Theodore Dreiser's 'dual approach' to nature and the city in "Sister Carrie"

Hausarbeit, 2011

12 Seiten

Esther Döringer (Autor)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: defining the 'dual approach'

2. The contrasting characteristics of nature

3. The contrasting characteristics of the city

4. The relationship of nature and the city

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction: defining the "dual approach"

According to Giles, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie set the 'model' for the “dual approach” (24) to the literary description of the city: “From the beginning [with Dreiser's Sister Carrie], the diverse body of American urban fiction has projected a dual response to the city as the embodiment of fascination and promise and as a corrupt, even brutal landscape” (ibid. 35). Giles uses the term 'dual approach' to point out that the authors of most 'city novels' attribute both positive and negative characteristics to the city. While some of them “emphasize one half of this dichotomy over the other” (ibid. 24), Theodore Dreiser's 'approach' to the description of the city in Sister Carrie clearly is of a 'dual' nature, as he describes positive and negative attributes of the metropolis.

Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie is generally shaped by contrasts. For instance, Carrie's successful development from a naïve country girl to a popular actress is contrasted with Hurstwood's social downfall. Similarly, the “tinsel and shine” (Dreiser 351) in the life of the wealthy is contrasted with the unbearable living conditions of the poor working class. One last example of Dreiser's use of contrasts in the novel is the dissimilarity between nature and the city which plays a significant role in Sister Carrie (Schmidt von Bardeleben 22). Therefore, in order to analyze the relationship between nature and the city in Sister Carrie, I apply Giles' 'model' of the 'dual approach' to Dreiser's description of nature. I argue that while Dreiser clearly employs this strategy of a two-sided description in the case of the city, it is not used so obviously in his depiction of nature, which I will show by analyzing the characteristics of both nature and the city in the chapters two and three. I suggest that the reason for this 'deviation' from the 'dual approach' in the case of nature can be found by looking at Dreiser's description of the relationship between nature and the city. In chapter four, I show that Dreiser conspicuously depicts nature in a very positive way in order to contrast it to the negative aspects of the industrial city. This contrast is significant in Sister Carrie as it affects the characters' feelings and actions and thus influences the development of the story. By creating this literary dissimilarity between nature and the city, Dreiser addresses the development from the agrarian towards the industrial society that occurred around the turn of the nineteenth century in the USA. Apart from that, the contrast between the 'good' nature and the 'bad' city also functions as a social criticism of the dominant urban ethic of capitalism at the time, which I will explain further in chapter four.

2. The contrasting characteristics of nature

In literature, a multiplicity of meanings and concepts of nature can be found. On the one hand, nature is seen as inherently 'good', as something sacred, as an ideal order which has been perverted through urbanization and needs to be restored. On the other hand, nature is perceived as uncivilized, dark, untamed wilderness which requires control (Kaika 14). As such a 'chaotic' element in a world developing towards 'civilization' and an industrial economy, in the seventeenth century it became a project of mankind to observe, manipulate, and order nature (Benton-Short & Short 27). Consequently, the city as the embodiment of the achievements ofhuman civilization was perceived as an entity separate from nature (ibid. 5).

As industrialization moved on, the negative consequences of the life in such a 'denaturalized' city became apparent. Reacting to the resultant decline in the quality of living, the urban park movement initiated the process of bringing nature back into the city in the form of communal parks. This was expected to have positive effects both on public health and on the 'moral state' of society in general. Subsequently, urban parks became a major attraction of cities. Drouet, for instance, names Lincoln Park as one of the main sights of Chicago (Dreiser 4).

In Sister Carrie, Dreiser depicts parks as idyllic places where happiness can be found. This generates the overall expression of a very positive description of nature throughout the novel. In contrast to his depiction of the city, Dreiser seems to abandon the method of the 'dual approach' in the case of the city, neglecting its negative characteristics. 'Natural elements' such as trees, grass, singing birds, the sun's shine or the blue sky are exclusively described in a very positive way and attributed to improve the well-being of the city's inhabitants (see Dreiser 13 or 171 for examples). However, Dreiser does follow the method of the 'dual approach' to a certain extent: he mentions some negative attributes of nature, although they only play a marginal role compared to the much more dominant descriptions of the positive characteristics of the 'natural elements' in the city. One example of the 'bad side' of nature in the novel becomes apparent in the scene in which the homeless Hurstwood nearly dies in a snow storm (345ff.). This part of the story reveals the harsh side of nature that needs to be mastered by 'civilization', for example by building stone houses with central heating and separating nature from the home.

3. The contrasting characteristics of the city

In contrast to his description of nature, Dreiser follows the method of the 'dual approach' more closely in the case of the city. The metropolis is depicted as a site of seduction, fascination, and wonder, but also of emotional coldness, mistrust, and unhappiness.

Since the nineteenth century, the positive characteristics and the opportunities of the metropolis, such as the prospect of having a betterjob and earning more money, prompted masses of country people to migrate to the city. According to Olmsted (qtd. in Sutton 58), it was furthermore “a frantic desire to escape from the dull lives which they have seen before them in the country” that drove the crowds towards the fascination and excitement of the 'great city'. In Dreiser's Sister Carrie, the protagonist is likewise drawn to Chicago as if it was a “giant magnet” (Dreiser 10). For Carrie, being rich and indulging in the consumerism of the city equals happiness (20). As a consequence, she is driven away from her rural home by her never-ending desire to acquire money, clothes, and other belongings. The status of the inhabitants of the city as the prototypical place of capitalist consumption is mainly indicated by their possessions. In Dreiser's novel, this way of defining the 'value' of other people is condensed in the New York habit of parading on Broadway, where the city people show how wealthy and prestigious they are (216). Thus, Dreiser describes the city as a place of fascination and desire, wealth, glamour, and opportunities. In other words, it seems as if the city is the place where Carrie's dreams may come true and where she can be happy.

However, how happy you really are in the city greatly depends on how wealthy you are. This reveals that the city also has negative characteristics, which Dreiser likewise mentions in accordance with his 'dual approach' to its literary description. The “tinsel and shine” (351) of the metropolis obscures the fact that most of the 'hopeful immigrants' in fact lead a life of poverty and hard work in the factories. On entering Chicago, Carrie quickly realizes that she needs much money in order to be able to afford all the luxuries and delights that the city offers. Always getting richer than she presently is becomes the one aim Carrie pursues, regardless of the negative consequences for herself and others. In order to leave the poverty of her sister's home and life in Chicago, she abandons any moral concerns. By accepting Drouet's money and moving in with him, Carrie literally prostitutes herself (44ff.). At first still plagued by a guilty conscience, her moral concerns soon vanish as she acquires more and more possessions (82). Similarly, Hurstwood easily persuades her to leave Drouet and to come with him to New York, as to Carrie this offers the prospect of having more money and a higher social status (192).

Nevertheless, Carrie is not the only person in the city acting out of mere self-interest. In contrast, both the rich and the poor inhabitants are all driven by egoism. Even Carrie's own sister Minnie only allows her to live with them if Carrie pays rent (8). This selfishness of the people in the city creates an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and emotional coldness (309): The metropolis is a cold place socially ... She [Carrie] could feel that there was no warm, sympathetic friendship back of the easy merriment with which many approached her. All seemed to be seeking their own amusement, regardless of the possible sad consequences to others.

Even in the moment when Hurstwood tells Carrie he loves her, he is completely egocentric: “I want you to love me. You don't know how much I need some one to -waste a little affection on me. I am practically alone. There is nothing in my life that is pleasant or delightful. It's all work and worry with people who are nothing to me” (90, my emphasis). In Hurstwood's opinion, love and affection are generally a “waste” and simply something to 'acquire' if they add to his pleasure. His wife and his children are “nothing” to him. Likewise, when Carrie becomes a successful actress and has to share her money with the unemployed Hurstwood, she is very reluctant to do so. In Carrie's opinion, it is unjust that her husband asks her to give him money to pay for daily expenses such as food or the rent. Carrie 'needs' all her earnings for herself to buy clothesjewelry, or similar things (271ff).

As a consequence of this selfishness and lack of strong emotional relationships, the city's inhabitants inherently mistrust each other. Even the own neighbor is a stranger who should be met with suspicion (213):


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Theodore Dreiser's 'dual approach' to nature and the city in "Sister Carrie"
Universität Erfurt
Reading Course: City and Literature
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
538 KB
sister carrie, city, literature, american literature, novel, theodore dreiser, city in literature, nature and the city
Arbeit zitieren
Esther Döringer (Autor), 2011, Theodore Dreiser's 'dual approach' to nature and the city in "Sister Carrie", München, GRIN Verlag,


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