The Influence of the City on the Development of the Main Characters in Dreiser’s "Sister Carrie"

Term Paper, 2011

20 Pages


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The City in the 19th Century
2.1. Chicago
2.2. New York

3. The City in American Literature
3.1. In General
3.2. Theodore Dreiser’s City

4. The City in Sister Carrie
4.1. Chicago
4.2. New York

5. The Influence of the City on the Development of the Main Characters
5.1. Carrie Meeber
5.2. Drouet
5.3. Hurstwood

6. Conclusion

7. Literature

1. Introduction

With Sister Carrie Theodore Dreiser made his debut as an author in 1900. The novel tells the story of a young country woman, Carrie, who moves firstly to Chicago and later to New York to forge ahead. Actually, Carrie and Hurstwood, her husband, are the main characters of the novel. But due to its prominence, the city can be seen as an additional character which influences the way of life of everything living in it. The novel’s action takes place in three different cities: Chicago, Montreal and New York. Even though, the cities differentiate in some specifics, they all reflect the concept of city applied in literature. In Sister Carrie the city can be described as a seducer which influences the expectations of the characters (cf. Hussman 1983: 19) and therefore has a say in the biography of all its residents.

To find out if Dreiser’s description of the cities is realistic or not, I will take a closer look at the true general living conditions in the cities at that time. The focus is on Chicago and New York as Montreal only plays a secondary role and is not dealt with in detail. After illustrating the historical backgrounds, the literary concept of the city is examined in general as well as Dreiser’s own view on it. This general information is followed by a detailed presentation of Chicago and New York as they are depicted in the novel. On this basis, the differences and similarities between the fictive and the real cities will be illustrated. The next chapter deals with the influence that the city exerts on the main characters and tries to answer the following questions: Why has Dreiser of all things chosen Chicago and New York as scene for his story? In which way does the city change the personality and the living conditions of the involved persons? One can already state that the city’s charm and attraction are the triggers of change and the desire to be a part of the glamour it radiates is especially high in Carrie and Hurstwood. Drouet has somehow an extraordinary position as he seems to be the only character which does not change during the novel. The reason for this might be that he has already at the beginning of the novel adapted to the city to a degree which makes further change impossible.

2. The City in the 19th Century

Due to the expansion of industry, the American cities grew rapidly between 1880 and 1900. Immigrants from all over the world and a steady stream of people from rural America were responsible for this population growth. The movement towards the city reflected the hope to find a better life and a good job in the city.

The industrialization and the population growth changed the appearance of the cities. They were shaped by noise, pollution, slums and traffic jams so that health problems were unavoidable and became standard. The housing conditions also altered; the first skyscrapers were built and many citizens decided to move to the new arising suburbs outside the city. One effect of this development is the establishment of mass transit (cable cars, subways) as there were consequently a lot of commuters who had to travel in and out the city daily (cf.

Even though, the general tendency in the cities’ development is the same, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the two cities dealt with in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.

2.1. Chicago

Sister Carrie is set in the Chicago of the late 19th century and thus, I will focus on the real social and living conditions in the city at that time.

At the end of the 19th century, Chicago changed constantly and made much progress. Most impressive and remarkable is its rapid population growth: the population more than doubled, growing from 503,165 to 1,099,850 inhabitants in only ten years (from 1880 to 1890) (cf.

Responsible for this increase were on the one hand the immigrants from Europe who came to Chicago with the hope to find a better life (cf. On the other hand, there was a steady stream of young workers who moved from the rural areas to the city. Young people from farms and rural towns in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Michigan, and Indiana also turned to Chicago as an attractive alternative to what they perceived to be a dreary and limited future on the countryside (

The immigrants as well as the Americans from rural areas were attracted by Chicago’s endless appearing work possibilities as the city facilitated, due to its ideal geographical situation, various profitable businesses and thus, offered a variety of working places and opportunities (cf. However, the working conditions, especially in the factories, were quite hard. According to Weiner (s. ibd.), the workers had to endure long working hours under rough conditions and were subject of the arbitrariness of the foreman. The latter set the daily pace, determined the payment and assigned the hours and the tasks of labor. He even had the power to hire and fire whomever he wanted. That is why the workers’ situation was rather unsecure being constantly threatened by the fear of losing their job.

Through labor migration, the composition of the population changed significantly. By 1890 about 40% of the population was foreign born; the majority of the immigrants came from Germany, Ireland, England and Scandinavia but there was also an increasing number of immigrants from Poland, Bohemia, Russia and Italy (cf. This change did also affect the social geography of class and ethnicity. The neighborhoods of the rich and the poor became more distinct, bringing along the isolation of these two social groups from each other (cf. ibd.).

2.1. New York

At the beginning of the 19th century, New York was a rather small city with only 35,000 inhabitants. But due to the immense economic expansion, its population grew rapidly. Already in 1880 New York was a city with over one million inhabitants (cf. yorks-3/) and in 1914 the population even reached the four Million mark (cf. This increase is in particular connected with the large number of European immigrants who came to New York in search of a better life. Their labor force was needed to keep the new machines and inventions going which were established in the course of industrialization. This work was often back-breaking, unhealthy und dangerous. The population growth was also affected by the migration of the American farmers. Many farmers moved to the city because they were not able to buy the new machinery or to pay the railroad rates and thus, could no longer compete. However, it was not that easy to find a job in New York. Consequently, the number of poor people increased and the slums broadened. Besides, the lack of a functioning canalization and the bad sanitary conditions in these parts of the town were responsible for the origin of diverse epidemics (cf.

The 19th century was especially defining for the economical development of New York City. The building of the Erie Canal connected New York with Chicago and Middle America and offered thus an enormous potential for trading activities. Thereby, New York’s rise to the biggest place of transshipment at the East Cost was pre-programmed. Due to men like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller or Astor, who made their money with trade business and gambling on the stock exchange, banking developed to an important economic factor as well.

The economical growth also had a considerable impact on the cityscape. In 1870, the Equitable Building, with its 45 meters a sensation at that time, was built; followed by the Brooklyn Bridge, the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall. Of particular importance was the placement of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in 1886. Down to the present day, it promises liberty to the new arrivals.

3. The City in American Literature

3.1. In general

The physical presence of the city has always exercised a powerful hold on the American imagination; this influence was especially great from the first decades of the 19th century, thus Dreiser’s lifetime, onward (cf. Pickering 1977: 1). In general, a negative representation of the city is given by the American authors; the view on the city and on city life is according to Pickering quite ambivalent and questioning and even takes hostile traits. The writers have looked on the city from diverse perspectives with the aim to find their own way to recreate, explore and understand the phenomenon of the American city. They all focus on different aspects of city life and experience, dealing for example with the influence of the city on its inhabitants’ development. However, there are certain basic themes, moods, situations, types and motifs which can be discovered by all authors. Besides they have a common understanding of how crucial and often definitive the city can influence and shape the life of those living in it (cf. ibd.).

In the following paragraph, I will examine Theodore Dreiser’s view on the city in literature further.

3.1. Theodore Dreiser’s City

Kiyohiko Murayama (2008) states in his article, Dreiser and the Wonder and Mystery and Terror of the City, that Theodore Dreiser was influenced by the city as well as by his own city experiences.

Some parallels between his and Sister Carrie’s biography are recognizable. Dreiser left his rural home at the age of 16 and went to Chicago. He visited New York for the first time in the summer of 1894. After seven years in Chicago, he moved to New York and decided to be a journalist and writer. Dreiser wrote his first novel Sister Carrie in New York and used motifs from his own experiences with the two cities Chicago and New York.

Dreiser’s urban experience included growing up in a poverty- stricken immigrant’s family in local cities in Indiana, struggling to survive as a practically jobless youth in Chicago, witnessing squalor and corruption as a newspaperman in cities such as St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and New York, falling into destitution after the setback in New York journalism, and contemplating suicide as a vagrant and failed novelist suffering from neurasthenia. (Murayama 2008: 104)


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The Influence of the City on the Development of the Main Characters in Dreiser’s "Sister Carrie"
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Tobias Gasteier (Author), 2011, The Influence of the City on the Development of the Main Characters in Dreiser’s "Sister Carrie", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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