Without contrast there is no life.
--Theodore Dreiser, A Hoosier Holiday
The relations between commodities and characters depicted in Dreiser's novels have long intrigued readers. Most critics find the characters fragile selves which they long to rescue from the dehumanizing effects of the culture of consumption or to enlist as evidence for indicting capitalism. The characters seem "hollow," says Sandy Petry in a landmark essay on Sister Carrie; the eminent Marxist Fredric Jameson finds "commodity lust" characterizing Dreiser himself. Many critics concur insofar as they regret the "objectification," the "commodification," of characters in Dreiser's novels.(1) A promising recent trend in Dreiser criticism, focusing less on the commodities his characters want and more on why they want them, reformulates the problem of desire. As Thomas Riggio puts it, the judgment regarding Dreiser's "psychological naivete" needs revising. Riggio calls for a new look at Dreiser on the grounds of his psychological realism as well as his social realism.(2)
Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) are crammed with consumer goods not just to enhance the setting, to document economic history, or to facilitate social commentary, but to bring together economic and psychological concerns into a new theory of the self. Dreiser would be puzzled by the antagonism many critics find between coherent selves and consumer objects, for his best-known characters have no selves apart from the things they desire. These desires cannot, however, be reduced to the static terms of consumption or materialism. Central to Dreiser's view of the self is the psychology of desire, what he refers to as "the innate trend of the mind . . . to emulate the more expensively dressed."(3) What is "innate" to the mind of modern man and woman, according to Dreiser, is first to compare one's self and its objects to others, then to improve the self by emulation. One's self is neither autonomous nor finished; it is relative and a work in progress. Two critics who have advanced compelling arguments regarding Dreiser's characters-in-progress, Philip Fisher and Alan Trachtenberg, emphasize both his startling originality and that his innovations were historically conditioned.(4) Their judgments regarding Dreiser's breaking into new aesthetic ground may be given an additional intellectual context, one which renders his characterizations yet more a part of his culture. Dreiser's contemporary, Thorstein Veblen, the "Founding father" of "person-object relations,"(5) articulates a theoretical model that corresponds closely to the novelist's view of the self. Veblen's theory of pecuniary emulation and invidious comparison, developed in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and the early essays reprinted in The Place of Science in Modern Civilization (1919), combines economics with psychology to explain the construction of the modern self.
Dreiser illustrates a Veblenian model of self-construction based on the human tendency to compare one's self economically with others and emulate them in response. Sister Carrie provides a microeconomic view of the process. Focussing on Carrie's recreating her self and enhancing her personal value by permitting herself to feel ever more elusive desires, Dreiser writes the bildungsroman of invidious comparison. Hurstwood illustrates the complementary process: the diminishment of personal value due to defective comparative and emulative strategies. An American Tragedy, a more macroeconomic view of pecuniary emulation and invidious comparison, shifts from the construction of individual selves to examine larger patterns and to ponder more widely social implications. Here Dreiser emphasizes the social manufacture of desires and, consequently, how the "America" of the title constructs Clyde's self. Dreiser's own attitudes toward this model of self-construction evolve over the twenty-five years between the publication of his two most popular novels. …