My first foray into Theodore Dreiser territory was successful. This was on Dawn Powell’s list of novels she liked best, so I took it for a spin. Something that’s always enjoyable about opening a time capsule from 1900 is discovering old names for things, like “fire signs” as the term used for electrically lit signs (specifically in Times Square in this instance).
Characters spin in and out of whirlpools, get caught in eddies, then zip back into the story. We meet Sister Carrie in the first sentence, on a train headed to Chicago away from her Wisconsin small town, at the ripe old age of 18. Carrie has an astonishing number of names throughout this tale (Caroline Meeber, officially; stage name Carrie Madenda; pretending to be Charlie Drouet’s wife; then pretending to be Hurstwood’s wife, who goes by Murdock as he’s fleeing to Canada with a stolen $10k from his bosses, and then goes by Wheeler; she’s also affectionately known as Cad). Quickly she realizes that life as a boarder in her sister’s home (paying $4 a week out of her $4.50 wages in a shoe factory) is untenable. She takes up with Drouet, then begins an affair with Hurstwood who kidnaps her on his way out of town after the theft of the money. They end up in New York and she eventually bursts forth as a major Broadway talent once he runs out of money. Hurstwood unravels into a Bowery bum and eventually dies. Carrie enjoys her success, but you’re left wondering if there’s more to life for her.