In which ways do Dreiser’s "Sister Carrie" and "The White City" at the 1893 Great Columbian Exposition dramatise the tensions of American modernity?

Essay, 2011

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Anonym (Autor)


In what ways, and with what results, do Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie and The White City at the 1893 Great Columbian Exposition dramatise the tensions of American modernity?

Before discussing in what way and with what results Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie(1900) and The White City at the 1893 Great Columbian Exposition dramatise the tensions of American modernity, it is necessary to define the term modernity. As Davies argues‘”Modernity” is a term which is notoriously difficult to define,’[1] however, he suggests a ‘historical understanding of modernity along the lines of the processes … with the division of labour: fragmentation, atomization, objectification, reification and standardization.’[2] Also some ‘critics have highlighted the uses of modernist technology and organization for oppressive and colonial means’ furthermore one ‘must consider modernity as involving processes of differentiation, privileging, and marginalisation.’[3] The tensions of American modernity can be seen as simultaneous but ambivalent developments towards liberation and constraint. While new opportunities occurred (the process of liberation), which have been unimaginable just a few years earlier, these new possibilities also involved new boundaries (constraints).

The White Cityis the name of the main areal of the Columbian’s World Fair which was held in Chicago in 1893 and visited by an estimated amount of 27 million people. This exposition ‘came to be known as the White City in homage to this vision of European culture’.[4] This event will serve as an example to get an impression of how a new consumption-led lifestyle was celebrated and introduced to a mass audience, while the novel of Sister Carrie offers specific criticisms of this new modern America. While both Sister Carrie and The White City are profiting from it and offering a new liberation, at the same time they face certain boundaries that are inevitable for this lifestyle. For example, Dreiser’s novel mentions that his character Carrie will have ‘under the circumstances [of moving to a big city] … no possibility’ (p. 1) to reach ‘an intermediate balance’ (p. 1). This subsequently leads to tensions because moving to Chicago implies, in accordance with Dreiser, that Carrie ‘rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse’ (p. 1).

Whilst referring to consumerism, comparing specific content of Sister Carrie and main impressions about The White City will help illustrating that both show two faces of the same coin. This essay will show that Dreiser criticised consumerism in many ways throughout the whole book while the World Fair in Chicago actually celebrated consumerism as well as modernity and itself. However, the change of perspective is what leads to different results. Looking at the World Fair, seeing all the buildings, all the progresses introduced, and the masses of people, consumerism seems to be something desirable. Zooming in on single persons, like in Sister Carrie, the results become clear: a never ending desire to consume in order to imitate those who, in one’s own view, seem to be better off.

At the beginning of the novel Carrie meets Drouet, a successful travelling salesman. Compared to her ‘small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel … and four dollars in money’ (p. 1), his appearance in a ‘business suit … [wearing] several rings … [and] a neat gold watch chain’ (p. 3) serves as initial impression of different classes and societies.

In Chicago she starts to work in a shoe factory and earns a small wage of $4.50 a week of which she can keep 50 Cents after paying for her board and room. This amount is far too small to buy all the things she wants to possess, it’s not even enough to buy the shoes she is producing in the factory. However, in Dreiser’s novel the lack of money becomes a big issue, because it is the key to consumption and, as Carrie will later experience, money is also the key to anything else. Dreiser pictures a world which actually resembles a huge shop and following ‘… what was it not to have money!’ (p. 45). Everything could be bought, everything could be consumed—’everything, including love and friendship, has a price.’[5]

When Carrie loses her job and is almost about to leave Chicago, she runs into Drouet. He invites her to have a meal with him in a ‘large, comfortable … [restaurant] with an excellent cuisine’ (p. 44) where ‘[s]he felt that she liked him—that she could continue to like him ever so much.’ (p. 46) Even though there is no love involved, the money Drouet possesses let her see the ‘power in itself’ (p. 48). Drouet on the other hand ‘snaps Carrie up as surely as if he had spotted her on sale at a warehouse.’[6] He is basically buying her and she is letting that happen. Only when she gets her first 20 Dollars from him she feels ‘bound to him by a strange tie of affection’ (p. 47). Later in the novel she admits to Hurstwood that ‘love is all a woman has to give … but it is the only thing which God permits us to carry beyond the grave’ (p. 140). Of course, one cannot force anyone to love someone else but Carrie had a choice and must not move in with a man she does not love just because he has money. Here, the ambivalence between liberation and constraint becomes clear for the first time. Although she does not love Drouet, the money intensifies her feelings for him. Like is obtaining a stronger meaning and, with the help of money, turns into affection. Whereas feelings cannot be controlled by money in reality, Dreiser’s fiction pictures a world in which feelings have prices. Money does not dictate any feelings to the characters, however, the need and wish for wealth let feelings and money collide. Eventually Carrie takes her initial steps of freeing herself from the workforce at the same time when money becomes her new constraint.

Thanks to the steady flow of money Carrie is provided with, after moving in with Drouet, she starts to buy all the things she could not afford before. When Carrie ‘passed along the busy aisles, much affected by the remarkable displays of trinkets, dress goods, stationery, and jewellery [, she saw that each] … separate counter was a show place of dazzling interest and attraction’ (p. 17). Dreiser criticises this behaviour because her desire for more things was limitless:[7] ‘There was nothing there which she could not have used—nothing which she did not long to own’ (p. 17).

In contrast, consumption was actually celebrated on the World’s Columbian Exposition. In the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building two aspects of American life where brought together deliberately: ‘the arts gave cultural cache to the consumption of goods … while the presence of manufacturing lent credence to the idea that art, increasingly like the rest of American life, could be consumed.’[8] However, one of the reasons for promoting consumerism and hence liberating both minds and markets could lie in the then four-year long lasting depression. ‘Business leaders who where a large part of the Exposition Directory [saw] … [t]he importance of promoting a consumer society, and [wanted in this way encourage the] … American confidence in business and its products’.[9]

From a macro-economic perspective this makes perfect sense. By increasing domestic consumption the economy is getting stimulated, new jobs are being created and the level of wealth is rising. At the same time the Directory of the Columbus World’s Fair used their event as an attempt ‘to remove the element of fear associated with electricity … and technology [and tried to replace] … it with fascination and amusement; it showed Americans that their transition from an agricultural to a technological society was not frightening, but was in fact progress’.[10] The basic message, they sent out to 27 million visitors as well as to all those other people that read and heard about it, was that consumption is a good thing.

This message was genially conveyed in The White Cities architecture and magnificence: ‘Over and over again, journals, letters, reminiscences all celebrated the beauty and serenity of the World's Columbian Exposition.’[11] This beauty, however, was at least virtually not based on the American spirit, as for example the skyscrapers, which were build in Chicago just eight years earlier[12] and which could have represented America’s capability for innovations. It seems that the appearance of the buildings was rather based on European architecture, because buildings in The White City contained various kinds of different European influences. Although they looked alike, they were not just copies of specific European buildings. There was not one persistent style or theme at The White City which reflected just one European country or epoch but a broad mixture and many imitations which made it a prototype Las Vegas in terms of rebuilding landmarks and sights.


[1] Davies, J., Introduction: Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, and Modern Urban Subjectivities, City Sites, Nov 15th 2010,

[2] Davies, J., City Sites

[3] Davies, J., City Sites

[4] Rose, J.K., Reactions to the Fair, The World’s Columbian Exposition, Nov 15th 2010,

[5] Lehan, R.,Sister Carrie: The City, the Self, and the Modes of Narrative Discourse. In: Pizer, D. (editor), New Essays on Sister Carrie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 70.

[6] Beer, J., The Clothed, the Unclothed, and the Woman Undone. In: Kilcup, K.L. (editor), Soft Canons. American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999), p. 169.

[7] Bowlby, R., Just Looking. Consumer culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 55.

[8] Rose, J.K., The World’s Columbian Exposition

[9] Rose, J.K., The World’s Columbian Exposition

[10] Rose, J.K., The World’s Columbian Exposition

[11] Rose, J.K., The World’s Columbian Exposition

[12] PBS Online, Wonders of the World—Skyscraper, Building Big, Nov 15th 2010,

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In which ways do Dreiser’s "Sister Carrie" and "The White City" at the 1893 Great Columbian Exposition dramatise the tensions of American modernity?
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Anonym (Autor), 2011, In which ways do Dreiser’s "Sister Carrie" and "The White City" at the 1893 Great Columbian Exposition dramatise the tensions of American modernity?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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