NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM
Carrie Meeber, Theodore Dreiser's great creation, has come to Chicago uncertain about her future, but desperate to escape the restrictions of her small-town life.
Dreiser is aware that the longings that Americans have always felt have maybe reached a new kind of fever pitch and the possibilities are opening up. The lure of the city means something new for Dreiser than it meant for previous writers because suddenly one could get to the city by railroad. If one felt stifled and suffocated in the kind of small town in which Carrie Meeber grows up there was a train station a few miles away and you could pack a bag and kiss your mom and dad goodbye and go down to the station and within a few hours be in a totally unimagined world in which all things seem possible.
Theodore Dreiser was writing about a new world in a new way. For all the wealth and opportunity -- the stockyards, the department stores, the skyscrapers -- he understood that in cities like Chicago most lives went unmarked. Here, no one cared if you failed. There were hundreds, if not thousands, ready to take your place.
Carrie Meeber arrives in the city with nothing and wanders the streets looking for work. But Carrie lacks the skills necessary for the menial jobs available, and the good will of her sister, with whom she is staying, begins to run thin.
Carrie, fortunately or not, takes a short cut to success. She has a patron, but for a young woman just coming from the country to have a patron is a bit of a dicey business. But the alternative for her is going back home to the small town and by that point Chicago offers so much of what she wants, but that terrifies her. It terrifies her more than Chicago does.
Carrie sat still, looking out. She was wondering what she could do. They would be expecting her to go home this week. Drouet turned to the subject of the clothes she was going to buy.
"Why not get yourself a nice little jacket? You've got to have it. I'll loan you the money. You needn't worry about taking it. You can get yourself a nice room by yourself. I won't hurt you."
That whole scene with Carrie and Drouet revolves around the one great symbol of the late nineteenth century American novel and that is money. Cash, you know. Somebody's got, and somebodys ain't got it. And the ones who got it can give it to somebody and they get something in exchange. Carrie isn't aware of the fact that she has to pay out, so to speak, for what she receives. But in fact, that becomes a kind of turning point in the entire novel.
Together they went. In the store they found that shine and rustle of new things, which immediately laid hold of Carrie's heart. Under the influence of a good dinner and Drouet's radiating presence, the scheme proposed seemed feasible.
She looked about and picked a jacket like the one which she had admired at The Fair. When she got it in her hand it seemed so much nicer...
Carrie turned before the glass. She could not help feeling pleased as she looked at herself. A warm glow crept into her cheeks. "That's the thing," said Drouet. "Now pay for it."
"It's nine dollars," said Carrie.
"That's all right -- take it," said Drouet.