Finished reading Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900).
At its core, Sister Carrie is a novel about the transience of fortune. Dreiser explores the concept through three principal characters, who each mingle in complicated relationships and find themselves drastically trading stations on the social ladder. Carrie, a rural migrant into the burgeoning city of Chicago (and later New York), emerges from the clutches of poverty into financial security through morally-taxing relationships, then ultimately finds stardom and success as a Broadway actress. Conversely, Hurstwood (a high-standing manager and once the pinnacle of Carrie’s infatuation), falls into extreme poverty by a series of missteps perpetuated from an ill-conceived theft and subsequent flight from his secure, rich life in Chicago. The proposition of regaining his status from scratch in a new city proves too much for a man so complacent in his old fortune - and his motivation atrophies to the effect of driving away Carrie and leaving him destitute to the point of homelessness, starvation, and ultimately suicide. Meanwhile, the well-off salesman Drouet (Carrie’s first benefactor and tenuous love) has the most peculiar trajectory in that his comfortable social standing and empty, pleasure-seeking mindset perpetuates unchanged through the entire novel.
Instinct and rationality play against each other to the detriment of security for these protagonists. As Dreiser speculates directly in the book - the evolutionary failing of humanity is that we have too much sense to trust instinct, and too much instinct to submit to sense. This idea unveils itself through Hurstwood’s life-altering theft from his Chicago employers, and Carrie’s propensity to be taken with impressive, rich city lifestyles. Yet as she climbs higher and higher toward those ideals, her desires climb in tandem, leaving her longing just as unrealized as before. Dreiser dictates her folly in a conversation with the novel’s most sage character, Ames, at the end of the story. He precipitates an epiphany in Carrie that no one is ever truly fulfilled in their desires, but anyone can find satisfaction independent of worldly acclaim by using their gifts (in Carrie’s case, acting) to their full potential. The reader is never humored to see the lasting result of this idea in Carrie’s future life and career, but it succinctly pins down a major theme within Dreiser’s work.
I was slow to take to Sister Carrie, restrained by the many contrived character motivations and Dreiser’s propensity to psychoanalyze them in direct (and slightly patronizing) interjections into the narrative. But once the arcs of each principal character came full-circle (for better or worse) in the final chapters, I saw my investment in the novel as time well-spent. And I’ll take its message to heart - that I don’t dwell on the ever-moving goalposts of material wants, and make the best of my strengths to the tune of generosity rather than seeking acclaim and satisfaction through others.