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“Change and Adaptation in Sister Carrie” by Allison Jordon: Pascal Covici, Jr. Prize for Outstanding Essay in American Studies

Change and Adaptation in Sister Carrie

Allison Jordan

America at the turn of the twentieth century was a rapidly changing place. The population was increasingly urbanizing, moving from rural areas to crowded cities. The workforce, too, was in a period of transition as many people gave up rural professions such as farming for factory work. It is in this period of change that Carrie Meeber first journeys from a small town in Wisconsin to Chicago in hopes of finding work and some undefined other thing. What exactly she is seeking she does not know, but she knows that there is something waiting for her in the big city. With the odds against her, Carrie manages to advance in urban life because of her ability to adapt—and Hurstwood meets his demise as a result of his failure to do the same. In his novel Dreiser takes a Darwinian view of modern life, portraying this innate ability to acclimatize to one’s surroundings as a necessary component for success.

When we meet Carrie, she is 18 years old and headed to the city as a naïve, unsophisticated girl. She is “warm with the fancies of youth, pretty with the insipid prettiness of the formative period, possessed of a figure promising eventual shape” (2). Although this description is primarily of Carrie’s physical traits, it nevertheless expresses her immaturity. Physically she is still developing, and her eventual appearance is hinted at but not set in stone. Likewise, her character is as yet unformed. Her head is still full of the “fancies of youth,” and she has no idea what it takes to survive in a major urban center. While these traits make her vulnerable, they also contribute to her ability to adapt to her new environment. She has no set ideas about what sort of job she must take, what kind of people she should associate with, or what she is and is not willing to do to survive. This lack of conviction does not lend itself to Carrie’s moral development, but it does give her the flexibility to adjust to whatever city life throws at her.

Carrie’s moral flexibility first shows itself in her interactions with Drouet. She initially allows his attentions, then changes her mind, but her fascination with him remains. When a chance encounter brings them together, her wavering conscience bends to the needs of the moment. She finds herself accepting money from him despite her feeling that this is not proper behavior. She vaguely knows that accepting money from a strange man is inappropriate; her gut reaction is to draw back and exclaim “Oh, no” (44). With a little persuasion, however, she is “of [Drouet’s] own hopeful, easy-way-out mood” (45). Whatever Carrie’s accepting the money may say about her character, it is an economically sound choice. It leads to an extended affair with Drouet which provides her with financial stability and allows her to satisfy her desire for material possessions. This relationship, which would not have been possible without Carrie’s willingness to bend her moral code, is the first rung on the ladder of Carrie’s economic and social success.

Later in the novel, when Carrie finds herself stuck in New York City with a deadbeat “husband” and no means of support, she further stretches her concept of what she can and cannot do by seeking work on the stage. Although Carrie is generally averse to working, she now sees acting as “a last resource in distress” (260). Her circumstances demand that something must change, that “something must be done if [Hurstwood] did not get work soon” (260). It is in response to this pressure that Carrie transitions from her more-or-less comfortable role as homemaker to that of a working woman. A less adaptable person might have struggled through this transition and perhaps even given up, but Carrie’s innate flexibility sees her through once again. Although she is at first fearful, she quickly adjusts to the life of a performer. The theater “awed and delighted her” (268) and she leaves her first day of work “worn enough in body, but too excited in mind to notice it” (270). In taking up acting, Carrie has discovered her natural gift, but she would never have done so had she not been willing to give up the male-supported lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. Her ability to grow and change allows her to seek opportunities and make the most of them, even when they require her to reach outside of her comfort-zone, and ultimately leads to her extreme success.

Hurstwood is in many ways the polar opposite of Carrie’s adaptability. He is a man whose success hinged on landing a job for which he was perfectly suited. As long as things continue as they always have, Hurstwood prospers. “He had risen by perseverance and industry, through long years of service” (32) to the same company, in roughly the same capacity. There is nothing inherently wrong with Hurstwood’s unchanging career path; indeed, his financial success is due to his longtime dedication to the company. When he finds his world in upheaval, however, his years of stability turn out to have hobbled him. First, he is unable to cope with his wife’s demands for divorce. Given a strict deadline for replying to his wife’s lawyers, he chooses to avoid the situation by ignoring it. The evening before his deadline “[h]e had done nothing, and here was the afternoon slipping away… even as he thought the last fifteen minutes passed away and it was five,” and thus his opportunity to contact the lawyers has passed until the next day (179). Hurstwood’s remarkable passivity stems from his inability to cope with most situations that fall outside the realm of his accustomed lifestyle and routine (his relationship with Carrie notwithstanding). Hurstwood’s refusal to deal with his problems with his wife is only the first and least shocking in his series of failures to adapt.

With very little money to live on in New York City, Hurstwood must look for work for the first time since he was young. His pride, built upon a lifetime of success, severely narrows the scope of positions he is willing to take as “he could not stomach the commonplace saloons which he found advertised” (207). After an unsuccessful partnership, Hurstwood gives up on attempting to work, preferring to wallow in self-pity and mourn the life he used to have. Unlike Carrie, who for the most part spends her time aspiring and looking to the future, Hurstwood becomes trapped in the past. He picks up a habit of “[closing] his eyes and [dreaming] of other days,” immersing himself in his former life, for “as the present became darker, the past grew brighter” (323). His failure to acclimatize to his new lifestyle after several years is Hurstwood’s undoing. He lacks Carrie’s resiliency and thus her ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, and so he is doomed to fail outside of his narrowly defined area of expertise.

Modern America (even that of the 1890s) does not stand still for a moment. It is always moving and changing—and so must those who want to succeed in its modern economy and society. This is the trait that separates Carrie and Hurstwood, two self-serving, amoral individuals who meet very different fates. At first Hurstwood seems to have all the advantages. He is sophisticated and worldly, unlike the naïve young Carrie. But Carrie is constantly observing the world around her and learning how best to take advantage of opportunities for advancement. Perhaps the best indication Dreiser gives us of Carrie’s adaptability is her many names: she transitions easily from small-town girl Carrie Meeber to Mrs. Drouet to Mrs. Wheeler and finally to Carrie Madenda, the famous actress. Hurstwood by comparison slowly deteriorates, eventually being laid to rest among the nameless masses at Potter’s Field. Such is the fate that awaits people who cannot keep up with the times. It is Darwinism at its most simple: evolve or become obsolete.

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