The writers reflect the problems of their times. Theodore Dreiser and Edith Wharton lived and wrote in a period of social inequality. In their novels, the writers revealed the issue of economic development, the concentration of power and wealth, and class conflicts. Social inequality is a form of differentiation, in which separate individuals, social groups, and classes are at different stages of social hierarchy and do not have equal life opportunities and chances to meet their needs.
In Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser and in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, the ideas regarding inequality are similar, as both novels examine social hierarchy, from the bottom (Theodore Dreiser) to the very top (Edith Wharton), and women’s position in society.
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Sister Carrie is Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, published in 1900. There are three protagonists in the novel: Carolina Miber, American girl, the daughter of poor farmers; Hurstwood: “a very successful and well-known man about town” (Dreiser 43); and a successful salesman Drouet: “a strong physical nature, actuated by a keen desire for the feminine” (Dreiser 21). Their relations develop in conditions of social inequality. According to Ichiro Kawachi and Philippa Howden Chapman, “money—both its presence and absence—assumes an almost fetishistic quality in Dreiser’s book, in which the novelist lays bare the heroine’s weekly income and expenditures with near documentary zeal” (Kawachi & Chapman 738). Sister Carrie is a novel about the fate of the common people in the capitalist America. The storyline of the novel could be summarized as the history of the moral degradation of the individual in bourgeois society. The author shows degradation of Carrie. As far as Carrie climbs the social ladder, her capacity for compassion becomes muted by selfishness and prudence. Carrie’s rising to the summit of success goes hand in hand with Hurstwood’s slipping down. Making stage career, Carrie throws him to his fate. Hurstwood loses his social role, and his death becomes the death of a man running away. Carrie is a victim of a society. In real life, the main character is devoid of really big human emotions: love and understanding. Craving for a comfortable life gradually leads to the loss of the best human qualities. The writer constantly confronts prosperous Carrie with the pictures of poverty, forcing her to remember her past. By this technique, Dreiser concretizes social root of the heroine’s fall.
Edith Wharton shows another side of society. However, the story is the same. The House of Mirth was a work that allowed Wharton to take an honored place among the recognized classics of American literature. The House of Mirth chronicles the social adventures in the life of its central character (Ouzgane, n.p.). In contrast to Sister Carrie that shows the bottom of the social hierarchy, The House of Mirth tells about an aristocratic beautiful woman Lily Bart, who is considered to be in the top of this hierarchy. She is struggling to lead a life corresponding to her highest position. “Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury. It was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in” (Wharton 38). However, money is constantly lacking, and Lily is seeking for its source. As a result, the author describes the picture of Lily’s moving down by the social ladder that is similar to Dreiser’s degradation of Carrie. Having been a companion to a rich old woman, almost becoming a kept woman of young dandy, and even trying to work, Lily commits suicide in despair. Both novels plunge into the very depths of social transformation of the contemporary innocent era, colored with truly dramatic collisions of private human destinies. They are permeated with the atmosphere of complete inevitability and choice’s hopelessness.
Wharton’s selection of a title for the novel is not accidental. Originally, the novel was named A Moment’s Ornament, which attracted attention primarily to the image of the protagonist. However, Wharton tried not so much to tell about the fate and destiny of the American woman, how about a society, which determined it. “She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (Wharton 10).
Desire for money is used to show the darkest side of human nature. In the novel Sister Carrie, there is no character, which is not determined by social status. Each of them searches for own “American dream”. Throughout the novel, social classes’ distinction is obvious. The clothes, homes, and even the activities distinguish the poor from the rich. Dreiser bitterly opposed Puritanism and hypocrisy, greed, selfishness and practicality. All these features can be found in The House of Mirth too. Describing the fall of Lily Barton, Wharton creates a gallery of portraits, a set of which introduces the reader to a secular society of America. Moving down by the social ladder, Lily goes through several levels within the structure of monetary society. Each level has its inhabitants. Initially, Lily Bart comes into a close circle of the elite. “Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth serves as a strict model of etiquette for high society in the Gilded Age. It teaches one the intricate art of keeping up appearances and assimilating into the fickle leisure class” (Starygina, n.p.). Depicting the old New York as a world, in which people are assessed primarily in terms of their financial status, and in which the foundation of all relationships – family, kinship, and friendship – is money, Wharton sharply criticizes the morals and manners of this social layer, where all the senses are pushed out by a thirst for prosperity and enrichment.
One of the central problems studied by the authors in the novels Sister Carrie and The House of Mirth is the loss of morality due to the unrestrained pursuit of money. Both writers try to show how wealth can lead to falsification of mind, emotions, morals, ethics, and the whole life. The authors considered indifferent and apathetic society that is not interested in the fate of those who do not have money, power, or some other values as the culprit of deaths of Lily Bart and Hurtswood.
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The smooth flow of fates of novels’ characters is dramatic. At every step, they are deprived of the hope to break the light of true humanity, lose their spiritual powers, trying to break the law raised by their society. Using the principle of social determinism in the depiction of manners and characters, Wharton and Dreiser created works that meet the spirit of the era, disclose its identity, contain a truthful picture of life in society, and give a true and vivid picture of the customs and morals of their time. They examined the issue of the role and significance of the time-tested traditions and values of the past.
For a long time, woman has been a minor figure in the community. Women were assigned the role of housewives and nothing more. However, Theodore Dreiser in his book Sister Carrie created an image of the so-called third gender – a woman, who is free to decide her own destiny. The novel represents the history of a professional formation of a young American girl. The fact that the novel’s protagonist is a woman, who is not rich or noble, shows the progress of literature in the artistic perception and imaging of life. The dialectical image of Carrie is also a huge improvement. In the past century, literary female characters have no psychic life. Moreover, Carrie’s perception of life is above all the novel’s characters. By the end of the novel, Carrie becomes finally emancipated; she lives for own money and refuses solid men. The novel describes woman, who uses men and gets what she wants. Dreiser shows men as victimized by a woman. Therefore, Theodore Dreiser denies the common notions of gender. Carrie gains new experience from a relationship with Drouet. However, she drops him, when there is nothing that he can offer her. Carrie uses Hurtswood as another step in the ladder to success. Such woman’s character was atypical for the society.
The House of Mirth can be considered as female novel. It means not sugary-loving sense, but its outlook. As Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton revels the main problem of contemporary society – the lack of the right to choose own way of life. Lily Bart, the main character of the novel The House of Mirth, faces the same problems as Carrie. She needs to choose between the marriage and the fate of the old maid, between husband’s solvency and own poverty. Lily Bart is sweet, kind, and vulnerable. She does not have sincere friends, but only useful and useless people. The heroine is charming and effervescent at the beginning, and pitiful in her helplessness at the end. In contrast to Dreiser’s Carrie, Lily is weak. She clearly understands that in order to achieve success in high society, she has to marry a rich and powerful man. The heroine considers any candidacy in terms of wealth and position in society. She believes that marriage is a deal where a woman acts as a commodity that must be sold at the highest price.
Dreiser and Wharton brought a breath of life in American literature by their vision and appreciation of what was happening in American society. The tragic feature of that society was its ability to disparage human aspirations and ideas. It was the main theme of the novels Sister Carrie and The House of Mirth. With all moderation of narrative means and authors’ impassivity, they acquire the acute tension and deep drama under the pens of outstanding writers. The writers aspired to accurately and truthfully describe the reality without embellishing and hiding the problems and contradictions that characterized American society of the ХIХ-ХХ centuries.