Today I finished up the last 100 pages of "Sister Carrie". Man, it was painful in places. I was surprised how it ended, in that it wasn't as totally bleak as I thought it would be...just 3/4 bleak. But the 3/4 bleakness was pretty damn bleak. And yet it was almost impossible to put down, for as depressing as the final third of the book was, it was the best part of the book for me...it became a total page turner.
Hurstwood keeps looking for a job, but never finds one. Why not? Well, at first it's because he feels that all the jobs that might be available are beneath him. I don't think he quite realizes his predicament. And if you'll remember, as Dreiser points out, he's now in his mid-40s and so is obviously washed up and totally over-the-hill. Week after week go by with no money coming in, and thus his savings dwindle away. Then he simply becomes totally apathetic and resigned. And then he gambles some of his remaining money away trying to score big in poker games (never a good idea, by the way). Carrie is worried, but doesn't do anything about it except to nag Hurstwood to get a job from time to time. Finally Hurstwood gets a job as a scab streetcar conductor during a strike. This makes for one of the more gripping chapters of the book. Work conditions are terrible (it's mid winter), and strikers are attacking the trains and the scab operators. Police and guards ride on the trains, but there's only so much they can do. On his second day at work, when a bullet from a striker grazes Hurstwood's shoulder, he decides to call it quits and goes home. And that seems to have completed the breakdown process for Hurstwood. He never seriously looks for work after that.
Meanwhile Carrie has had enough and gets motivated herself. When she was in Chicago she acted in an amateur play put on by the local chapter of the Elks. The play was terrible, but she loved to be in it, and it was clear she had a natural talent for acting...as the narrator says at one point, she had a very high emotional intelligence, and was very evocative onstage. Plus she was a hottie. The crowd loved her. So she goes looking for theatrical work on Broadway, but having no real experience it's almost impossible for her to break into the business. Still she manages to land a job as a girl in a chorus line. She does well, and one night, emboldened by her talent, she improvs and speaks a line in response to the main actor, even though she wasn't supposed to ever speak onstage. The crowd roars in laughter and the actor improvs a line in response, which gets even more laughter. The director tells her to keep doing that in subsequent performances. She gets a slight raise to her meager wages, which are all needed for household expenses. Hurstwood is still just sitting around, hoping something will turn up as he stares into space sitting in his rocking chair all day. Good plan, Hurstwood.
The book gets increasingly painful as Carrie's life begins to take off while Hurstwood's falls off the cliff. The contrast between the two makes everything so much more poignant. Carries gets a larger speaking part, draws rave reviews, and gets another raise. She starts appearing in advertising posters for the theatre. Her parts get bigger and bigger, and her beauty and talent are winning her numerous fans. Disgusted by Hurstwood, who has finally run out of money, she moves out, putting $20 in an envelope on the table as she leaves him. This motivates Hurstwood to do...nothing! He's a broken man. He begins begging on the street. He moves into a flophouse to save money, and then moves out onto the street, sleeping in homeless shelters and going to soup kitchens for food. Remember, this was before the days of welfare, so he has no real options. Meanwhile Carrie gets a huge raise, becomes a huge star, and now can afford anything she wants. It's all her materialistic dreams come true! She has enough money to buy all the clothes she desires, and then still has a bunch of money left over! She has male admirers! Former friends come out of the woodwork to see her! But despite all the admirers and "friends" she's made lonely by her fame and fortune. She doesn't get close to anyone. Hurstwood approaches her for money a couple of times, and she gives it to him, but he has enough pride not to keep begging from her. Plus she's a star and is hard for him to get to (I should study this carefully because no doubt that's what will happen to me when this blog takes off).
Finally the inevitable happens to each: Hurstwood gets tired of begging and scraping by, so he rents a room in a flophouse, turns on the gas, and kills himself. Meanwhile Carrie never even hears of his death. Instead she's now a rich and famous star but realizes now that she has all the money she could ever need and more, that she's still unhappy. Perhaps just as unhappy as ever. All the nice clothes and jewelry she always longed for are now in her possession and yet she's just as unhappy as before. This seems to be Dreiser's indictment of our materialistic society: be careful what you wish for, because when you get it you'll still be unhappy as ever. Longing for material goods will never make you happy, because you're doomed either to be always longing for enough money to buy them, or else having enough money to buy them and then finding out that you're still completely unsatisfied once you have them. Money can't buy happiness. Money can't buy me love. Hmm, OK, but at least she's not DEAD and buried in a pauper's grave like Hurstwood. I dunno, I'd rather be rich and unhappy than poor and unhappy. Is that so wrong?
I went online and found some rather scathing reviews of this novel, including one by Garrison Keillor. He and others complain about Dreiser's writing style, which can be clunky, moralizing, melodramatic, and overly philosophical. Yeah, I can see this, but for me the story itself overwhelms any bluntness in the writing style. The fact that I can find a book that's a page turner and yet incredibly painful to read shows that it had an effect on me. I hated parts of it, and couldn't put it down at the same time. I so wish I could find more books like that.