Sister Carrie/Carrie's Sisters

Introduction: Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie created a sensation when first published and still generates much controversy among scholars and general readers alike. The initial uproar was that, although Dreiser's title character did not preserve her virtue, she nonetheless escaped punishment. Instead of ignominy she received renown and wealth in the theatre.

The concern over female sexuality and the dangers it entails runs through the history of women in America. In the woman's rights movement of the 1840s and 1850s this took the form of a campaign against prostitution which focused upon the lack of economic opportunities for women and the plethora of opportunities for sexual predation open to men in positions of authority. After the Civil War the anti-prostitution campaign focused upon the efforts of physicians and police to regulate prostitution by requiring regular medical examinations. Feminists charged that the legalization of prostitution would legalize the sexual exploitation of women. The "new women" of the 1880s and thereafter continued this crusade. The Dreier sisters who organized the Women's Trade Union League in the early twentieth century turned to trade unions as a way of improving women's wages and working conditions and thus of allieviating some of the economic and social incentives to prostitution. One can see the same concern in the "new women's" reactions to working-class patronage of dance halls, detailed "The Decline of the Victorian Cultural Consensus." Dreiser's novel explored the consequences of illicit female sexual behavior. We can use it and several "real-life" stories to contextualize the next "new woman," the new woman of the 1920s. Above is a picture of Mary Miles Minter, one of Carrie's real-life sisters.

Category Carrie Evelyn Nesbit Olive Thomas Mary Miles Minter
Older Man Hurstwood Stanford White Florenz Ziegfeld William Desmond Taylor
Fatal Outcome Hurstwood dead in poverty White murdered Olive suicide (?) Taylor murdered
Justice Denied Carrie lives happily ever after Thaw found not guilty Jack Pickford not suspected Minter not suspected
Family Disfunction ineffectual sister & brother-in-law ineffectual mother Olive married at 15/child? mother from Hell
Celebrity Status star on Broadway "girl on the red velvet swing" Ziegfeld Girl/movie star 2nd biggest female movie star
Love Triangle Carrie-Drouet-Hurstwood + Evelyn-White-Thaw Olive-Ziegfeld-Jack Pickford MMM-Taylor-Mabel Norman

The grid above plots some of the similarities between the novel and three notorious true stories of the 1900s, 1910s, and early 1920s. The novel is also downloadable here as an ebook for $1.98. There is an online exhibition about Dreiser and the novel at the University of Pennsylvania. You can use the materials available here to research the stories of Evelyn Nesbit and Olive Thomas, or determine who killed William Desmond Taylor.