Playing Pretend: Carrie as an Actress in Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie”
“In acting, don’t settle for anything less than the
biggest dream for your character’s future.”
– Michael Shurtleff (1920-2007)
The Greeks are credited with the first recorded moment of an actor performing onstage, speaking words under the guise of a character in a story. Prior to this event, stories were only told in the third person through oral tradition. In Ancient Greece, the word for an actor was hypokrites, meaning “to interpret” when rendered as a verb and “one who pretends to be what they are not” when used as a noun. Indeed, the position of an actor plays both roles, interpreting dramatic characters onstage by portraying people they are not. However in these beginnings of acting, the actor or actress was typically a person of low social status who were regarded with distaste and isolation from the religious community. It is only with the ride of the Hollywood movie star in 1930’s America that acting became an honorable profession that demanded large salaries and widespread celebrity status.
America’s actresses appeared only during the Golden Age of film during the mid-1920’s onward. Florence Lawrence is often referred to as “the first movie star,” followed by Mary Pickford who was the leading woman at the turn of the century, staring in over 200 films between 1909 and 1933. It was during this period that Theodore Dreiser finally persuaded the Doubleday publishing house to publish a small edition of his novel, Sister Carrie. Dreiser was met with much criticism and conflict over this work, due to its unconventional treatment of morals and values during this time.
Sister Carrie tells the story of Caroline (Carrie) Meeber and follows her from her struggle with poverty in America to her rise as an acclaimed actress who is financially independent. Carrie overcomes her status as a low-paid wage earner to become a high-paid actress in New York, becoming a reflection of the various social circles prevalent in America during this period. Although she is introduced as a Wisconsin country girl seeking the American Dream, she finishes the novel as an actress, symbolizing the falsity of her life as well as the fantasized setting of the novel.
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
It is also fitting that Dreiser should make Carrie at actress at the end as a literally statement about the novel itself. As a writer, Dreiser created the character of Carrie, a person who does not exist in reality, but is merely an idea pretending to be a real person. The novel itself can be viewed as a stage whereupon Carrie acts out a script. It is then fitting that Dreiser does not provide her with a background and controls her identity throughout the novel to be one that is constantly changing in response to the environment. This character is manipulated by Dreiser to say certain things and undergo various obstacles according to his whims as a writer. There is no background given on Carrie and little is disclosed about her past or her experiences prior to her introduction in the novel. It is as if she is dropped onto the stage of the novel as an actress, acting out each scene without any real impacting effect.
In addition, Carrie’s experiences in the novel are not determined by her virtues or vices, but rather through random circumstance. It is only by coincidence that she meets Drouet and merely by chance that she later encounters Hurstwood. Every character Carrie chances upon is met through random coincidence and not through effort on her part. She manages to have a roof over her head through these chance meetings and never through a determined effort to find a place to live. This is a trait of the role of an actress where the events she may act out on stage, have no connection to her individual choices but are simply serendipitous acts called for in the script. The whole novel is a superficial setting for the play of Carrie’s life upon reaching the big city of Chicago wherein Carrie is just an actress, playing her part.
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.