Representation of the City in Theodore Dreiser’s "Sister Carrie"

Term Paper, 2014

10 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Imaginary City

3. The City as a Place of Consumption

4. Representation of Chicago

5. Representation of New York

6. Conclusion

List of References

1. Introduction

Due to urbanization, the industrial revolution in the 19th century and the fast rising of the population in the American cities which also was a result of the Civil War, American cities such as New York and Chicago became not only symbols of hope and a new beginning for African-American people but also an allegory for possibilities in the pursuit of happiness which was often identified with material wealth and status. Therefore, if rural people wanted to live the American Dream, the city was definitely an encouraging place to go.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser which is considered one of the most important city novels in American literature deals with the young country girl Carrie Meeber, who moves to the big city where she starts realizing her own American Dream. Dreiser’s sister Emma provided the content for the plot of the novel by having experienced a rather identical fate the protagonist Carrie Meeber does (Lehan 1). This fact might also have played a significant role the process of titling the book.

Theodore Dreiser is renowned as a naturalist writer since he wrote at the early stages of the naturalist era. However, Sister Carrie focuses more on the basic instincts of humans and exposes the problems of ordinary people, particularly the problems of the working classes and the poor which attributes the genre of realism.

Among themes like rejection of one’s family and struggling against poverty, the city as the direct location of action is another very crucial and interesting topic in Dreiser’s novel which is worth taking a closer look at. As realism in American literature seeks to faithfully represent the reality, the literature of that time represents the reality in the American cities of the 19th century and the effects city life has on the American people.

In this paper I intend to elaborate on the question of how the city is depicted in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie including the characteristics Dreiser allocates to the city of Chicago and New York and the way of how the city influences Carrie’s personality. All propositions provided will be based on my own perceptions and interpretations of different quotations from the text. A brief conclusion will sum up the results of this paper.

2. The Imaginary City

Sister Carrie features two different urban settings. At the beginning of the plot the reader is introduced to the city of Chicago in year 1889 and 1890. Later on, the storyline proceeds in New York from 1890 to 1897. Both locations had been the largest cities of the United States at that particular time. When speaking of city in American literature, Sister Carrie is important to deal with because Theodore Dreiser depicts real American cities. Through the consciousness and the eyes of Carrie Meeber the reader sees the real city as she imagines it to be. In the novel Carrie always draws her own picture of Chicago, the imaginary city, which is only an illusion of the real Chicago of the 19th century. Dreiser’s novel features the characteristics of early urban American literature, where a person from the countryside comes to a city. The social and economic conditions within the city start to change the protagonist, who then faces unfulfilled dreams and expectations at the end of the plot.

In Year 1889 Carrie comes to Chicago to seek her fortune in the big city. She already seems very euphoric and anxious about her new life. Furthermore, Drouet, a wealthy man whom she meets on the train on the way to Chicago raises her expectations and forms a specific image of the city by describing what she can expect to find in Chicago, illustrating the city as a place of amusement:

He talked of sales of clothing, his travels, Chicago, and the amusements of that city.

'If you are going there, you will enjoy it immensely. Have you relatives?'

'I am going to visit my sister,' she explained.

'You want to see Lincoln Park,' he said, 'and Michigan Boulevard. They are putting up great buildings there. It's a second New York – great. So much to see – theaters, crowds, fine houses – oh, you'll like that.' (Dreiser 5)

Carrie hence comes to the city with the naive hope of finding better life than she probably ever could have found outside the city. Therefore, she leaves her home and family behind in search of fulfillment and happiness in an imaginary city.

[…] the lights, the crowd, the amusement! This was a great, pleasing metropolis after all. […] Thoughts of Drouet returned – of the things he had told her. She now felt that life was better, that it was livelier, sprightlier. […] She would live in Chicago, her mind kept saying to itself. She would have a better time than she had ever had before – she would be happy. (27)

However, the real and the imaginary meet when she soon realizes that she is going to live in a small apartment together with her sister having a low-paid job. The clash between the imaginary and the real city drives Carrie to do everything possible in order to bring her expectations of the imaginary city to reality which causes Carrie’s materialistic behavior later on in the text:

Carrie […] had the blood of youth and some imagination. […] She could think of things she would like to do, of clothes she would like to wear, and of places she would like to visit. These were the things upon which her mind ran. […] The life of the streets continued for a long time to interest Carrie. She never wearied of wondering where the people in the cars were going or what their enjoyments were. Her imagination trod a very narrow round, always winding up at points which concerned money, looks, clothes, or enjoyment. (50 f)

3. The City as a Place of Consumption

Throughout the whole plot, the reader witnesses the change of Carrie’s identity from an innocent and naïve girl from the countryside to a powerful and greedy woman. Carrie soon becomes aware of her desire for luxury and money. Flâneuring the streets she desperately yearns for being like those women she sees in the streets and department stores of Chicago which starts to shape her capitalistic attitude. Therefore, to become equal to the leisure class ladies Carrie observes in the streets, she definitely needs to look like they do, meaning to wear the right clothes. She moreover has to imitate their lifestyle and be at places which live up to this specific status.

Not only did Carrie feel the drag of desire for all which was new and pleasing in apparel for women, but she noticed too, […] the fine ladies who elbowed and ignored her, brushing past in utter disregard of her presence, themselves eagerly enlisted in the materials which the store contained. Carrie was not familiar with the appearance of her more fortunate sisters of the city. Neither had she before known the nature and appearance of the shopgirls with whom she now compared poorly. They were pretty […] with an air of independence and indifference which added, in the case of the more favored, a certain piquancy. Their clothes were neat, in many instances fine, and wherever she encountered the eye of one it was only to recognize in it a keen analysis of her own position – her individual shortcomings of dress and that shadow of manner which she thought must hang about her and make clear to all who and what she was. A flame of envy lighted in her heart. She realized in a dim way how much the city held – wealth, fashion, ease – every adornment for women, and she longed for dress and beauty with a whole heart. (22)

Such desires can only be satisfied by certain amounts of money which Carrie does not have yet but is soon about to get. Later, she hence starts to buy fancy clothes and other material things in order to be somebody and to develop a specific identity she craved for since she had arrived in Chicago. Carrie knows that she only can achieve something in the city by looking like somebody successful who has already made it. A certain appearance would open her doors which otherwise would have remained closed. On Carrie’s journey of self-expression and self-fulfillment she not only begins to consume goods but also learns to play the game of consuming people ruthlessly. Consequently, one can argue that the city thus can be defined as a place of consumption, be it through the purchase of objects or just simply the consuming of people visually, whereby on the one hand, people like Carrie enjoy observing people, but likewise, those people virtually intend being observed while showing off their social status.

In this regard, the streets of Chicago in Sister Carrie function as a medium of display of material things and status. Since such a parade of classes is happening inside the city itself, one can state that the city is thus represented as an entity which can create or change people’s attitudes and additionally encourages the development of materialistic and capitalist identities. The city thus becomes a place of commerce and consumption.

Such a phenomenon is also referred to as Social Darwinism, a theory which applies biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology. To put it simply, Social Darwinism basically represents the idea that some individuals can make it and others cannot. The city thus becomes a concrete jungle and an arena of social Darwinism where people act like social animals rather based on their instincts than on moral principles. As no moral judgment is ever given by the writer or by any other character about Carries behavior during the plot at all, one could moreover identify the city as an environment which lacks morality.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Representation of the City in Theodore Dreiser’s "Sister Carrie"
University of Erfurt
The City in American Literature (Reading Course)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
503 KB
Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser, City, American Literature, City Representation, Literature Studies, Literaturwissenschaften, Interpretation, New York, Chicago
Quote paper
Alexander Zerfas (Author), 2014, Representation of the City in Theodore Dreiser’s "Sister Carrie", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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