Determinism in Sister Carrie
What are the determinist elements in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and how do they affect the characters?
Theodore Dreiser is known to be one of America’s foremost naturalist writers, and the
Element of determinism is essential to any naturalist fiction. What is/are the determinist element(s) in Sister Carrie and how does it/do they affect the characters and the situations that unfold
Naturalism is a literary movement which concentrated on observation and scientific methods to aid portrayals of reality in fiction. Often, naturalist writers concentrated on darker subject matter, leading some critics to deem them pessimistic. A common feature of naturalistic writing is the presence of determinism, in which a character’s fate is pre-determined by forces of nature beyond human control: this is usually by virtue of some necessity, ensuring that events transpire as they ‘should’, rendering any alteration to the course of events impossible. Carrie’s birth into a life of poverty seems unbreakable initially, and it is only through a series of coincidences and chance encounters that she escapes it. Her eventual success is paid for by the fact that the price of the opportunities she is given to improve her standing is to harm or abandon other people. For example, had Hurstwood not by sheer bad luck been caught in the act of stealing from his employer, Carrie would never have been able to go to New York and become a famous actress. Her eventual feelings of emptiness, despite achieving great success in her career as an actress, underline themes of determinism: despite having escaped her meagre circumstances, she was seemingly still fated to lead a life in which she is deeply unhappy. Similarly, Hurstwood is introduced as a character who is unhappy because of his wife and children’s social-climbing. His involvement with Carrie only leads him to a different kind of unhappiness, and he ultimately commits suicide as he can no longer endure living in ceaseless poverty. Dreiser’s conception of morality is as a pretense existing to assuage the weak who cannot cope without it. He presents his characters without judgement of their actions, instead focusing on the inevitable cruelty of life, regardless of one’s nature or nurture.
Dreiser, T. (1995). Sister Carrie. London: Penguin Classics.