In what respect can Theodore Dreiser's character Caroline Meeber be called a typical picaresque heroine?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

22 Pages, Grade: 2,3 (B)


Table of Contents


Category No. 1:
Narrative Perspective

Category No. 2:

Category No. 3:
Episodic Structure

Category No. 4:
Masters of a picaresque hero

Category No. 5:
Picaresque hero as an outsider

Category No. 6:
Satire of the world

Category No. 7:
Moral comment




Theodore Dreiser’s novel “Sister Carrie” is certainly an impressive piece of literature. It deals with the rise of a young Wisconsin girl, Caroline Meeber, that moves to Chicago at the end of the 19th century. The most important thing in her life is wealth and social status. She tries to get more and more of it by using powerful men to achieve her goal. In the end she has to realize that her search for success and popularity as an actress was just a deception and that social relations are not just there to be used to climb the ladder of success.

My goal in this paper is to look at the character of Caroline Meeber closely to examine the way she is depicted by the author Dreiser and find out in what way she can be called a typical picaresque heroine according to literary theory. I will stick to the main categories of a picaresque hero given by several sources, among them Harry Sieber with his essay about “The Picaresque” from 1977[1] and Chris Baldick’s “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms”.[2]

This scrutiny of these several categories and comparison to spots in Dreiser’s text will show the similarities and differences in Caroline Meeber compared to other picaresque heroes and heroines in literature and also show in how far Dreiser’s depiction and underlying literary concept was designed to make the young Wisconsin-born actress a model of a picaresque heroine.

It will, however, not lead to a definite solution of the question “Is Caroline Meeber a picaresque hero?” The terms picaresque hero, picaro, or picara are controversial in literary theory. A narrow definition of a picaresque hero can not be given. Questions like these are always open to various differing interpretations and opinions. It is similarities, moreover, that can show a protagonist’s proximity to a certain genre in literature. In this case it is the picaresque novel as a sub-genre that is the pattern, I will use to make clear in what way Dreiser’s conception of Caroline Meeber fits into the picture of a picara or in what way his protagonist does not fit into the concept of a picaresque heroine as it has been developing since the first novel of that kind was written.

Category No. 1:

Narrative Perspective

Most definitions of a picaresque novel say that the hero recounts his adventures in a first-person narrative. A good example of that is Mark Twain’s novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in which the main character Huckleberry Finn addresses the reader directly and tells him everything about what is happening in certain situations. He furthermore tells the readers about his thoughts and feelings, allowing a deep insight into his psyche. Other examples of that are “The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes” or “Moll Flanders” by Daniel Defoe.

These narrators are not reliable due to their involvement in the process of the story and their temporal proximity to what is happening. Even if they tell it from a perspective that is actually years after the happenings, the emotions are still there and the reliability of the narrator is doubtful.

This is different in Theodore Dreiser’s novel “Sister Carrie”. What we have got here is a third-person narrative. The character of Caroline Meeber does not directly speak to the readers. This is made clear right at the beginning of the novel:

“When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money. It was in August 1889.[...]”[3]

The third-person narrator goes right in the middle of the action, starting with the description of the belongings Caroline Meeber takes with her to her new home in Chicago, where she will be staying with her sister Minnie who has lived there for quite a while. Furthermore, the narrator tells the readers about the time when this happened, namely 1889.

The unusual narrative perspective for a picaresque novel takes away the proximity of the reader to the main character. Since we are not told what is happening by the person who experiences it herself, we keep quite a distance to her.

This distance is unusual for a picaresque novel and deprives the readers of the possibility to look into the brain of the protagonist. If there was no other means of the exploration of what Caroline thinks, the novel would not be picaresque in this respect. Dreiser, however, employs another means to let the reader know the state of mind of his protagonist.

By letting Caroline look into the mirror every once in a while, reflecting her appeal to other people and thinking about the power clothes and good movements and sociable behavior give her. She practices all this in front of the mirror to become a person who is popular in high society and gains power over other people. Bettina Friedl calls the looks into the mirror a doubled self-reflection[4]. The standing in front of the mirror conveys the reader a notion of what is going on in Caroline herself, without her reporting on it in a first-person narrative. The inner and the outer world are portrayed without any narrator interfering. The scene and the behavior speak for itself. In the case of the mirror it tells us something about Caroline’s struggle for freedom in Chicago.

The restrictions she felt in her hometown of Columbia City, a fictitious town in Wisconsin are gone. She has the task to find new ways of getting along and becoming wealthy and famous, which are her main goals.

She uses the mirror for “social work-out”, that means she practices certain movements and looks she will need to climb the social ladder.

The mirror as a helper in society and as a means, used by the author to show Caroline’s state of mind is a good example of the narration technique used in the novel. Dreiser does not want to use a first-person narrator, as would have been usual in realistic writing. Deterministic and naturalistic forces rule human lives in Dreiser’s opinion. A first-person narration would therefore not be realistic, due to the fact that the protagonist would act as a subject and not an object toyed around with by nature and pre-destination. But leaving out the third-person narration every now and then and just letting the text speak for itself and employing symbols and habits to show what is going on, makes any narrator unnecessary in certain situations.

Even though “Sister Carrie” is not told by the protagonist, as should be in picaresque fiction, Dreiser limits the third-person narration and gives the novel back a certain picaresque quality. In that case it is not the words the main character uses, but the acts and these are quite as clear as words might have been.

Category No. 2:


The origins of a picaresque hero are usually unclear. In most cases he has been brought up only by the mother. The father was not more than a physical father and left the mother before the child was born. His parents are usually dishonest and poor and the living circumstances in a lower-class milieu.

In the case of Sister Carrie, it is different at first sight, but on second thoughts not too different and therefore in the parameters of a picaresque heroine. She knows her parents and grew up with them. Her father worked in a flour mill and the mother was very caring. Caroline is on her way to her sister Minnie in Chicago who has got a husband there and is part of the working middle-class and Caroline even cries when she has to leave them. Their relationship seems to be pretty good. So far, there is a huge difference between her and Lazarillo de Tormes for example, who grew up without a father and was born on a river to make clear from the start that his life would be a stream of adventures.

The relationship between parents and picaro is usually not very good and the hero finally realizes that leaving home is necessary, because the only person he can really rely on, is himself. We see that very precisely at Huckleberry Finn, whose father is a careless, unaffectionate person and does not care about Huck at all.

Looking at the portrayal of Caroline’s parents a bit closer makes the readers realize that the differences are not too big, however. First of all the readers are not told much about her parents. We do not learn anything about their names and only know that her father works in a flour mill. Secondly, her sadness about leaving is already over the second the train leaves her hometown.

“A gush of tears at her mother’s farewell kiss, a touch in her throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home where irretrievably broken.”[5]


[1] Sieber Harry: The Picaresque. Methuen & Co. London 1977.

[2] Baldick, Chris: The Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford. 1990.

[3] Dreiser, Theodore: Sister Carrie. Norton Critical Edition. New York. 1991. 2nd edition. Page 1.

[4] Friedl, Bettina: Die Inszenierung im Spiegel: Aspekte pikarischen Erzählens bei Theodore Dreiser und Edith Wharton. Vortrag an der Universität München. 1987.

[5] Dreiser, Theodore: Sister Carrie. Norton Critical Edition. New York. 1991. 2nd edition. Page 1.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


In what respect can Theodore Dreiser's character Caroline Meeber be called a typical picaresque heroine?
University of Stuttgart  (Institute for American Studies)
American Studies Advanced Seminar: American Picaresque Fiction
2,3 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Theodore, Dreiser, Caroline, Meeber, American, Studies, Advanced, Seminar, American, Picaresque, Fiction
Quote paper
Tobias Bumm (Author), 2002, In what respect can Theodore Dreiser's character Caroline Meeber be called a typical picaresque heroine?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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