The world of theatre provides a fanciful stage where the characters can be whoever they want even for a momentary period. It permits them to put on a garb and a mask and take on another life and act out wonderful lives in dreamy fashion before an eager and anxious audience who are just as quick to the heels in praise and awe. The performance of the actors and actresses is fiction in motion. The action on the stage is felt and the emotions and tensions portrayed are drawn out for the audience to behold and grasp in all their plenitude. Yet the theatre is also a place for polar concepts. It is illusory and imaginary while at the same time reflective of the elements of true drama in a society which is reeling from the dullness and desperation of life. It is a means of escape from the livid and brutal realities of life yet it is also a medium that reflects the true and unapologetic image of the world in general. Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) distinctive use of the theatre as the penultimate escapist aspiration of the novel’s female protagonist magnifies the portrait of real life in the city by taking these polar concepts to a level where the distinction between the real life and the stage performance of Caroline Meeber, while making it out as an aimless young lass in an attractive yet uninviting metropolis, is totally obscured.
Maxwell Geismar, in his criticism on the novel, observes that the central story involved the struggle of a young girl “to cope with the wiles of the city” (Geismar, 1952: 293). The story is a classic fable set against the milieu of American societies and cities at the turn of the 20th century which is “couched in the euphemisms of the hinterland, opened with a standard sermon of virtue” (Geismar, 1952: 295). The metropolis offered promise and hope for young girls in the provinces. They were drawn towards the city because it was a world where extravagant living and sophistication were possible. These girls dream of the good life and the city is where such dreams become reality. The thought of having expensive clothing and adornments in shops, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city and flirting with the genteel, high-class and affluent men wielding grace and superiority over the inferior lads of the province—all of which supposedly earmarks the characteristics of a successful woman, overwhelms wise judgment. Indeed, as in the case of Carrie, although she does not have any pretensions of making it in the city with ease, she sternly believes that she is entitled to all of these luxuries even when the truth is much more brutal and cold that very few of those who venture in to the city with nothing but their dreams and aspirations ever make it big (Dreiser, 1900: 10).
The bleak yet at the same time optimistic and a little naïve tone of the story of Sister Carrie is immediately felt at the start of the novel. Theodore Dreiser instantly draws attention towards the fact that Carrie, or Caroline Meeber, is about to encounter several crossroads in her life. She is portrayed as a rudderless waif amid forces too powerful, cunning and readily dangerous (Dreiser, 1900: 2-8). Her journey towards the city on board a train is a moment for quick retrospection in the sense that there are obvious hints at the kind of future she that lay before her which could have very well summarized the entire narrative.
Accordingly, Dreiser lays down the main argument and thesis of the story at the opening scenes of the novel in his moralistic admonition that “when a girl leaves her home at eighteen [on her own to the city], she does one of two things: Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse” (Dreiser, 1900: 3). Dreiser continues his diatribe and writes: “The city has its cunning wiles, no less than infinitely smaller and more human tempter […] The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye” (Dreiser, 1900: ibid.). At once, the story is set out on a path either towards a happy or a tragic end. However, a description of Carrie’s character as an impressionable, young and innocent girl with good looks and promising physical appeal although of the average intellect bespeaks the tragedy about to unravel in the story. Her character as a helpless and ignorant woman set against the backdrop of the big modern metropolis has in a sense sealed her fate.
She is portrayed as one of the moths “in endless procession, to bask in the light of flame” and die trying to be part of it (Dreiser, 1900: 35). But Carrie soon after begins to see her dreams dissolve. At first, when she met Drouet, her spirits were high and buoyant. She obliges Drouet in casual flirting and even fell prey to his charms and good looks with little reluctance. The moment she boarded off the train and found her way to her sister’s place she finally realized her place in society. The scant and lifeless environment where she is to stay at her Minnie’s apartment reminded her that she had no business in making acquaintances with men like Drouet (1900: 20). Their lives were in stark contrast with each other. The truth was that she was poor and useless and that Drouet was the opposite. Her attempt to look for a job and work for one in a factory evinced the sentiments of a disappointed and largely disillusioned woman.
However, she persists in her resolve to stay in the city because everything was much more interesting and mysterious there. Through her good looks and timid attitude her luck changed. In a constant flux of events, like theatrical scenes and changing curtains on the stage, she is taken under the generous wing of Drouet who gave her money, clothes and a place to stay. Thereafter, she charms Hurstwood, a married man and falls in love with him until they decided to elope and leave to New York mindless of the consequences. As if put on by the ever-shifting fortunes, Hurstwood spirals to desperation and destitution as Carrie begins to rise as a star in New York as a chorus girl with speaking parts. Eventually, their illicit tryst ends. Carrie pursues her dream in the Broadway, Drouet continues to chase skirts and Hurstwood commits suicide.
Similarly, the ceaseless changes of fortune experienced by the main protagonists of the story set in the modern metropolis are reflected in, if not echoes theatre and stage performance both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, since the pace of the story is very much the same as the speed of a play. There are acts and scenes which carries the characters right along the ebb and flow of the sea of romance just as the narrative in a play moves the audience and the actors towards the different parts of the story by curtain changes.
Literally, since Dreiser himself, having been once a drama critic and a playwright, drew inspiration from his experiences in Chicago and New York in the vantage point of a theatrical director in presenting the novel with “its glitter and its thousand make-believe excitements” (Lynn, 1957: 257). Similarly, the urban life with the accompanying fascination for the bright, illusory and wistful states of euphoria and limitless glee experienced by Sister Carrie during her stay in Chicago and eventually her rise to fame in New York, in between the moments of romance with Drouet and Hurstwood, is a reflection of the theatrical world which was to Dreiser “a microcosm of the glamorous city, a quintessence of its artificial splendours” (1957: ibid.). Whirlwind shifts of fortune in Carrie’s storied career into a successful actress short of being a miraculous climb from a penniless and drifting young lass from the province into a top-billed stage performer in the city is the kind of storyline which is only possible in the theatre.
On a deeper level of analysis, the fascination for the city and the possibilities it held for those who dream big undergirds the entire story. Although other themes and motifs were used in the novel, the constant references to the theatre and Carrie’s rise to fame give a sense of immersive quality into the world of the metropolis. The city is rife with superficial splendour and Carrie played her part as Laura in the play Under the Gaslight which is replete with scenes that pay homage to the powerful magnetic allure of the urban life. She also played a part as a sexy chorus girl which requires a form of stage presence that relies heavily on physical appearances. Carrie instinctively capitalized on her natural beauty to be able to play out her role. Thus, it is once apparent that Carrie understood how to play her part not just on stage but on real life by taking advantage of the fact that the city was all about the artificial. She was able to manipulate her lovers who fell head over heels in love with her just as she was able to awe the audience who became avid fans simply by being what the city essentially stands for—the desire for superficial enjoyment and entertainment.
In other words, she became part of the whole façade to which the city is exactly all just a complex theatrical stage performance. Yet it was not only Carrie, the stereotypical embodiment of innocence, youthful energy and success, who can be considered as the actress of the entire story both in and out of stage. Drouet likewise played his part as the quintessential salesman, charmer and naïve young gentleman. All the more so with Hurstwood who played his part as the desperate, emotionally frustrated and bored rich married man who threw all caution in the wind for the sake of a paramour who later repents and pays for his sins by killing himself in the end.
However, the Dreiser does more than just play with stereotypes in the novel. Arguably, he wrote the novel with the end in mind of creating a tone of nostalgic longing and attachment to the hustle and bustle of the city. The city was presented as the flame which attracts insects—curious individuals from all quarters of the country so to speak. This presentation is made more vivid and alive by attributing the qualities of the city as a place of fantastic display of lights, beauty, colour and unrelenting action to the bright and glowing allure of the world of theatre as the means by which Carrie was able to fulfil her dreams.
The city is likewise given a thematic tone imbued with a dangerously addictive personality. Such argument on the surreal personification of the city is not borne out of speculation for Dreiser himself expressed his own fascination for the city by once saying: “Would that I am able to suggest in prose the throb and urge and sting of my first days in Chicago! […]The spirit of Chicago flowed into me and made me ecstatic; its personality was different from anything I had ever known” (Dreiser, 1931: 159). As it were he considers his experience in the city as a mix of intense hope and joy in existence and likened the cities as individuals that “can flare up with a great flare of hope—they have that miracle, personality, which as in the case of the individual is always so fascinating and so arresting” (1931: 160).
Thus, interpreting Dreiser’s assessment of the city especially Chicago and turning it over a close scrutiny of the novel and its characters would yield to the conclusion that the city attracts and urges those who live in it to become larger than life in order to be better suited for the demands of urban life. Such requires the need to put on appearances and masks to be able to enter into the grand masquerade as with the metropolis. Just like Carrie who immediately took on the role of a beautiful temptress and helpless woman in and out of stage, Drouet who played his role as the Salesman and Hurstwood as the paragon of lechery, the novel makes theatre life a normal happenstance in the city. For “if the hypnotic influence of the city claims everyone who comes within its orbit as its victims [or victors]” (Lynn, 1957: 515) then the real lives of real people transform into one with artificial qualities, and the natural personalities are so obscured that it becomes difficult to know the difference between theatre and the real life in the city as everyone become players and actresses—then truly all the world’s a stage (1957: ibid.).
Dreiser, T. (1900). Sister Carrie. New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc.
Dreiser, T. (1931). Dawn. New York: The World Publishing Company.
Geismar, M. (1953). Rebels and ancestors: The American novel, 1890-1915. Cambridge: The
Lynn, K.S. (1957). Sister Carrie: An introduction. In D. Pizer (Ed.), Theodore Dreiser: Sister
Carrie, an authoritative text, backgrounds and sources, criticism (pp. 509-517). New
York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
Phillips, W.L. (1963). The imagery of Dreiser’s novels. In D. Pizer (Ed.), Theodore Dreiser:
Sister Carrie, an authoritative text, backgrounds and sources, criticism (pp. 551-557).
New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
 William Phillips in his essay “the Imagery of Dreiser’s Novels argues that the name Carrie may have been an intended pun in the sense that Dreiser portrayed Carrie as “carried along by the sea, not moving by exertions of the will” (Philips, 1963).
 The same image of the tides and the sea as the setting by which the characters are constantly thrashed about as if driftwoods in the midst of a violent storm in the sea is used by Philips to argue that Carrie is carried from place to place without conscious effort (ibid.).