keywords: sister carrie naturalism, sister carrie realism

There was much debate to whether Dreiser was a "naturalist" following the model of Zola. But if this denomination is reflected by the acceptance of the sordid side of life and a more faithful registration of personal experience, then it can be a characteristic of his work. He was an objective realist who remotely brought together his facts but at the same time he was more. ( Spiller et all, 1963: 1039)

In the situation of Dreiser's Sister Carrie - a novel that is repeatedly classified in separate accounts as a work of literary realism and literary naturalism - the precise opposite appears to hold true. Featuring components of two of the very most prominent literary "movements" of that time period where it was written, the consistency of Sister Carrie seems to be built on the combo of "discrepant" parts. Dreiser attains such combinatorial proficiency by operating with a fairly distinct approach to characterization, correlating the traits of particular characters (primarily Carrie) with a number of kinds of imagery employed to spell it out the external circumstances that affect them. By joining realistic descriptions with naturalistic intentions in dealing with his characters, Dreiser can hook up the vastness between literary genres, not only overcoming literary divisions. ( Decker, 1997, 2)

Being the main topic of various critics, Dreiser mentioned his intention with Sister Carrie in a single interview in June 1907:

"Here is a book that is near to life. It really is intended not as a bit of literary craftsmanship, but as an image of conditions done as simply and effectively as the English language will permit. To create and criticize me for saying 'vest' instead of waistcoat, to discuss my splitting the infinitive and using vulgar commonplaces here and there, when the tragedy of the man's life is depicted, is silly" ( qtd. In Pizer, 1991: 13)

Sister Carrie is also known as a pattern of "realist" literature because of its very down-to-earth descriptive technique. By presenting a "behind-the-scenes" view of lifestyle in Chicago and NY - often from both very different perspectives of Carrie and Hurstwood - Dreiser illustrates what actually happens in places the reader might know only tangentially. Such "objectivity" permitted Dreiser to focus on the fundamental qualities of "ordinary human experience" while at the same time representing larger sociocultural notions and values. A context as this serves "to provide the novel generally with two of its most characteristic themes: the individual seeking his fortune in the big city as well as perhaps only achieving tragic failure, so often described by the French and American Realists; and, frequently in colaboration with this, the milieu studies of such writers as Dreiser" (qtd. in Decker, 1997: ). Integrating "accurate" descriptions of everyday experience in a collection of apparently "vast" American settings, the fiction of Theodore Dreiser has thus been easily recognized in light of realist descriptive technique (Phillips 572).

Literary naturalism "developed out of realism' and 'Darwin's biological theories' Those towards a naturalistic method of and interpretation of life concentrated on depicting the social environment and dwelt particularly on its deficiencies and on the shortcomings of human beings. The 'naturalist's' vision of the estate of man tended to be subjective and was very often somber" (Naturalism 537-8). Naturalist authors refocused the objective of the realist novel by examining the unintelligible influences of biology and culture on man to expose the weakness of the human condition. By detecting the impossibility of "human understanding, " naturalist authors depicted experience as a assemblage of events produced by innate cultural and biological inheritances. Rather than looking to bring to light and describe the type of specific social and cultural "truths, " naturalists proved readers that the "facts" themselves were the truth is driven by greater and frequently incomprehensible sociobiological forces (qtd. in Decker, 1997, 2)).

Evocative of a fairly deterministic message, Sister Carrie has also been also known as a work of literary naturalism (qtd in Decker, ). With this view, the city settings where the plot develops are means for the various social and biological forces that drive the action of the novel. Both Carrie and Hurstwood are stimulated by external and internal forces that are beyond their individual powers of control. The descriptions of the characters, then - in particular those involving external appearances and settings to internal traits - illustrate how deeply they are influenced by factors inexplicable to them. The original message of Sister Carrie - the futility and mystery of life-guiding forces considering the intriguing vagaries of fortune - is therefore a readily naturalistic one (Walcutt 266-9).

Despite the fact that literary realism and naturalism tend to be seen as different and discordant modes of representation in the American literary "canon, " the movements - in theme as well as in description - are not mutually absolute. The appearance of American naturalism in the late 19th century did not mark any ultimate rupture with literary realism. Actually, some critics see naturalism as a logical extension of realism, building upon the knowledge of that time period and expressing thought in an "updated" fashion (qtd. in Decker). Bearing such ideas at heart, it would seem to be deductively unsupported to assume that certain authors writing at the turn of the 20th century didn't exploit particular aspects of divergent literary "movements" to reflect overarching ideologies of that time period.

Writing in 1900, Dreiser certainly would have recognized the stylistic components of both literary movements. With the various tools of each of these modes of address at his disposal, Dreiser could portray realistic settings and descriptions while maintaining an underlying naturalistic message - one revealing the powerlessness of the average person in a morally confused society. The chief accomplishment of such a blend - that of literary realism and naturalism in Sister Carrie - occurs through the correlation of Carrie's physical appearance with what one might consider "inherent" personality traits.

The many realistic character descriptions in Sister Carrie render a very naturalistic message by their correlation with internal traits and motivations. Even though novel continually and quite dispassionately observes the conditions of "ordinary life, " Sister Carrie also centers the attention on the full total lack of ethical plot conflict (the presence which would be notable in a strictly realist novel). Whether or not its motion is depicted realistically, Sister Carrie is not reliant on determined acts by any of its main characters (Walcutt 270-2). One of the greatest sources of such external / internal conflict occurs in repeated cases of "sea imagery" within the novel's context. That is particularly relevant to the initial characterization of Carrie.

"With all the wane of the afternoon went her hopes, her courage, and her strength. On every hand, to her fatigued senses, the fantastic business portion grew larger, harder, more stolid in its indifference. Men and women hurried by in long shifting lines. She felt the flow of the tide of effort and interest - felt her own helplessness without quite realizing the wisp of the tide that she was" (21).

The novel begins with Carrie finding herself within an unfamiliar and "unstable" environment, she "feels" that she actually is utterly at the mercy of a force greater than that of her own private agency. Carrie's "job-seeking" efforts are described is extremely realistic ones. The circumstances of trying to obtain a working position in a minimal social place are faithfully portrayed, including their potential effects such a "hardship" might have on the average person psyche (. Decker) Yet, when one judges the principal "motivation" in this quote, it becomes apparent that there surely is a naturalistic message emphasizing the abovementioned realistic descriptions. This message - of whose implications Carrie is not aware - is one that paints man as a helpless organism in a "sea" of forces far beyond his control and understanding. Finding employment - viewed as an internal motivation, one marked by realistic description - is merged with an "external nature" that evades any decisive human control. A debate on internal "motivation" might be interpreted as one of the ways where Dreiser combines realistic description with naturalistic intention in order to overcome the strict difference between literary realism and naturalism.

Such correspondence between realistic descriptions and naturalistic intention may also be within the concrete characterization of Carrie. Dreiser frequently compares Carrie's physical and mental composition, utilizing the forces of literary realism to convey actual descriptions while employing naturalistic ways to provide an underlying message.

"Caroline, or Sister Carrie, as she have been half affectionately termed by the family, was possessed of a mind rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis. Warm with the fancies of youth, pretty with the insipid prettiness of the formative period, possessed of a figure promising eventual shapeliness and an eye alight with certain native intelligence" (Dreiser 2).

This way, Carrie is made a "preface", her character is depicted in two ways: first, through the description of her mental traits, and second, through the description of her physical appearance. Because of the realistic portrayal of Carrie's "looks, " Dreiser hints at who Carrie "is. " At that time positioning both physical and mental characteristics within the bounds of a single phrase, Dreiser makes an extremely naturalistic argument. This claim - that the forces of biology have not contoured just how Carrie looks but also just how she thinks and acts - is the one that strengthens the concept of the frailty of human understanding. This is significant taking into consideration the overall attitude to Sister Carrie can be regarded as a reflection of biological determinism convoyed by a conviction that the span of narrated events has neither order nor direct option of man's intellect (Walcutt 277). By revealing the reader that Carrie's mental qualities are established exclusively on features beyond her control, Dreiser formulates the naturalistic reason that human agency is driven by a larger force than that of the consideration of individual characters as well as novel's final motion. In this manner, the first presentation of Carrie's personality combines realistic description with naturalistic meaning - that of biological stimulus and man's limited discernment - to exceed the bounds of literary genre.

moreover, Dreiser employs similar physical descriptions showing how Carrie's mental and emotional traits are viewed by others in this novel.

"He viewed her pretty face and it vivified his mental resources. She was a sweet little mortal to him - there was not doubt of this. She seemed to involve some power back of her actions. She had not been like the common run of store-girls. She wasn't silly" (53).

By this quote, Dreiser familiarizes his reader with Drouet's perspective, who sees Carrie from the perspective of her beauty. By realistically comparing her appearance with the "common run of store-girls, "(53) Owing to his vast knowledge with women Drouet concludes that Carrie is not only more physically attractive than the average-looking woman of the time, but also gifted with an increase of "agency. " This quote speaks about the realistic description of Carrie's physical qualities to the sphere of the naturalistic by disclosing the biological basis of mental traits. The description of Carrie's physical traits in this passage suggests the tone of naturalism through realistic depiction, demonstrating that Carrie's personality is nothing apart from an increase of her biological composition. By presenting Carrie through the eyes of any knower (Drouet), Dreiser shows that even other individuals morally corrupted society in where the narrative is defined, are blinded by the expression of physical traits. Dreiser therefore mingles realistic descriptions of Carrie with a naturalistic implication showing the limitations of rigorously defining literary realism and naturalism.

Dreiser also conveys the mixture of literary realism with naturalism by directly addressing physical influences on mental and emotional qualities.

"Towards the untraveled, territory apart from their own familiar hearth is invariably fascinating. Next to love, it is the one thing which solaces and delights. Things new are too important to be neglected, and mind, which is a mere reflection of sensory impressions, succumbs to the flood of objects" (217).

This quote is intended directly for the reader. In Dreiser's fiction, there is often an explicit correlation between the narrator and the writer himself. By temporarily assuming the role of the narrator, Dreiser can insert his own private opinions directly into the written text without assuming an overly authoritative tone (qtd in Decker, 6). By addressing the reader directly, Dreiser can express his naturalistic message bluntly by causing the the majority of realistic descriptions, thus bridging the disparity between literary realism and literary naturalism.

A final example that demonstrates the overlap between literary realism and naturalism in Dreiser's Sister Carrie occurs at the novel's conclusion. At this time in the plot's progression, the relationship between realistic description and naturalistic intent has become fairly evident. The blend of literary movements is further improved when Dreiser directly attributes Carrie's success as an actress (predicated on naturalistic "motivation") to the acknowledgment of her very realistically described physical beauty.

"Now because Carrie was pretty, the gentlemen who comprised the advance illustrations of shows going to appear for the Sunday papers selected Carrie's image along with others to illustrate the announcement. Because she was very pretty, they gave it excellent space and drew scrolls around it. At exactly the same time there seemed very little in her part. It contains standing around in all types of scenes, a silent little Quakeress. Carrie was the principle feature of the play. The audience, a lot more it studied her, the more it indicated its delight. Every other feature paled beside the quaint, teasing, delightful atmosphere which Carrie contributed while on stage" (Dreiser 351-3).

With the novel's conclusion, Dreiser shows the reader that Carrie has risen above her former station in life - one in the beginning marked by a feeling of almost overwhelming helplessness. Dreiser also points out, however, that Carrie has achieved her position as a "well-known" actress only through others' recognition of her physical beauty - a trait that was marked as leading to her "heightened" mental and emotional prowess from the novel's very inception. Carrie's part as an actress consists only of standing around and frowning - "acting" which does not lend itself to her potential mental fortitude. In effect, then, Carrie has risen far beyond her initial rank in life by ends outside her control and understanding. By realistically describing the announcement of her part in the papers as well as the actual role itself, Dreiser shows the reader how Carrie has advanced naturalistically - based on her physical attractiveness to members of the contrary sex. In this particular conclusion, then, Dreiser utilizes realistic descriptions in order to mention the naturalistic notion so it is merely Carrie's beauty that contributes to her "inner" being and her ultimate success. With this idea in mind, Dreiser definitively binds realistic description to the naturalistic notion of helplessness and misunderstanding to dispel the boundaries between literary movements.

Although "traditionally" referenced as a work of either strict literary realism or naturalism, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie is a novel that incorporates certain areas of each of these movements to overcome the boundary seemingly inherent between the two. From the pervasive combination of realistic description with the naturalistic dismissal of individual power and understanding, Dreiser, writing at the turn of the 20th century, bridges the expanse between both of these literary movements. Utilizing realistic descriptions of internal motivations and physical descriptions, Dreiser provides reader an "accurate" sense of who Carrie "is" and what her "world" is "like. " Dreiser also conveys a naturalistic message in his novel - one marked by the misunderstanding of an morally oblivious society regarding various underlying behavior-governing forces. By frequently comparing Carrie's appearance to her emotional and mental composition, Dreiser shows the reader that seemingly personal qualities derive from strictly sociobiological foundations. Through the use of realistic descriptions of Carrie's physical attributes to contribute to his naturalistic message, Dreiser bridges the gap between literary realism and naturalism and proves that strict holistic coherence need not be based on readily "compatible" parts.

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