The 100 best novels: No 33 – Sister Carrie

Robert McCrum in The Guardian:

Laurence-Olivier-and-Jenn-009Sister Carrie is one of several novels in this series that address the American dream, and it does so in a radical spirit of naturalism that rejected the Victorian emphasis on morality. In some ways it's crude and heavy-handed, blazing with coarse indignation, but in its day it was, creatively speaking, a game-changer. Later, America's first Nobel laureate, Sinclair Lewis, said that Dreiser's powerful first novel “came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman”.

…The novel opens with Caroline – Sister Carrie – Meeber moving from the country to the city, taking the train to Chicago to realise her hopes for a better, more glamorous future. En route, she meets a travelling salesman, Charles Drouet, who soon releases her from the drudgery of machine-work in the heartless city by making her his mistress. This is the first in a succession of Carrie's fruitless attempts to find happiness. Henceforth, she becomes the victim of increasingly desperate relationships which, combined with a starstruck fascination with the stage, take her to New York and the life of a Broadway chorus girl. The novel ends with Carrie changing her name to Carrie Madenda and becoming a star just as her estranged husband, George Hurstwood, gasses himself in rented lodgings. The closing chapters of the book, in which Hurstwood is ruined and then disgraced, are among the most powerful pages in a novel of merciless momentum, whose unsentimental depiction of big-city life sets it apart. Contemporary readers were baffled, however, and Sister Carrie did not sell well.

More here.