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  • "A Bit of Ashes in Their Hands"The Dysphoria of Success in Sister Carrie
  • J. Bret Maney (bio)

And now Carrie had attained that which in the beginning seemed life's object, or, at least, such fraction of it as human beings ever attain of their original desires. She could look about on her gowns and carriage, her furniture and bank account. Friends there were, as the world takes it—those who would bow and smile in acknowledgment of her success. For these she had once craved. Applause there was, and publicity—once far off, essential things, but now grown trivial and indifferent.

—Carrie "singing and dreaming" in her rocking chair at the end of Sister Carrie (367–68)

When Theodore Dreiser visited Paris in 1926, a dutiful profile of him appeared in the French press. Among general remarks about Dreiser's novels, then little known in France, the critic Victor Llona, the future translator of An American Tragedy, paused to observe that Dreiser's characters "realize that success leaves nothing but a bit of ashes in their hands" (Dreiser, Interviews 130). Llona's figure of speech, which derives from the mythical apple of Sodom—a tree whose fruits, when plucked, supposedly turned into smoke and ash—draws our attention to the slight yield of pleasure that success affords in the Dreiser corpus. While Llona had The Titan (1914) and The "Genius" (1915) in mind, in particular, we may apply his remark with equal, if not greater weight, to Sister Carrie (1900), Dreiser's first novel about a young woman who flees the countryside to seek fame and fortune in the city, yet whose eventual success as a theatrical star is crowned by unhappiness. By foregrounding the marked dysphoria of success in Sister Carrie, this essay helps reframe debates about Dreiser's ambivalent representation of the rewards of capitalist striving and seeks to [End Page 1] place his critique of success in light of current interdisciplinary work in the fields of happiness studies and economics.1

An author whose surname is a near anagram for "desire," Dreiser remains justly famous for his evocation of capitalist desire's power. Indelible scenes of consumer lust like Carrie's acquisitive eyeballing of commodities in The Fair department store have been amply studied by Rachel Bowlby and other critics. Yet the frequent marring of the fruits of capitalist success by unhappiness in Dreiser's writing makes these same market-oriented desires appear distorted and casts doubt on the promise, implicit in consumer capitalism, of mapping the human yearning for happiness onto a quest for goods. Can the fruits of a budding turn-of-the-century consumer culture lead to emotional fulfillment, as Carrie thinks they will when she strolls through the aisles of the department store based on the real-life Marshall Fields, or do they always turn to ashes, as with the apple of Sodom, once the consumer has them in her grasp? Can economic ascent offer a path to self-realization? If not, what is the point of toil in an increasingly affluent American society?

These are questions Dreiser may have been asking himself in Paris, in 1926, when he was at the height of his own material success as an author.2 But they are not necessarily questions with which we would frame a conversation about the affective dimensions of success in Sister Carrie. When Carrie's unhappy success is discussed in the critical literature, it is usually cited as evidence to support critics' positions within the larger debate whether Dreiser's first novel is, in Alan Trachtenberg's words, "for or against capitalism" ("Who Narrates" 87). Critics who see Sister Carrie as critical of capitalism argue that the novel devalues Carrie's success. For them, Carrie's rise to affluence and stardom in the commercial theater is a false turn that Carrie must disavow in order to achieve true satisfaction as a serious artist. Ellen Moers, for example, writes forcefully of Dreiser's critique in the novel of "metropolitan success," linking Carrie's misguided pursuit of fame, glittering consumer goods, and money to Dreiser's censorious view of his brother Paul's Broadway success (37, 103). In similar fashion, Richard...


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