Industrialization and Identity: Society and the Individual in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie

Topics: Sister Carrie, Conspicuous consumption, Consumerism Pages: 17 (6545 words) Published: June 22, 2013
Industrialisation and Identity:
Society and the Individual in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie

Introduction

In 1889 Chicago had the peculiar qualifications of growth which made such adventuresome pilgrimages even on the part of young girls plausible. Its many and growing commercial opportunities gave it widespread fame, which made of it a giant magnet, drawing to itself, from all quarters, the hopeful and the hopeless - those who had their fortune yet to make and those whose fortunes and affairs had reached a disastrous climax elsewhere. (Dreiser 15f)

At the turn of the 19th century, the industrialisation brought about tremendous change in the US. With innovations and inventions like the steam engine, railroads, electricity, telephones and telegraphing, the structure of American society shifted and evolved. People from the rural areas started flocking to the big cities in hopes of finding work and a better life, a dream many chased in vain. The protagonist in Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie, 18-year old country girl Carrie Meeber, is one of the “hopeful”; she leaves her hometown to find happiness and success in the big city of Chicago. At first, she stays with relatives and experiences the miserable, tiresome day-to-day struggle of the working middle-class of job-hunting and then hard menial labour in a factory. However, she soon grows tired of her situation. She lets herself be mesmerised by the wealth displayed by others, which both intimidates her and fills her with an insatiable longing for money and status. With this desire growing in her heart, she is willing to make all the sacrifices to achieve her goal, leaving her safe, but unexciting home to live with Charles Drouet, a man whom she barely knows, but who offers her a comfortable lifestyle. Nevertheless, Carrie still is not satisfied, so she leaves him for the wealthier George Hurstwood and continues to search for a way to success and happiness by obtaining status and commodities, losing herself in the process. In his novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser illustrates how the industrialisation did not only change the structure of American society at the turn of the 19th century, but also have a deep impact on the consumer culture and individual consumer behaviour of the American middle-class, marking the beginning of the impossible quest of struggling to create one’s identity through consumption.

The Industrialisation
The inventions and innovations of the industrialisation brought about great change for American society and people’s everyday lives. Roughly before 1750, even though the Americans with their steadily advancing frontier were a very progress-oriented people, the general expectation was to die in a world not much different to the one one was born in. (Cross 53) However, during and after the industrialisation, the increased development of ground-breaking new technology did not only affect the economy, but also the way people viewed the world. The inventions of the steam engine and electricity, the new ways of travelling and communication over long distances and new forms of retail created new employment and consumption possibilities (Cross 53), allowing a more and more comfortable and luxurious lifestyle in the cities for the upper-class and those middle-class citizens who were able to afford to keep up with the latest trends and fashions. The steam engine is said to be the central invention of the industrialisation period from the 18th to the 20th century, as it inspired as many technological advances as no other invention before it. Invented in Britain at the beginning of the 18th century, Gary Cross explains it took quite some time until was imported, adapted and improved by the Americans to fit their needs. In the 18th century, he reasons, there was no need for an alternative source of energy, as vast forests, coal deposits and water energy were available. In the 19th century, however, this indifferent attitude towards the steam...

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Cross, Gary, and Rick Szostak. Technology and American Society: A History. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2005.
Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. Restored edition. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981 (Original work published 1900).
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Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. 1944. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.
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