The Representation of Veblen‘s Concepts from the "Theory of the Leisure Class" in Dreisers "Sister Carrie"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

30 Pages, Grade: 1,2



1 Introduction

2 Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class
2.1 The Leisure Class

3 Conspicious Leisure and Conspicious Consumption

4 Secondary Leisure Class

5 Main Analysis
5.1 Carrie Meeber
5.1.1 Carrie’s Obsession for Clothes
5.1.2 Carrie’s Attitude Towards Work
5.1.3 Theater and Theatricality

6 Charles Drouet

7 G. W. Hurstwood

8 Bob Ames

9 Summary

10 Works Cited
10.1 Primary Sources
10.2 Secondary Sources

1 Introduction

With his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), which is nowadays considered one of his most popular works, Veblen made himself a social outsider because his criticism of society was harsh and provoking (Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class - An Economic Study of Institutions (first published 1899). New York: New American Library, 1953, viii). Although he accepted utilitarianism and praised the industrial efficiency of the engineering professions, he rejected what Mills calls the American value of the "heraldry of the greenback" and the "pecuniary fanatism of the business chieftain" (Veblen xi). Still his work was widely read (Eby, Clare Virginia. Dreiser and Veblen - Saboteurs of the Status Quo. Columbia/Missouri: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1998, 7-8) and many of the problems which he saw in contemporary American society are even nowadays still quite relevant. Dreiser's first successful novel Sister Carrie was written in 1900, only one year after Veblen's main work had been published. This fact, as well as the widespread interest in Veblen's theories throughout America may have influenced Dreiser at least indirectly. Eby states that the ideas of Veblen "pervaded the intellectual discussion" in early 20th century America and that Dreiser himself used Veblenian terms such as "invidious comparison" often enough (Eby 6). More important though, is whether there is some textual evidence to prove their agreements and disagreements concerning their critique of society.

In contrast to Veblen, Dreiser did not have a solid educational background and was in fact "almost a generation behind the sweep of American intellectual life" (Noble, David W. "Dreiser and Veblen and the Literature of Cultural Change"; in: Studies in American Culture. Ed. Joseph J. Kwiat and Mary C. Turpie, Minnesota: Univ. Press, 1960; 147), so many of his explanations of human hehaviour were made in terms of "chemisms" (Noble 149). Dreiser still believed in Spencer's theories of social-Darwinism and that man was not much more than a „machine“ and mainly controlled by physical laws, while Veblen had moved beyond such notions (Noble 149). On a deeper level though, Noble considers the supposedly post-Spencerian Veblen to have unconsciously clinged to Spencer's belief in optimistic progressivism, while Dreiser had in fact transcended such notions and raised some doubts about the belief in inevitable and controlled progress in his works (Noble 148). Noble states that the "America described by Dreiser in Sister Carrie is an entirely different world from that of Thorstein Veblen." (Noble 150). In contrast to this position, Eby states that many of the behaviours and motivations of the protagonists in Sister Carrie (and in An American Tragedy) are in accordance to Veblen’s concepts. She even calls Hurstwood’s fall the „Tragedy of Noninvidiousness“ (Eby 128). In how far the characters in Dreiser's Sister Carrie actually behave accordingly to Veblen's concepts or not, is the topic of this work. Firstly, I will make a summary of some important concepts of Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class which are relevant for my textual analysis of Sister Carrie. Then, I will apply these concepts to the main characters Carrie, Drouet, Hurstwood and Ames and analyze whether these concepts are represented in their behaviour, their ideals and thoughts or not. Lastly, I will summarize the findings and come to a conclusion, in how far Veblen's and Dreiser's view of America are congruent.

2 Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class

2.1 The Leisure Class

As C. Wright Mills states in his foreword to the Mentor Edition of The Theory of the Leisure Class (Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class - An Economic Study of Institutions (first published 1899). New York: New American Library, 1953, xii), Veblen considered the America in which he lived to be „split into two“ (Veblen xii). He distiguished between a wealthy upper-class and non-wealthy middle and lower classes, which he labelled "leisure class" and "working class", respectively (Veblen xii). If one looks up the term „leisure“ in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, it states: „time free from work or other responsibility“ ("Leisure", Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Ed. J. Crowther, Fifth Edition, Oxford: Univ. Press, 1995/98.), which also suggests a certain freedom from care and responsibility. The leisure class is, according to Veblen, a class which is so wealthy that it does not need to trouble itself with worries of self-subsistence and indulges exclusively in "wasteful" and "useless" activities, namely "conspicious leisure" and "conspicious consumption" (Veblen 41 ff., 60 ff.). He even went so far as to suggest that these activities are done mainly for the sake of prestige and only secondarily for gratification of desires or the need for self-preservation. Veblen regards many of these activities not only useless but also often of significant "discomfort" (Veblen xii).

Veblen considered the leisure class to have emerged from early predatory barbaric culture. He saw a close connection between the beginning of the institution of private ownership and the leisure class. As the need arose to distinguish oneself throught he process of individuation from others, the members of early societies tried to accomplish this by capturing women from hostile tribes and held them as a trophy, which constantly displayed the individual’s prowess. In Veblen’s eyes, nothing had changed much since then, and he saw the „predatory elements“ predominating in his own „quasi-peacable“ society, in a more refined and subtle form, though (Veblen xii, 21-24).

His critique was mainly directed against the noveau riche (Veblen xv), who displayed their wealth in an open and often provocative manner and only secondarily against the older genteel class. What distiguishes the leisure class from the lower classes is not merely their conspicious consumption and conspicious leisure but their complete and "conspicious abstention" from any form of productive work, which was considered inappropriate and degrading by this social elite (Veblen 43). Veblen furthermore distinguished between "business" and "industry": While he regarded the engineering profession as productive industry, he disapproved of businessmen (e. g. salesmen) in general, who he considered to be exploitative (Eby 126). So he disapproved of professions where the interest in "money-making" was very apparent while he considered more industrious professions to be beneficial to society. But as Mills states, Veblen's critique of the leisure class is probably too negative, because this class was not completely useless but has some social functions: The "snobbery" of upper class people also had a unifying function. It kept them apart from the lower classes and enabled them to remain a homogenous group in which every member could find an "appropriate" partner to marry (Veblen xvi). By holding the social hierarchy intact, it prevented society to fall into anarchy and chaos.

3 Conspicious Leisure and Conspicious Consumption

At the turn of the twentieth century, the change from agricultural to urban society due to industrialization caused profound and deep changes in American society not only in a social but also in a psychological and "spiritual" context (Noble, David W. "Dreiser and Veblen and the Literature of Cultural Change"; in: Studies in American Culture. Ed.

Joseph J. Kwiat and Mary C. Turpie, Minnesota: Univ. Press, 1960; 140-141). The anonymity of modern cities made it necessary for citizens to conspiciously display and advertize their wealth and possessions in order to make their status known by others immediately in form of "visible success" and to gain in prestige and repute (Juras, Uwe.

Pleasing to the „I“ - The Culture Of Personality and Its Representations in Theodore Dreiser and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2006 (Dissertation: Mainz, 2003, 66). As Juras points out, this necessity made people more and more other-directed and self-conscious (Juras 2-3). The terms "other-directed" and "inner-directed" are from David Riesman. In his work The Lonely Crowd (1950) (Riesman, David; Reuel Denney. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (first published in 1950). Abr. Ed. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1953), he considered the American society to have moved from inner-directedness to other-directedness in the course of history. Inner-directedness means that one's self-definition is in "accord with a private moral code characterized by the internalization of elder's authority" (Juras 3; Riesman 28-32) while other-directedness means that individuals are "consistently seeking approval and acceptance from others" (Juras 3; Riesman 28-32). Veblen, who did not use this terms yet, described this phenomenon in terms of „invidious comparison“, which he describes as a "process of valuation of persons in respect of worth." (Veblen 40). But Veblen weakens his argument by saying that the word "invidous" was only meant in a strictly "technical sense" (Veblen 40), but the irony and sarcasm which runs through his whole book is quite apparent and makes it often difficult to distinguish between ironic and serious statements. In extreme cases, constant comparison with others can become pathological (Juras 193) and result in various personality disorders such as narcissistic and borderline personality disorder.

One major distinction that Veblen makes, is the one between supposedly useful, productive work and ostentatious, „useless“ activities. He considers the "inferior" lower working class people to perfom productive, but menial and degrading work and that they are mainly concerned with self-subsistence and gratification of basic desires such as

food, sex and shelter (Veblen 22). On the other hand, the leisure class is supposed to be only concerned with displaying their status and gaining prestige and therefore indulging in wasteful, unproductive activities such as going to the theater, doing sports and other entertainments and buying luxurious commodities like decoration, luxurious clothes and jewellry (Veblen 64). What is interesting in this context, is that Veblen considers the leisure class to be more concerned with their status presentation than with gratification of their desires. It illustrates this classes' obsessive other-directedness and Veblen points out that such people wear uncomfortable, constricting clothes, consuming expensive and exquisit food, which may not even taste very good and indulge in activities they may find quite boring and dull - all this for the sake of status. Veblen considered the leisure class to be forced to display their status through this "expensive discomfort" and "noble vice" (Veblen xiii). This made them often unable to do something productive and rather "parasitic" (Veblen xvii) to society.

4 Secondary Leisure Class

For the leisure class neither simple seizure nor industry were considered acceptable means to accumulate wealth. While seizure was too impractical because it causes too many conflicts with the victims, industry was considered too humiliating and inappropriate for such „high minded and impecunious men“ (Veblen 45). Veblen states that this class would rather accept beggary and privation rather than earn money by honest work. In essence, this means that if members of the leisure class lost their wealth they would rather starve than work. Their identity of belonging to the social elite was not to be sacrificed and even more important than self-preservation; they were considered by Veblen often unable to survive because of their excessive pride (Veblen 45). Two examples are given by Veblen to illustrate this phenomenon. The first is that of „certain Polynesian chiefs, who, under the stress of good form, preferred to starve rather than carry their food to their mouths with their own hands.“ (Veblen 45). The second even more grotesque example is that of a „certain king of France“ who lost his life because he refused to shift his seat away from a fire and „suffered his royal person to be toasted beyond recovery“ (Veblen 45-46). Veblen explains that this was due to the king’s „excess of moral stamina in the observance of good from.“ (Veblen 45). Critics suggest that these examples illustrate Veblen’s sarcasm and that they were exaggerated in order to ridicule the leisure class‘ behaviour and ideals. It furthermore shows Veblen’s dislike of the aristocracy, who he considered „predatory“ and „exploitative“ (Veblen 159 f.). Haselberg assumes that the examples may have only been made up because Veblen did not give any information about the sources of his examples (Haselberg, Peter von. Funktionalismus und Irrationalität - Studien über Thorstein Veblens „Theory of the Leisure Class“. Frankfurt am Main: Dissertation, 1960, 30-31). Veblen also regarded middle class people who strived to belong to the leisure class to be a sort of „secondary leisure class“. While the lower classes can only afford to maintain self-preservation, the middle class is torn between its desire emulate the classes above them and its need for self-subsistence. He states that because of the superficiality by which one is judged, middle class persons have the chance of being judged as belonging to the leisure class by others if they indulge in more conspicious consumption and waste than they can actually afford (Veblen 86-87). This means that they do everything to appear rich while they are actually starving at home where no one can see their misery. As Juras states, these ambitions of people to rise in society by imitating the lifestyle of the classes above them lead to re-definitions of one’s self and made the sense of a stable self almost impossible, which lead to several psychological disorders (Juras 68). Veblen considered a person’s home to be the only place where one is free from the burden of invidious comparison and conspicious consumption (Veblen, 86). Therefore, the desire to shield one’s private home from the public view is very strong. This is Veblen’s explanation for the anonymity of modern cities.


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The Representation of Veblen‘s Concepts from the "Theory of the Leisure Class" in Dreisers "Sister Carrie"
University of Göttingen
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Veblen, Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser, Leisure Class, Konsumgesellschaft, Conspicious Consumption, Naturalism, Realism, Social Realism, Literary Naturalism
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M. A. Oliver Steinert-Lieschied (Author), 2006, The Representation of Veblen‘s Concepts from the "Theory of the Leisure Class" in Dreisers "Sister Carrie", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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