Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Walking Away from the Impossible Thing: Identity and Denial in 'Sister Carrie.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Walking Away from the Impossible Thing: Identity and Denial in 'Sister Carrie.'

Article excerpt

In Shakespearean Tragedy, A.C. Bradley illustrates the interdependence of character and circumstance in the plays he studies. Imagine, he says, the effect of exchanging the title characters of Hamlet and Othello. In neither instance would the altered play end in anything like the actual play's catastrophe. This is so because the defects of personality--the "flaws"--exhibited by Hamlet and Othello would be strengths, were either confronted with the situation faced by the other. Hamlet would quickly see through Iago's machinations, as he does through those of Polonius and of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and Othello would move quickly to his revenge, unimpeded by the hesitation that bedevils Hamlet. Only because an impulsive Othello faces a situation calling for deliberation, and a deliberate Hamlet a situation calling for impulsive action, does tragedy ensue.(1)

Bradley's example may seem an odd place to begin a discussion of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. But it will have served its purpose if it leads us to reflect for a moment on the nature of the tragedy depicted in the novel. Few would deny that Sister Carrie is, in the instance of Hurstwood's decline, a tragedy. But the tendency among critics has been to view the novel's tragic dimension through a naturalistic lens and therefore to emphasize circumstance and deemphasize character. This predilection should not surprise us, for in naturalism generally, tragedy is circumstance. Responding to Zola's dictum that "metaphysical man is dead," replaced by "physiological man," naturalistic writers depict humankind as puppetlike in its incapacity to resist the forces of heredity and environment.(2) Individual character, to the extent that it is foregrounded at all in naturalistic fiction, is treated ironically, not tragically. It contributes to the creation of tragedy only through its illusion-making power: believing themselves free, characters in naturalistic novels forge ever more strongly their enslaving chains.(3)

Such a view, appropriate for most naturalistic novels, is adequate neither to the artistic power nor to the cultural implications of Sister Carrie. Necessity enters this novel the moment the door of the safe at Fitzgerald and Moy's swings shut; and Hurstwood's step-by-step descent toward suicide--his movement from "I wish I hadn't done that" (p. 194) to "What's the use?" (p. 367)--confirms the power of circumstance to overwhelm an individual.(4) But Dreiser's meticulous, exhaustive description of Hurstwood's decline would not sustain interest, were it merely the working out of a foreknown inevitability. That the account instead fascinates most readers, filling them with the most profound emotion, suggests an active process, a dialectic of character and circumstance in which Hurstwood contributes to his own destruction at each step along the way. Furthermore, as I hope to show, the nature of this dialectic is distinctively modern. In creating Hurstwood, Dreiser discovered how to adapt a traditional conception of tragic character to a late-nineteenth-century urban milieu--to a milieu, that is, in which the past seems to have disappeared as a defining condition of individual existence. At the same time, he discovered an irony inherent in that disappearance by intimating in Hurstwood's fall a conflict between nostalgia for a vanishing agrarian ideal and the dynamism of an emerging consumer culture.

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An exploration of the contribution of character to Hurstwood's decline can begin with a distinction between two forms of identity-the one a person is born to ("received identity") and the one he or she creates ("achieved identity").(5) Turning again to Hamlet for illustration, we see this distinction exemplified. By choice a student, friend, courtier, lover, Hamlet is by birth a son, prince, and--potentially--revenger; and his hesitation over assuming his received identity as revenger arises in part from an awareness of its power to cripple or destroy his more positive achieved identities. …

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