Loved this book. Let's just get that out of the way.
Theodore Dreiser was one of the main figures of the Naturalist movement. This kind of scared me. I pictured this dude cavorting around the woods with no clothes on around the turn of the last century. It's no accident that this post includes no images of Dreiser. I was too scared to google images of Dreiser. Of course, it turns out Naturalism (not Naturism) is some literary movement grown out of Realism, which has something to do with us being the product of our heredity, what social class we're subject to, etc. Predestination, I suppose. I'm sure I've got it wrong, because that's what I do...misinterpret things.
(possibly spoilers )
The plot and subplots of the book aren't unique (hint: plots seldom are). The major plot is the Rags to Riches story of the titular character. The subplots are a love triangle between Carrie, Drouet (a traveling salesman), and Hurstwood (the manager of a Chicago club) and the corruption and ultimate destruction of a man, in this case Hurstwood. The latter of these subplots is the standard plot of the noir narrative, which it should come as no surprise was the most interesting of the narrative structures for me. But plot isn't the good stuff this novel is made of.
None of the characters in Sister Carrie are likable. What? Huh? That's right. Drouet is interested in upward mobility, and sees Carrie as a nice little feather to put in his cap. When she is down and out in Chicago early in the book, he puts her up in a nice enough place and takes care of her well enough. He also leads her to believe that he will marry her, but pushes the future date further away at every mention. Despite, not wanting to marry her, he tells others that she is his wife, and has Carrie play along with the charade. To Drouet, Carrie is an attractive possession. Hurstwood, a friend of Drouet whom is married with children, fall in love with Carrie, whom he thinks is married to Drouet, and plots ways to run away with Carrie, when his wife finds out his hand is pushed and he essentially kidnaps Carrie, and eventually becomes a bigamist. Carrie is only concerned with having nice things, and uses Drouet and Hurstwood to these means.
I disagree with the notion that you must find a character to like for the novel to be any good. I wouldn't want any of the people populating the main narrative of Sister Carrie as friends. I do, however, empathize with all of them. Just about any American has dealt with the desires of material goods to some degree or another. So Carrie's fascination with nice things is an easy relation. She changes, as all good characters should, and comes to see the emptiness of consumerism. Again, empathy. Hurstwood is the character destroyed in the novel. When he runs away with the woman he thinks he loves, he is leaving behind his successes, his children, and his self esteem for a life on the run. When he finds that he is unable to rebuild his career in New York his downward spiral begins and he is immobilized by depression and fear. If the reader can't feel for Hurstwood during his fall from grace, he/she needs to check their heart. It may be a size or two too small. Drouet is the most difficult to empathize with, and he doesn't really change. However, most any man can relate to being captivated by a beautiful woman. It's not much, but it is how the reader, at least the male one, will connect to the character.
In a sense all of these character are villains used to display the main theme of the novel, which is the emptiness and corruptive quality of American consumerism. How's that for universal? I often felt I was reading a novel of contemporary times, until someone rode by in a horse cart. The novel works best when the story of these characters illuminate this theme through their stories. Dreiser often appears at the beginning of chapters as the omniscient narrator to explain what the following scene will mean. It's not a method I'm often fond of, but it works better than it would seem when first encountered. It's also one of the perks of reading a classic. That the author hasn't been exposed to workshops and endless how-to writing books. The rules are broken, and often things work just fine.
So what about this Naturalism? Carrie came from nothing and still made it. Huh? How does that work into the whole born into your situation, predestined by heredity, social class, etc. And then there's Hurstwood, who has nearly everything before his fall for grace. It baffled me. Then I realized how very little of the changes brought about in Sister Carrie were actively brought about by the characters. Carrie's success as an actress is entirely depicted as natural talent. Hurstwood's fall can be traced back to an incident that leads him into running away with Carrie, against her wishes. Specifically, a theft from the club he managed. This could almost be explained away as fate, too. The safe accidentally closed, with Hurstwood handling the money and he having no way of opening it. Finding himself in a desperate situation, imagining himself charged with the theft regardless, he made a whole slew of bad decisions, before coming to his senses too late. This is pretty standard of the noir character as well.
So I loved the book. I gave it four stars. It only missed the rarefied air of the five star novel due to Dreiser's prose which isn't as beautiful as say Nabokov's.