When, in “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser, our protagonist is first introduced to the sea of humanity in the city, she feels lost and ill at ease. Even though she is hopeful about her future, she cannot help but compare herself to the other “fish" and realize that the individuality she had learned at home, where all was reasonable (again, this would be the jungle to continue the metaphor) is no longer applicable. This idea is expressed in one of the important quotes from “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser when the narrator states, “Men and women hurried by in long, shifting lines. She felt the flow of the tide of effort and interest—felt her own helplessness without quite realizing the wisp on the tide she was" (21). At this point in the novel, she recognizes the sea and her place within it and realizes that this is a huge break with the world she had known. This is not a place of feeling or even rationality as everything is moving too fast. Without, at least at this point, adequate purchasing power, she is realizes her insignificance.

In “Sister Carrie" by Theodore, the main character Carrie’s place in the urban sea begins to change with added capital and after she meets Drouet she encounters a girl she’d known from the shoe factory. At this moment, the narrator remarks, “Carrie felt as if some great tide had rolled between them" (64). It is clear now that even though the sea of the city had swept her away initially, she is quickly learning what it takes to swim above the rest. After all, as Hurstwood eventually notices, “She possessed an innate taste for imitation and no small ability" (125). She adapts to this new world by immediately learning the importance of capital and the appearance of wealth in this sea of a city and accommodates because of her skill at pretending—a skill that will actually earn her true capital later when she takes up acting. It should also be noted that even Hurstwood recognizes the sea and realizes how much his environment has shaped all that he is. After he leaves his hometown to start “downstream" with Carrie, the narrator remarks, “Whatever a man like Hurstwood had been in Chicago, it is very evident that he would be but an inconspicuous drop in an ocean like New York. In Chicago, whose population still ranged about 500,000, millionaires were not numerous" (232). If it was not yet clear to the reader, the sea is simply about population and survival as well as about staying afloat through the ability to conform to capitalist desires and thus “adapt" to the urban environment.

It would seem that the only time one is able to escape the sea is through excessive capital and the ability to manipulate the environment. As Carrie begins to understand the sea and how she can survive within it, it is clear that every once in a while she steps out of its waters and attains individuality. This only occurs when she has a great deal of wealth, no matter who or where she got it from, and there is a remarkable line, which demonstrates this. Consider the narrator’s view that, as expressed in a meaningfulquotation from “Sister Carrie” that “In the view of a certain stratum of society of society, Carrie was comfortably established—in the eyes of a starveling, beaten by every wind and gusty sheet of rain she was safe in a halcyon harbor" (74). Throughout much of the text, the imagery has been about the sea, and finally, she has stepped off the rocky seas with “wind and gusty sheet[s] of rain" to enter the shore and a “halcyon harbor" thus showing that perhaps the sea allows for some escape Those “starvelings" without the capital, however, are forced to tread water for as long as possible with only glimmering of a distant harbor in sight.

It is appropriate that the first chapter of Sister Carrie is entitled “The Magnet Attracting: The Waif Amid Forces" since the reader becomes automatically attuned to identifying these forces. Clearly, when she leaves her home she is innocent but hopeful, yet by the end of the text, after a series of ill-suited love matches, she is still left with a feeling of longing that even trinkets and new purses cannot dispel. In some senses, the reader can see Carrie at the beginning of the book, before she steps off the train and into Drouet’s life as the symbol of the innocence of realism. She is succinctly described with the precision of the realists, but as the text progresses, it becomes clear that she is constantly being shaped by outside environmental forces.

Unlike in previous American literature, the motivation for the protagonist’s action is not love, altruism, or a sense of righteousness, but rather sheer desire. In line with elements of realism in American literature, this desire is new because of the capitalist forces that are acting as magnets not only for Carrie, but for the rest of the sea of people in the city as well. As soon as she is left on her own, Sister Carrie, the “waif amid forces" is instantly drawn to consumable goods and this forms the basis for her desire and subsequent action. “Carrie passed along the busy aisles, much affected by the remarkable displays of trinkets, dress goods, stationery, and jewelry. Each separate counter was a show place of dazzling interest and attraction. She could not help feeling the claim of each trinket personally, and yet she did not stop" (18). The reason Carrie did not stop is because she did not yet posses the capital to purchase these goods and thus become a “real" person. For each character in the novel, purchasing power determines the fullness of character and those who are without capital are only narrowly described and usually in grim terms. Consider, for example, Carrie’s sister. She and her husband toil away and live a marginal existence, thus her personality reflects this lack. “Minnie was no companion for her sister—she was too old. Her thoughts were staid and solemnly adapted to a condition" (41). This condition is both a refusal to take part in the marketplace as well as a lack of resources even if she wanted to. She is described as a drab creature and since neither she nor her husband possesses purchasing power, they are virtually non-existent. It should serve as a helpful reminder of the quote previously stated, “A man’s fortune or material progress is very much the same as his bodily growth" (259). Obviously without such power and desire to consume, the bodily growth here, at least for the reader, is conveyed through description. After Carrie leaves her sister’s house, there is no more mention of their relationship as the capitalist influences have won out.

As demonstrated in the above example about Carrie’s sister, the desire to consume is almost as important as having the capital to do so. Hurstwood admires Carrie because, “She did not grow in knowledge so much as she awakened in the matter of desire" (92). This means that she was ready and willing to enter the sea of people and become an active part of consumer society, thus she was made more substantial. Since Carrie’s sister, who even frowned at thought of going for a night out at the theatre and only enjoyed free activities, lacked the desire as well as the capital to partake of her desires, she was even further marginalized. In this novel, it would seem that the ability to purchase in only half of what makes a character full; they must also have the burning desire to attain material goods as well. In this world, the love and sentiment of realism are replaced with the cold calculations of characters acting under the stresses of a capitalist environment. In such a world, the capacity only barely trumps desire and desire is what the lower classes may have in order to be described as “full" characters.

Purchasing power and capital determine the stature of characters in this novel and in many respects; this would be a realistic impression for turn-of-the-century readers. The marketplace and ability to consume was an overwhelming pressure and thus shaped the motivations of characters. The sea of people appeared infinite in an urban landscape thus the desire for characters to both stay afloat and eventually rise above the water and reach the “halcyon harbor" of wealth and luxury was paramount to other interests. Although there are characters such as Carrie’s sister, for example, who do not aspire to reach the shore but rather live at subsistence level, these are characters that are only given meager description and are not as full as others. In this world that Dreiser depicts, the ability to consume defines the stature and if one considers the “survival of the fittest" paradigm that can be found throughout realist texts, this is still functioning if only in the economic sense. Carrie’s desire to attain greater wealth and purchasing power allowed her to survive while Drouet and Hurstwood sank into the depths of the great sea of humanity and this message, while not exactly hopefully, defines naturalism.

Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Realism in American LiteratureAmerican Literature in Historical Context : 1865 to RooseveltAmerican History Since 1865: Major Events and Trends