Sitting in the rocking-chair, now forward, now backward as the chair it goes, one’s mind goes too, back and forth, absent of the physical self, which is entirely in the grip of the chair, i.e. the natural forces of heredity and environment, so Dreiser conveyed. From the beginning, our Carrie sat in the small rocking-chair by the open window, looking out upon the night and streets in silent wonder, to the end she still sat in her rocking-chair with a more pleasing view outside, still melancholy and desirous, but unsatisfied by her fame and possessions.
Deeply influenced by Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, which stated that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die, Dreiser embodied in his characters with incapability to assert their will against natural and economic forces. They were not responsible for rising or falling in a world so fully shaped by circumstance and disposition.
When Carrie left her Midwest hometown in the pursuit of the American dream, Dreiser started to lay out for the readers a dimensional panorama of American ripening capitalism. He evaded the current “genteel tradition” in literature to record the cruel reality with his stubborn honesty with powerful narrative based on large quantities of material and detailed descriptions of people’s clothes, speech and the physical environment, which served as a penetrating display of human experience. Uniquely, Dreiser struck the American myth that success and fame were not to be achieved by work and virtue, and he dramatized chance as a means of compelling characters to pay or gain for actions not their own. He presented Carrie, a new woman figure, drifts with the tide without judgement of her own. She followed whatever came along. She had not control, no freedom of will. But Dreiser neither condemned her nor praised her. This was the way she had to be. He said, a man is even as a wisp in the wind, moved by every breath of passion, acting now by his will and now by his instincts, erring with one, only to retrieve by the other, falling by one, only to rise by the other—a creature of incalculable variability.(Chapter VIII) He’s always serious, never satirical or comic.
Inspired by novels of Balzac, Dreiser’s syntax, in apt diction with delicacy and conclusive views, gave full play to his sharp observation. E.g. “There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye.”(Chapter I) When Carrie was furtively hanging out with Hurstwood in the park, her shyness and ecstasy were lively implied by her brown shoes, which were “peeping” occasionally. And he described the outfit of the ragged with a skilful rhyme, “Their hair was but half attended to, their ears anaemic in hue, and their shoes broken in leather and run down at heel and toe.”(Chapter XLVII)
Among the forces which sweep and play throughout the universe, untutored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our Carrie at her eighteen, taking the train to Chicago, was picked up by a travelling salesman Drouet, who sat in an assuming theology’s favoured position for Devil, behind hers, leaning forward and softly whispering into her ears. She didn’t keep defending her primitive virtue for well for no more than one fifth of the story. However, not evil, but longing for that which is better, more often directs the steps of the erring. Not evil, but goodness more often allures the feeling mind unused to reason. Thus, when a seemingly finer and better person came into her life, so strong an impulse can not resist. In comparison to Drouet, Hurstwood appeared a gallant man of the world, with a cosmopolitan charm and intelligence, the very characteristics that more fetched Carrie. Undoubtedly he would win her but his glitter started to fade out with all the fortune, status and properties out of hand. But Carrie discovered her talent for acting in face of the deteriorating circumstances. Finally he collapsed while she succeeded. But her success sprang out not from any of her strive, creativity, but the inherent feature that her face and demeanour so well represented “the world’s longing,” which was Ames’s comment, an objective and mentally remote person. As Einstein taught, the energy of the universe is never exhausted, only transformed and recycled. Dreiser tended to be scientific in his depiction. In the last scene, Carrie got onto the top of her profession, but beyond that would lay others for her. Dreiser wrote symbolically and lyrically that “it was forever to be the pursuit of that radiance of delight which tints the distant hill-tops of the world.”(Chapter XLVII)
Carrie’s going onward and onward, still sitting in her rocking-chair wondering her happiness and content that was never felt. To be sure there was always the next station, where one might descend and return. Void of a clear purpose, far off the moral bottom-line, will she be there for the vault of heaven or gloomy abyss? T.S.Eliot quoted in his poem Four Quartets the words of Grecian philosopher Herakleitos—“The way upward and the way downward are the same.” Dreiser sometimes stood out as an omniscient God teaching that “the world is full of desirable situations, but, unfortunately, we can occupy but one at a time. It doesn’t do us any good to wring our hands over the far-off things.”(Chapter XLVI) The clay of humanity is made soft and pliable by the water of the quest of goodness, but the stuff that holds it together is after all the clay itself. A vague, uncritical pursuit always lends itself to ridicule and too much of it might be a danger.