Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie is an example of a naturalist text because it integrates the ideas behind the American literary realism movement, particularly in terms of precise descriptions and rational observations, yet also contains elements that make the reader understand that characters are simply the products of environment and outside influences. It should also be stated that the urban landscape marks a departure from traditional realists texts and this urban “sea” of humanity forms the basis for the actions of both the protagonist as well as her society as a whole. Capitalism in “Sister Carrie” by Dreiser and the desire to consume is the driving force and desire becomes more important that genuine sentiment. In this novel, characters change in class status and are constantly at risk of being lost in the sea of the urban landscape. These elements define Sister Carrie and the naturalist movement as a whole.
Although Sister Carrie is a text with groundings in the conventions of realism, there is an interesting shift towards naturalism. This shift is most visible when the narrator gives the reader insights into characters and it becomes clear that they are creatures not only of the natural world, but also of the environment. More specifically, this environment is one of capitalism, of urban landscapes, and class differences. It is no longer feasible for Dreiser, to depict the world as the merely as the realists before him did, he obviously recognizes the forces of the marketplace that not only shape existence, but also in fact create it. One of the most visible differences between the world depicted by the writers of realist texts and that of Dreiser is that he is keenly aware of urbanization and views the city as a sort of new natural landscape to set his characters in.
For example, in one of the most important quotes from Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, the narrator states, “We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near an approach to freewill, his freewill not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect guidance. He is becoming too wise to hearken always to instincts and desires; he is still too weak to always prevail against them” (61). It is no longer appropriate for Dreiser to rely strictly on the conventions of realism. Instead, in this, one of the important quotes from “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser he has to take it one step further and speak of freewill and desire. Here, freewill and desire are not matters of nature or feeling, but are rather symptoms of the environment. It is this emphasis on characters being shaped by their surroundings that defines this text as a naturalist versus realist text. The distinction is subtle and at times the lines between the two are dulled, but it clear that the focus is not necessarily how the individual responds in a natural way to surroundings, but more so how the environment shapes perception and even reality.
Many of the central characters in Sister Carrie are acting according to the capitalist pressures in their urban society. It should be noted that one of the main features of naturalism is that it is usually set in an urban landscape. Through such a setting, the characters are often compared to elements of the sea, mostly in the sense that are just tiny “wisps” in a sea that is vast beyond comprehension. This sea is not only representative of the swarms of people, but of forces stronger than man, in this case capitalism. It is inescapable and all the lives of the characters revolve around either the acquisition of money or the blatant showing off of it. In such a world, feelings are emotions are secondary to the tide of rampant capitalism and there is always another opportunity in the sea of people. It should be noted that Carrie is moved along with the tide through a short series of relationships, none of them lasting, everything always changing. It is almost against her will, but if one views the sea image as the “tide of capitalism” then it is clear she is merely following the promise of material comfort and not love. It is thus also remarkable that Sister Carrie, despite its frequent scenes featuring lovers, is hardly a love story. It is rather a tale about the loss of innocence and the giving up of one’s mind to the powerful sea of capitalist forces and selfish desires.
Money and capital are responsible for the actions of humans rather than the more “pure” forces that regulated the lives of characters in realist texts. Consider, for example, the idea presented by the narrator that, as stated in one of the meaningful quotations from “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser, “A man’s fortune or material progress is very much the same as his bodily growth. Either he is growing stronger, healthier, wiser, as the youth approaching manhood, or he is growing weaker, older, les incisive mentally, as the man approaching old age. There are no other states” (259). It could not be put in a more concise way—clearly human nature is no longer molded by the forces of love, feeling, or even rationality or reason. Instead of being shaped by nature and being able to describe characters with microscopic precision, this becomes unnecessary when the reader knows the motivation. A man is shaped by capitalism, the need to consume and all other impulses become secondary.
Metaphorically speaking, whereas realist text might have tended to focus on the jungle, Sister Carrie, as an example of naturalism, concentrates on the sea. In other words, the jungle for the realist novel would represent man in his primitive state, acting on natural desires and impulses that were generally the result of emotion or other “pure” persuasion. The jungle represents man as an individual, man surviving in a world that might not be suited to his best intentions. With realism, every detail could be described with perfect accuracy, everything reasoned out and the character would be inclined to act according to a sort of internal reasoning. With Sister Carrie, however, the sea is the object of interest. In this case, the sea represents the sea of people that crowd together in urban areas. Unlike the jungle, this is a massive place where one could lose the way or become drowned quite easily. In the sea, one must stand out because there are so many other fish swimming, mostly with the current, in an effort to shine. While this might be a dramatic and slightly abstract concept, put quite simply, the difference between the jungle and the sea is that the desires are quite different. In the jungle, it is an individual struggle close to the natural world. In the sea, however, there is simply the struggle to stay afloat and not get lost. To bring this idea back into context, it is striking …