Analysis of Theodore Dreiser’s Novels

Literary historians have shown, by identifying sources and characters, that Theodore Dreiser (1871 – 1945), even in his fiction, was a capable investigative reporter. His reliance on research for setting, character, and plot lines is evident in The Financier and The Titan and, most important, in An American Tragedy, but Dreiser was not bound by his investigative method. He went often to his own memories for material. Only when Dreiser combines autobiographical material with his research and reportage does his fiction come alive.

Dreiser’s youth and early manhood prepared him for the themes he developed. His unstable home life; the dichotomy established between a loving, permissive mother and a narrow, bigoted, dogmatic, penurious father; abject poverty; and his own desires for affluence, acceptance, sexual satisfaction, and recognition were all parts of his fictional commonplace book. His sisters’ sexual promiscuity was reflected in Carrie and Jennie, and his own frustrations and desires found voice in, among others, Clyde Griffiths. The character of Frank Cowperwood was shaped in Dreiser’s lengthy research into the life of C. T. Yerkes, but Cowperwood was also the incarnation of everything that Dreiser wanted to be—handsome, powerful, accepted, wealthy, and capable. Dreiser projected his own dreams on characters such as Griffiths and Cowperwood only to show that human dreams are never ultimately fulfilled. No matter for what man (or woman) contested, “his feet are in the trap of circumstances; his eyes are on an illusion.” Dreiser did not condemn the effort; he chronicled the fragile nature of the pursued and the pursuer.

Sister Carrie
The genesis of Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s first novel, was as fantastic as its appearance in Victorian America. In Dreiser’s own account, he started the novel at the insistence of his friend Arthur Henry, and then only to appease him. In order to end Henry’s wheedlings and annoyances, Dreiser sat down and wrote the title of the novel at the top of a page. With no idea of a program for the novel or who the basic characters were to be, Dreiser began the book that did more to change modern American fiction than any since.

The amatory adventures of Dreiser’s sisters in Indiana and his own experiences in Chicago and in New York were the perfect materials for the story of a poor country girl who comes to the city to seek whatever she can find. The one thing she is certain of is that she does not wish to remain poor. With this kind of material, it is surprising that Dreiser escaped writing a maudlin tale of a fallen girl rescued at the end or an Algeresque tale of her rise from rags. Sister Carrie is neither of these. Carrie does rise, but she does so by the means of a male stepladder. She is not a simple gold digger; she is much more complex than that. Her goals are clothes, money, and fame, and the means by which she achieves them are relatively unimportant. More important, however, is that Carrie is a seeker and a lover. She cannot be satisfied. There must always be a new world to conquer, new goals to achieve. In New York, when she has finally acquired all that she has sought, Ames shows her that there is a world beyond the material—a world of literature and philosophy; it is an aesthetic world of which Carrie has not dreamed and that she recognizes as a new peak to conquer and a new level to achieve. There is a hint that this new level is more satisfying than any she has reached, just as Ames seems more interesting and satisfying than either of her previous lovers, Drouet and Hurstwood, but the novel ends with Carrie still contemplating her attack on this new world.

Carrie subordinates everything to her consuming ambition. She comes to understand the usefulness of sex, but she also understands the emotional commitment necessary to love, and she refuses to make that commitment. In the pursuit of the fullest expression and fulfillment of life she can achieve, human attachments are only transitory at best, and Drouet and Hurstwood are only means to an end for Carrie.

Drouet, the traveling salesman Carrie meets on the train to Chicago, becomes her first lover after she has had time to discover the frustration of joblessness and sweatshop employment and the despair of the poverty in which the relatives with whom she is staying live. Drouet ingratiates himself with Carrie by buying her dinner and then by slipping two ten-dollar bills into her hand. Not long thereafter, Drouet outfits a flat for her, and they set up housekeeping together. Drouet is, for Carrie, an escape. She does not love him, but his means are a source of amazement, and she recognizes that the relative opulence of his chambers and of the apartment he procures for her are the signs of that for which she is striving. She recognizes very early that Drouet is static, a dead end, but he is only an intermediary in her movement from poverty to affluence.

Hurstwood is the bartender and manager of a prominent Chicago tavern. As he watches Carrie performin a cheap theatrical, he is smitten by her youth and her vitality. A middle-aged, married man, possessed of a virago of a wife, he is naturally attracted to Carrie. Carrie in turn recognizes the quality of Hurstwood’s clothes, his style, and his bearing as distinct improvements on Drouet and makes it clear she will accept his advances. Hurstwood’s wife uncovers the subsequent affair, a messy divorce threatens Hurstwood’s stability and prestige in his job, fortuity brings him to embezzle ten thousand dollars from the bar safe, and he flees with Carrie first to Montreal and then to New York. After they reach New York, the chronicle becomes the tale of Hurstwood’s steady degeneration and Carrie’s alternatively steady rise to stardom on the stage.

Hurstwood does not carry his status with him from Chicago to New York. In New York, he is merely another man who either cannot hold or cannot find a job. His funds are seriously depleted in the failure of an attempt to open his own saloon, and the more he fails the further he withdraws from life and from Carrie, until he becomes completely dependent on her. When Carrie leaves him because she cannot support both of them and buy the clothes necessary to her profession, he drifts deeper and deeper into New York’s netherworld until he commits suicide by turning on the gas in a Bowery flophouse. Typically, Carrie never knows or cares that Hurstwood is dead. If Drouet is a dead end, Hurstwood is a weak man trapped by circumstance and by his unwillingness or inability to cope with situations he recognizes as potentially disastrous. His liaison with Carrie is based on mutual attraction, but he is also enamored of his daily routine and of the prestige that accompanies it. Only when his wife threatens him with exposure is he forced to make the final commitment to Carrie and, eventually, to the gas jet.

Carrie’s desertion of Hurstwood can be interpreted as cold and cruel, but she stays with him until it is clear that there is nothing anyone can do to save him. To try to save him would only mire her in his downward spiral. The counterpoint of Carrie’s rise and Hurstwood’s fall is the final irony of the novel. Carrie and Hurstwood reach their final disappointments in almost the same basic terms. Hurstwood dies tired of the struggle and Carrie realizes that she has finally arrived and there is nothing more to conquer or achieve. Only the promise of an aesthetic world beyond material affluence offers hope for Carrie, and that hope seems illusory. The ubiquitous rocking chair is the perfect symbol for Sister Carrie. It is an instrument that forever moves but never goes anywhere and never truly achieves anything. Carrie’s every success is ultimately unsatisfying and every new horizon offers only a hollow promise.

Sister Carrie was stillborn in the first edition. Published but suppressed by the publisher, it did not reach the public until seven years later, when it was given to a new publisher. The novel contains the seeds of most of Dreiser’s themes.

Jennie Gerhardt
The protagonist of Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser’s second novel, is Carrie’s natural sister or, perhaps, her alter ego. Jennie is also the product of Dreiser’s early family life, of his sisters’ fatal attraction to men and the natural result. When Dreiser turned to Jennie Gerhardt while still embroiled in the publication problems of Sister Carrie, he drew upon the events in the life of his sister Mame, who was seduced, abandoned, and ended up living successfully with another man in New York City. From this basic material, Dreiser created a girl much like Carrie in origin, who has the same desires for material ease, but who has none of the instincts Carrie possesses or who has the same instincts channeled into a different mode of expression.

Jennie Gerhardt is divided into two parts. In the first part, as the daughter of a poor washerwoman, Jennie is noticed by Senator George Sylvester Brander, another older man attracted by youth and vitality; he is kind, tips her heavily for delivering his laundry, and eventually seduces her. Brander is, however, more than a stereotype. He has a real need for Jennie and a fatherly attachment to her. Jennie, who is more than the “fallen angel” as some have seen her, responds in kind. Surrounded by conventional morality and religious prohibitions, represented by Old Gerhardt and others, Jennie, unlike Carrie, has a desperate need to give in order to fulfill herself. Despite the veneer of indebtedness Jennie brings to her seduction by Brander (he arranges the release of her brother from jail, among other things), there is a surprisingly wholesome atmosphere to the affair. Brander is solicitous and protective, and Jennie is loving and tender. When Jennie becomes pregnant, Brander plans to marry her, put her parents in a more comfortable situation, and, in short, do the right thing. Brander, however, dies, and Jennie gives birth to his illegitimate child; she is condemned by her parents and society, and her previous joy and prospects dissolve before her eyes.

Dreiser’s portrayal of Jennie does not allow the reader to feel sorry for her. Vesta, Jennie’s child, is not the product of sin, but the offspring of an all-suffering, all-giving earth mother. Dreiser’s depiction of Jennie as a child of nature verifies this impression. Despite society and its narrow views, Jennie is not destroyed or even dismayed. She is delighted with her child and thus snatches her joy and fulfillment from a seeming disaster. As long as she can give, be it to child or lover, she is unassailable.

The second seduction occurs when the Gerhardts, except for Old Gerhardt, move to Cleveland at the behest of brother Bass and supposedly at his expense. Bass is expansive and generous for a while, but then begins to demand more and more until Jennie must take a position as a chambermaid at the Bracebridge house, where she meets Lester Kane. Once again, as with Brander, the seduction wears the facade of obligation—this time because Lester Kane helps the family when Old Gerhardt suffers debilitating burns, which deprive him of his glassblowing trade, his sole means of support. Lester has pursued Jennie and his help fosters the ensuing affair. Like the first seduction, however, the second is not the simple matter it seems.

Lester Kane is Dreiser’s portrayal of the enlightened man—the man who has serious doubts about religion, morality, societal restrictions, and mores. He serves the basic needs of Jennie’s character; he also understands his own needs for the devotion, care, and understanding that Jennie is able and willing to give. With his willingness to make a more-or-less permanent commitment to Jennie, he seems to be match, but Lester also understands the restrictions of class that forbid him to marry Jennie and feels the strong pull of family duty, which requires that he play a vital part in shaping the family’s considerable enterprises. Lester, then, is caught with Jennie, as Dreiser puts it, between the “upper and nether millstones of society.”

When Jennie and Lester set up their clandestine apartment in Chicago, they are enormously happy until they are discovered by Lester’s family; the newspapers make front-page news of the discovery, and Jennie reveals to Lester that she has hidden the existence of her daughter, Vesta, from him. Amazingly, Lester weathers all these shocks and even brings Vesta and Old Gerhardt to share the apartment with them, but Lester’s “indiscretions” have allowed his less heroically inclined brother to take control of the family business, and when his father dies, his will decrees that Lester must make a choice. If he marries Jennie, he gets a pittance; if he leaves her, he gets a normal portion. At this point, Letty, an old flame of Lester—of the “right” class surfaces, and Jennie, fully recognizing the mutual sacrifices she and Lester will have to make whether he leaves or stays, encourages him to leave her. Lester eventually marries Letty and claims his inheritance. Jennie sacrifices Lester and in rapid succession sees Old Gerhardt and Vesta die. Deprived of her family, she manufactures one by taking in orphans. The device is not satisfying and the worldly refinement she has assimilated in her life with Lester is not enough to succor her, yet she survives to be called to Lester’s death bed. Lester tells her that he has never forgotten her and that he loves her still, and Jennie reciprocates. The scene brings together a man and a woman who have given away or had taken away everything they loved through no particular fault of their own.

Lester is a weak man, like Hurstwood, but unlike Hurstwood he does not give up; he is beaten until he can no longer resist. Unlike Carrie, Jennie is not brought to the point of emptiness by achievements, but by losses. Her nature has betrayed her, and when one sees her hidden in the church at Lester’s funeral, unrecognized by his family, one senses the totality of her loss. One also senses, however, that she has emerged a spiritual victor. She seems to have grown more expansive and more generous with each loss. Her stature grows until she looms over the novel as the archetypal survivor. She has been bruised, battered, and pushed down, but she has not been destroyed. She cannot be destroyed so long as she can give.

The Financier
In The Financier, the first of the three volumes of the Cowperwood Trilogy of Desire, which also includes The Titan and The Stoic, perhaps more than in any other of his works, Dreiser relied on research for character, setting, plot, and theme. The characters are not drawn from memories of his family or his beloved Chicago, at least not exclusively nor primarily; the themes are most clearly the result of Dreiser’s enormous reading.

“Genus Financierus Americanus,” or the great financial wizards of turn-of-thecentury America, fascinated Dreiser, and in their world of amorality, power, money, and materialism, he saw the mechanism that led America. Frank Cowperwood is a fictional representation of Charles T. Yerkes, a relatively obscure name but one of the movers in American finance. Dreiser encountered Yerkes in Chicago and New York and watched his machinations from a reporter’s and an editor’s vantage. Yerkes was no worse or better than the Rockefellers or Goulds, but by the time Dreiser started the trilogy, Yerkes was dead and his career could be studied in its totality. In addition, Yerkes’s career was extensively documented in newspaper accounts, a fact that facilitated Dreiser’s research, and that career had the advantage of a wife and a mistress and the final breaking up of Yerkes’s empire by his creditors—all of which fit nicely into Dreiser’s plan. The failure by one of the “titans of industry” to leave an indelible mark on humanity or on his immediate surroundings is the key to Dreiser’s “equation inevitable,” a concept first clearly worked out in The Financier.

Dreiser’s readings of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Jacques Loeb, and others confirmed his idea that the strong are meant to fulfill their course, to alter the pattern of life, and to “be a Colossus and bestride the world.” At the same time, other strong individuals or groups (the “masses” were a real but troublesome entity for Dreiser) appear with equal strength but opposite intentions specifically intended by nature to maintain an equilibrium—a sort of cosmic check and balance. For Dreiser, “no thing is fixed, all tendencies are permitted, apparently. Only a balance is maintained.” All people, significant and insignificant, are tools of nature and all are, in some way, a part of the equation. From Cowperwood’s youth, the equation is seen in action. His victory in a boyhood fight confirms his trust in strength and resolution (or the first lick), and the now-famous lobster/squid narrative clarifies his understanding of the operation of nature. If the squid is prey for the lobster and the lobster prey for man, then man must also be prey, but only to man. These early insights are borne out in Cowperwood’s Philadelphia life.

Cowperwood’s early successes and his dealings with Colonel Butler are built on his philosophy of prey, but they are also founded on his realization that form and substance are separate. In order to succeed, one must maintain the semblance of propriety while carrying on normal business, which is ruthless and unfeeling. When he is jailed, he does not consider it a defeat, only a setback. Cowperwood is basically a pragmatist who does what is necessary to please himself. Besides this pragmatic nature, however, Cowperwood has another side that seems anomalous in his quest for power.

The other side of Cowperwood is epitomized by his simultaneous lust for and pride in his women and his art collection. Often styled by his quest for the beautiful, Cowperwood’s desire for women and art, no matter which woman or which masterpiece, is still a facet of his acquisitive nature, but it is a facet that reflects the hidden recesses of his spirit. Inside the ruthless, conniving, buccaneering entrepreneur is a man seeking to outdo even nature by acquiring or controlling the best of her handiwork, but there is also a closely guarded, solidly confined sensibility. This artistic sensibility is confined because it is the antithesis of strength and power and because Cowperwood understands that if he yields to it, he will no longer be in control of his life, his fortune, and his world.

Morality has no relevance in Cowperwood’s understanding of the equation. He and his desires are all that exist. His desires are completely carnal in relationships with women. Even with Aileen, who understands him best, there is only lust, never love, because love is a part of that hidden Cowperwood, which he knows he must suppress. The implication is that if he ever loved, Cowperwood would no longer be the financier, but would become simply human.

Aside from the development of the equation and its workings in Cowperwood’s world, The Financier is a faintly realized novel when set against Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy. Cowperwood’s motto, “I satisfy myself,” is the prevailing motto and his failure to satisfy himself, his wife, his competitors, and anyone or anything, provides the answer to the motto’s arrogance.

An American Tragedy
An American Tragedy is Dreiser’s acknowledged masterpiece; of all his novels, it most successfully blends autobiography with the fruits of his painstaking research. In the work, Dreiser was interested in exposing the flaws in the seamless fabric of the American Dream. He had seen the destructive nature of the untempered drive for success and he understood that such a drive was an unavoidable result of the social temperament of the times. He also understood that the victims of that destructive urge were those who strove, not fully understanding why they struggled nor why they failed. Thus, his criticism is aimed at both those who struggle for an unattainable dream and at the society that urges them on and laughs when they fall. His research led Dreiser to the case of Chester Gillette and the narrative skeleton for An American Tragedy.

The events leading to Gillette’s murder of Grace Brown in 1906 and the circumstances of his early life were amply documented in the sensational, yellow-press coverage of the Gillette trial, and they provide a circumstantial sketch of the events of Clyde Griffiths’s life and times. Gillette and Griffiths also bear the marks of a common background with Dreiser. The poverty-stricken youth, the desire for success and material things, the sexual frustrations, and the attraction to beautiful, well-placed women are all parts of Dreiser’s youth and young manhood. If one adds Dreiser’s later unhappy marriage, his philandering, and his tense relationship with Helen Richardson, one has all the pieces that produced Dreiser’s empathy for and attraction to Chester Gillette and, ultimately, Clyde Griffiths. Thus, in addition to the dramatic possibilities of the Gillette case, Dreiser felt a kinship with his protagonist that allowed him to portray him as a pitiable, arresting, trapped creature.

Clyde Griffiths, in Dreiser’s vision, is trapped by forces over which he has little or no control. The “chemisms” of Clyde’s life trap him: He no more has control over his desires for success, sex, and material goods than he has over the voice that urges him during the accident/murder that kills Roberta. In short, Clyde has no control over the irresistible American Dream. Writing of the Gillette case, Dreiser observes that Chester Gillette, if he had not committed murder, “was really doing the kind of thing that Americans should and would have said was the wise and moral thing to do” by trying to better his social standing through a good marriage. Gillette did, however, commit murder; Clyde Griffiths, on the other hand, intends to commit murder but loses his nerve in the boat with Roberta. When she falls into the water after he accidentally hits her with the camera, she drowns only because of Clyde’s inaction. Faced with the decision to save her or not, Clyde cannot or will not make the decision, and his inaction damns him. The evidence against him is circumstantial at best and objective examination allows doubt as to his guilt. That doubt intensifies Clyde’s entrapment. It is a trap of his own making, but the reader is never sure if he deserves his fate.

In the trial scenes and the events surrounding the trial, Dreiser shows all the external forces that work against Clyde to seal that fate. Political pressures on the defense attorneys and the prosecutors, the prejudice of the rural jury impaneled to try Clyde, the haste with which his wealthy cousins disavow him in order to save their social standing, and Clyde’s own ineptitude as a liar form a second box around him, enclosing the first box of his own desires and failures.

Clyde’s almost inevitable conviction and death sentence place him in the final box—his prison cell. This final enclosure is the ultimate circumstance over which Clyde has no control. There is no exit after the governor is convinced of Clyde’s guilt by Clyde’s mother and his clergyman. When Clyde is finally executed, his inexorable fall is complete.

Clyde’s doom is sealed in his tawdry youth, first as a member of an itinerant evangelist’s family, later in his work at the Green-Davidson, and ultimately in his fatal liaison with his wealthy Lycurgus cousins. He is not clever enough to help himself, is not wealthy enough to pay anyone to help him (especially during Roberta’s pregnancy), and his “chemisms” drive him on in spite of his limitations. When he has his goal of wealth and success in sight, the only obstacle in his path, the pregnant Roberta, must be discarded at any cost without a thought of the consequences. His dreams are the driving force and those dreams are the product of forces over which he has not a shred of control. When he attempts to force his dreams to fruition, he further commits himself into the hands of those forces, and they lead him to his death.

Clyde lacks Carrie’s inherent sense for survival and success, Jennie’s selflessness and resilience, and Cowperwood’s intelligence and wealth, but for all of that, he is a reflection of all of them and of the society in which they function. Clyde commits the crime and is punished, but Dreiser indicts all of society in Clyde’s execution. Clyde’s death sounds the knell for the romance of success and heralds the vacuum that takes its place. Clyde is not strong and falls; Cowperwood is strong and falls anyway. Carrie finds there is no fulfillment in success and feels the emptiness of her discovery; Jennie is beaten down again and again until she finds that she is living in a void that cannot be filled even with her abundant love. Thus, Clyde is not only the natural product of all these characters and of Dreiser’s development but is also the symbol of Dreiser’s worldview: a relentless vision which permanently altered American literature.

Major works
Long fiction: Sister Carrie, 1900; Jennie Gerhardt, 1911; The Financier, 1912, 1927; The Titan, 1914; The “Genius,” 1915; An American Tragedy, 1925; The Bulwark, 1946; The Stoic, 1947.
Short fiction: Free, and Other Stories, 1918; Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories, 1927; Fine Furniture, 1930; The Best Stories of Theodore Dreiser, 1947 (Howard Fast, editor); Best Short Stories, 1956 (James T. Farrell, editor).
Plays: Plays of the Natural and Supernatural, pb. 1916; The Girl in the Coffin, pr. 1917; The Hand of the Potter: A Tragedy in Four Acts, pb. 1919; The Collected Plays of Theodore Dreiser, pb. 2000.
Poetry: Moods: Cadenced and Declaimed, 1926, 1928; Epitaph: A Poem, 1929; The Aspirant, 1929.
Nonfiction: A Traveler at Forty, 1913; A Hoosier Holiday, 1916; Twelve Men, 1919; Hey, Rub-a-Dub-Dub!, 1920; A Book About Myself, 1922 (revised as Newspaper Days, 1931); The Color of a Great City, 1923; Dreiser Looks at Russia, 1928; My City, 1929; Dawn, 1931 (autobiography); Tragic America, 1931; America Is Worth Saving, 1941; Letters of Theodore Dreiser, 1959; Letters to Louise, 1959; Notes on Life, 1974 (Marguerite Tjader and John J. McAleer, editors); American Diaries, 1902-1926, 1982; An Amateur Laborer, 1983; Selected Magazine Articles of Theodore Dreiser, 1985; Dreiser’s Russian Diary, 1996 (Thomas P. Riggio and James L.W.West, editors); Theodore Dreiser’s Ev’ry Month, 1996 (magazine articles; Nancy Warner Barrineau, editor); Art, Music, and Literature, 1897-1902, 2001 (Yoshinobu Hakutani, editor); Theodore Dreiser’s Uncollected Magazine Articles, 1897-1902, 2003 (Hakutani, editor).

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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