Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

"Aye, Chance, Free Will, and Necessity": Sister Carrie's Literary Interweavings

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

"Aye, Chance, Free Will, and Necessity": Sister Carrie's Literary Interweavings

Article excerpt

AS WE APPROACH the twentieth-century novel, scholars will take stock of where the study of major literary figures has gone and where it has yet to go. What opportunities have been missed? For example, according to literary myth, Theodore Dreiser began his first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), at his friend Arthur Henry's insistence by spontaneously setting down the title and proceeding without a plan. The story's source is Dreiser himself, as he recalled the book's genesis in a letter to H. L. Meneken (qtd. in Swanberg, 82). Even when controverted by documentary evidence, myths like this one have an inexplicable staying power. Speculating as to why leads to unique insights about the novel's construction.

Years later Dreiser would become famous for the painstaking research and preparation that went into novels like The Financier (1912) and An American Tragedy (1925). These later works have unmistakably crafted plot structures and specific thematic concerns. But Sister Carrie, though by no means an aesthetically inferior work, and, indeed, the one for which the author is today best known, appears to meander through intellectual issues much as its protagonist wanders the streets of Chicago seeking employment. Although filled with intrusive disquisitions by the narrator on all manner of topics, the work poses more questions than answers, and its predominent question is the archetypal one: What forces influence (or control) the lives of human beings? It is perhaps best to believe that Dreiser did not steer his book toward predetermined conclusions, that he struggled along with his protagonists with the recta-question. For one thing, such a view allows us to circumvent a major critical mire: whether the overt philosophy peppered throughout Dreiser's novel forms a consistent or even coherent system of thought and provides a reliable index to its themes. Sister Carrier more closely follows Emerson's model of organicism, in which thoughts grow naturally from events and are spoken in hard words today though they may be contradicted by everything one says tomorrow.

In pursuing his profound life-questions by this method, one Natural enough for the intellectual yet inexperienced novelist, Dreiser drew on a self-acquired background in the classics, a tradition in which the finest minds of the past pursued the same object as he. And while Sister Carrie is not patterned in a sustained way after any specific myths or classical works, Dreiser relies heavily on tropes learned from the classical literary tradition and carried on by writers of all subsequent ages. The view of human life that emerges from the novel "stems directly ... from the Greeks" (Mencken, 21), according to terms described by midcentury classicist William Greene:

   The problem of fate, good, and evil, then, is not one that admits of any
   final intellectual solution; it remains partly, to be sure, within the
   realm of human activity and human suffering, but it lies partly on the
   knees of the inscrutable gods. That is what Homer and Creek tragedy have
   said, once and for all. Man is free, but within limits; therefore life
   demands of him the patient endurance of evil, the hand of compassion for
   fellow sufferers, and the smile of irony at fortune's ways. Above all, it
   demands the performance of God's will, which works through us, and Much is
   the source, if not of worldly success (for chance has a part in that), at
   least of human good and human happiness. (Greene, 396)

Although the novel deals scarcely at all with "God's will" in a religious form, it has an updated equivalent in the determinism to which Dreiser often (but not wholly) subjects his characters. What the Greeks sometimes called the Moirea (fates), anthropomorphized goddesses under which even Zeus was subject, and other times called moira (the will of the gods) is really analogous, from the perspective of mortals without access to divine intentions, to the forces like heredity and social environment identified by the nineteenth century. …

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