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  • Forgetting the Uncomfortable:Reading the Shadows of Retail Labor in Sister Carrie and Susan Lenox
  • Ashley Palmer

“The plea was that of a gaunt-faced man of about thirty, who looked the picture of privation and wretchedness. Drouet was the first to see. He handed over a dime with an upwelling feeling of pity in his heart. Hurstwood scarcely noticed the incident. Carrie quickly forgot.”

—Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie1

“I must forget that, for I can’t be happy again until I do. I understand now why the comfortable people can be happy. They keep from knowing or they make themselves forget.”

—David Graham Phillips, Susan Lenox2

When Susan Lenox walks into Sternberg’s department store with money to spend, she restricts herself to quiet purchases, selecting “plain, serviceable things,” including “the simplest of simple hats” (I, 387–8). This restrained scene of consumption from David Graham Phillips’ novel Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1917) interrupts a trying stretch of poverty for Susan. Earlier that evening, Susan and her friend Etta—cold, penniless, and out of work—had been “gazing hungrily” (I, 377) at luxurious items on display in a department store window. Shopping, even modestly, moves a previously broken-down Susan to a state of pleasure. Warm and relaxed inside the store, she laughs and jests with her shopping companion and john for the evening—the aptly named John—until her pleasure is interrupted when John alludes to the forces of labor enabling her late-night diversion, observing, “I’m glad these poor tired shopgirls and clerks are set free.” John’s reminder that the exhausted staff is still working late into the night evokes for the “conscience-stricken” (I, 388) Susan the underside of consumption. Their captivity at work in the store recalls Susan’s own prior sense of imprisonment as a factory worker, and she confronts the need to compartmentalize the struggles of the working class away from the pleasures of consumption. [End Page 129]

As Phillips suggests in this passage, carefree consumption and awareness of the difficult labor conditions underpinning that consumption cannot coexist. The “fascinating display of clothing” (I, 377) exhibited in department stores can be experienced at the height of their mirth only when properly detached from the hands and legs and souls that put them there. Where Susan Lenox makes a conscious decision to sublimate the uncomfortable thought of shopgirls toiling late into the night in order to savor her visit to the department store, shopping enthusiast Carrie Meeber—Susan’s precursor and in many ways fictional analog—overlooks the labor of the shopgirl entirely. In the iconic scenes of consumer desire Dreiser depicts in Sister Carrie (1900), Carrie wanders through department stores captivated by the items on display, betraying none of the sensitivities to labor Susan demonstrates while shopping. And yet both characters spend time working in factories that produce goods like those sold in department stores; in fact, both protagonists almost become department store shopgirls themselves, though neither Dreiser nor Phillips places his protagonist in that role.

Addressing the relative invisibility of the shopgirl in our literary canon, this essay focuses on two important works of American literary naturalism that include the shopgirl in their tales of female work, poverty, and aspiration while limiting her role to a nearly invisible place behind the counter. Shopgirl labor, which evokes many of the pains commonly associated with sweatshop labor, entailed standing for long hours, earning less than a living wage, taking fleeting breaks in unhygienic staff rooms, and withstanding objectification if not sexual harassment from male bosses and customers. Reading Phillips’ novel as a telling foil to Dreiser’s, I illuminate the shopgirl’s varying degrees of invisibility in Sister Carrie and Susan Lenox to reframe the ways Dreiser and Phillips understand female labor and its relationship to consumer culture.

Critics have long examined Sister Carrie through the lens of capitalism. Key literary readings of the novel initially celebrated Dreiser’s critique of capitalism through the plot of Hurstwood’s decline.3 Walter Benn Michaels’ revisionary reading of Sister Carrie argues against earlier readings of the novel as a critique of capitalism, contending that Dreiser’s participation in Carrie’s...


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pp. 129-151
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