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Act 1: Carrie as an actress in her own life
As established by the Greek etymology of the word for an actor, hypokrites, an actor both plays the verb and noun definition of the word in that they "interpret a dramatic character" by "pretending to be what they are not." Carrie, the protagonist of the story, fulfills both roles as well, making her a great representation of the classic actress. Carrie defines the turn-of-the-century character that Americans increasingly felt. She is the hope of fulfilling the American Dream at the cost of her own moral values and the quick inclination to adapt to materialism and consumerism that was beginning to sprout in America. Carrie portrays the social transformation occurring during these decades and the discontinuity of identity felt by so many as the nation rebuilt itself in the wake of the Great War and underwent modernization. She is acting the part of the stereotypical American citizen living through the changes of modernization at the turn of the century.
In this role, Carrie also plays a hypocrite, pretending to be what she is not and in her affair with Hurstwood, feigning values she no longer believes in and professing to genuinely like Hurstwood in order to conceal her real attraction to him: the promise of a life of luxury and material comfort. After their hasty marriage, Carrie continues to play a hypocrite as she pretends to take the role of wife and homemaker, hiding the reality that she is in fact an independent woman and the breadwinner of her relationship. She may share a common surname with her husband, but this is only a facade for her part as the traditionally masculine half of the marriage. Throughout the novel, Carrie fully assumes the roles of an actress as originally defined in Ancient Greek theater: she is a portrayal of a person she is not and an interpretation of the American citizen during this period.
Act 2: Carrie as an actress in Dreiser's literary stage
Act 3: Carrie as an actress to symbolize the present American spirit
There is also a symbolism in Carrie becoming an actress at the end of the novel. Throughout the novel Dreiser uses Carrie as the image of truth about the life and social situation in America. Her character reflects the sentiments of dislocation felt during this period and highlights the economic struggles of capitalism, consumerism and materialism that are just beginning to plague America at the turn of the century. Carrie needed to be an actress in the end because it symbolizes what everyone eventually becomes due to the lack of a concrete identity. In a nation where people were seeking to redefine who they were after the devastating impact of the Great War, Dreiser offers through Carrie the ideal solution: that there is no need to actually define oneself--all one needs to do is pretend, to act as if they know who they are. Carrie begins the novel with a concrete definition of her identity and her role in society--she is a country girl from Wisconsin looking for work. But by the end of the novel she has lost all concept of who she is and relies on acting to give her an identity, however false it may be.
Carrie's being an actress also acts to symbolize the materialism that society was moving toward. An actress is a purely commercial product, having no value except that which consumers or the audience give her. It also is the profession that best embraces the concept of materialism because an actress's job is to provide her audience with entertainment or happiness for a fee. Materialism is the belief that happiness and fulfillment can be purchased and when people sit in an audience, they are partaking in exactly that--an exchange of moneys for a few moments of entertainment. As an actress Carrie also symbolizes the emptiness that identity dissolution and materialism leave behind. An actress is a false perception of a real character just as materialism is a false perception of happiness and consumerism is a false perception of wealth. Symbolically, the actress best encapsulates the spirit of the turn of the century--a feeling of falsity in conjunction with a reliance on materialism.
Dreiser's choice in making Carrie an actress is symbolic on many levels. Carrie is an actress in her own story, she is a puppet in relation to the work of the novel, and she is a symbol for the spirit of the decade. Despite her efforts and best intentions of pursuing the American Dream, Carrie has lived a life of pretend and is a symbolic representation of the desperation felt among those in poverty who aimed high and those in wealth who realized that money can not buy happiness.
Dreiser, T. (2005). Sister Carrie (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) (Barnes & Noble Classics). New York: Barnes & Noble Classics.
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Loving, J. (2005, January 1). The Last Titan: CHAPTER SEVEN. Retrieved Apr. 15, 2008, from http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/10215/10215.ch07.php.
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