D is for Detached Irony

What I read: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.

I chose Sister Carrie because I had the vague idea that I'd seen a William Wyler movie based on one of his novels. Wyler did in fact make a movie of Sister Carrie (Carrie--no not the one with the high school burning down), but I haven't seen it. I did see Dodsworth directed by Wyler (novel by Sinclair Lewis), so I was sort of right!

On the other hand, I was completely wrong about Sister Carrie's content, which I assumed was about a nun. Yes, I know, for an English major, I have alarming gaps in my knowledge of literature! Actually, Sister Carrie is rather like an Americanized Tess of the D'Urbervilles except that instead of being an angelic innocent who falls into trouble after trouble after trouble, Carrie is an amoral innocent who takes whatever comes along, trouble or not.

Sister Carrie is WAAAY more interesting than Tess.

Beyond having an innocent heroine, the novels also share a sense of inevitability or fate. However, while in Hardy, this sense of fate is tied to God or the universe or something "out there", in Dreiser, the fate of Carrie and her lovers is tied to their personal inability to act. They are quintessentially amoral--the natural man, as Mormons call it--who simply react to whatever's in front of them. Carrie doesn't choose to become one man's mistress and another man's bigamist wife and then dump them. She simply takes whatever presents itself. It isn't that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; rather, the road to hell is paved with no intentions at all. This looks good. Okay. Whatever. (This is my personal explanation for things like Enron. There are truly corrupt financial people, and then there are lots of salespeople and such who simply can't formulate a personal/moral reason not to keep doing what they are doing or being asked to do.)

Like I said, WAAAY more interesting than Tess.

The tone of the novel actually reminds me more of restoration comedies than Hardy. The novel is very much a character study, and Dreiser goes out of his way to give us Carrie's mentality without much moralizing; however, there's a consistent acerbic tone underlying the prose. I used "detached irony" for the post title because I couldn't come up with a "D" word that meant "sardonic and cynical without being totally pessimistic; also rather droll but not really funny and just a tad moralistic." If anyone can supply a word, I'll take it!

It's very readable although due to its length, I've been tackling it in small doses. I'm in the last fourth of the book, and I've ordered the 1952 movie with Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones through Netflix. I'll be curious to see if the movie romanticizes the ending or keeps it as is. It is frankly--and I don't feel bad warning people because I hate reading long books thinking they will end happily when they don't--depressing, but it's more Of Mice and Men depressing than The Pearl or Ethan Frome depressing. I really can't stand books that end not only with a death but with the message that life is worthless. Kill people off by all means, but hey, I'm still standing. Dreiser appears to belong to the "and life just keeps rolling on" mentality of tragic endings.


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