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Sister Carrie and the Leisure Class

By       Message Iftekhar Sayeed     Permalink
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In 1900, Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie made its appearance; was it coincidence that Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class had preceded it by a year?

The novel is about eighteen-year-old Caroline Meeber ('Sister Carrie' to her family) and her departure from a small town for Chicago, then finally New York. The theme of the novel is seduction – not so much by the two men she meets, as by the two cities she inhabits. She moves in with her sister in Chicago, then moves out when she loses her job at a factory. She loathes manual labour. And this is where Thorstein Veblen comes in.

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"The institution of leisure class," observed Veblen, "is the outgrowth of an early discrimination between employments, according to which some employments are worthy and others unworthy." Manual labour has throughout history been downgraded by the leisure class, and America – for all the canting hypocrisy of priests that laborare est orare (to labour is to pray) - was no exception. Industry produces wealth; the upper classes display wealth. Expressions such as 'conspicuous consumption' and 'pecuniary emulation' were coined by Veblen, and have become common currency.

Carrie loved the good things in life: she loathed manual labour and recoiled with horror from her sister and brother-in-law's apartment and way of life – indeed, it is a mechanised and selfish life, a response to the harsh realities of industry. But what can a girl with no experience, little education and nothing but a pleasing appearance offer? The obvious answer would be 'sex' – but Carrie does not become a prostitute. The two men in her life – Drouet, the salesman, and Hurstwood, the married manager with two grown-up children, do not keep her for sex alone. Drouet's motives were less noble, so he gets off lightly in the novel; Hurstwood falls in love. Love could not be bought.

"...Good breeding," observes Veblen, "requires time, application and expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work." Carrie values Hurstwood's superior manners: "Drouet shared in the conversation, but he was almost dull in comparison. Hurstwood entertained them both, and now it was driven into Carrie's mind that here was the superior man. She instinctively felt that he was stronger and higher, and yet withal so simple. By the end of the third act she was sure that Drouet was only a kindly soul, but otherwise defective. He sank every moment in her estimation by the strong comparison. "

What of Carrie herself? That she was capable of such sensitivity of feeling testifies to the fact that sensitivity can occur in the absence of wealth – pace Thorstein Veblen. Yet Veblen would have been right about Carrie: her entire view of life was based on the desire for consumption, and a concomitant loathing for production. Therefore, she was sensitive to everything that the leisure class accumulates – from clothes to manners. Veblen makes room for people like Carrie, though: "In modern civilized communities the lines of demarcation between social classes have grown vague and transient, and wherever this happens the norm of reputability imposed by the upper class extends its coercive influence with but slight hindrance down through the social structure to the lowest strata. The result is that the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that ideal. On pain of forfeiting their good name and their self-respect in case of failure, they must conform to the accepted code, at least in appearance."

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"A woman should some day write the complete philosophy of clothes," writes Dreiser. "No matter how young, it is one of the things she wholly comprehends. There is an indescribably faint line in the matter of man's apparel which somehow divides for her those who are worth glancing at and those who are not. Once an individual has passed this faint line on the way downward he will get no glance from her." It is Drouet's clothes that first draw Carrie's attention on the train to Chicago. And it is partly Hurstoood's clothes that take her away from Drouet. Take the matter of shoes, for instance: "Hurstwood's shoes were of soft, black calf, polished only to a dull shine. Drouet wore patent leather but Carrie could not help feeling that there was a distinction in favour of the soft leather, where all else was so rich."

Hurstwood's own family presents a fascinating picture. He had once loved his wife – long ago. Now he finds himself a 'mere' provider of material things. The presence of a servant in the household is significant.

"The ten rooms of the house were occupied by himself, his wife Julia, and his son and daughter, George, Jr., and Jessica. There were besides these a maid-servant, represented from time to time by girls of various extraction, for Mrs. Hurstwood was not always easy to please.

"'George, I let Mary go yesterday,' was not an unfrequent salutation at the dinner table."

Veblen on servants:

"(1) Under the mandatory code of decency, the time and effort of the members of such a household are required to be ostensibly all spent in a performance of conspicuous leisure, in the way of calls, drives, clubs, sewing-circles, sports, charity organisations, and other like social functions.... (2) Under the requirement of conspicuous consumption of goods, the apparatus of living has grown so elaborate and cumbrous, in the way of dwellings, furniture, bric-a-brac, wardrobe and meals, that the consumers of these things cannot make way with them in the required manner without help. Personal contact with the hired persons whose aid is called in to fulfil the routine of decency is commonly distasteful to the occupants of the house, but their presence is endured and paid for..."

What happens to family life under these circumstances – where the husband must provide for the conspicuous leisure of wife, son and daughter – can well be imagined. Mrs. Hurstwood is the mirror-image of Carrie – the former, too, at one time, had been a desirable love-object. Now, her place has been taken over by Carrie – but Carrie soon comes to occupy the same place. She abandon's Hurstwood, as Mrs. Hurstwood abandons her husband, when he can no longer be relied on to provide.

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Feminists at this point will rub their hands with glee. If only women would work, things would be better. Women do work in certain societies and are financially independent there. Indeed, Carrie becomes entirely independent and rich – as an actress. It is fitting that she finds wealth in the kind of activity that the leisure class holds valuable. Acting is not industry. So Dreiser was aware that female emancipation would not mend the matter. The ideal of family life would be crushed, no matter what.

"A lovely home atmosphere is one of the flowers of the world, than which there is nothing more tender, nothing more delicate, nothing more calculated to make strong and just the natures cradled and nourished within it. Those who have never experienced such a beneficent influence will not understand wherefore the tear springs glistening to the eyelids at some strange breath in lovely music. The mystic chords which bind and thrill the heart of the nation, they will never know."


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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)

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