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Sister Carrie and the Leisure Class

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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.



"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. "

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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