“She was not, like so many endeavoring to put the ocean into a tea-cup, or to tie up the shifting universe in a mess of strings called law.”
— Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser.
I just finished reading this book and I admit, under full disclosure, that this blog post will not have anything to do with tea. Although I did think a bit about this quote and what it meant, our heroine Jennie, seems to be the sort of character who accepts things as they come and doesn’t make a huge fuss when they end.
I’ve always been interested in classic literature but I can’t quite tell you why. In part, it comes from an interest in history, but ever since high school I’ve wanted to tackle some of the great novels of the past. Theodore Dreiser topped my reading list for quite some time.
Both books have heroines who come from impoverished families, and in order to escape the fate of becoming a washer woman or a factory worker, they are each seduced by men who take them under their wing and provide for them financially; thus they become fallen women. Neither Jennie nor Carrie seem to be “marriage material”. Although their paramours seem to love them (or say they do), in reality they are each holding out for a woman with more prestige and status.
Carrie Meeber is first taken in by Charles Drouet, he puts her into a nice apartment where they carry on the pretenses of being man and wife. She lives happily for a bit of time, but wishes for respectability and rightly loses hope that the union will ever turn into a respectable bond. She then becomes seduced by Hurstwood, who falls madly in love with her, but unbeknownst to Carrie he is already married. The deception continues when he leaves his wife, embezzles money from his company and tricks her into getting on a train where they eventually make their way to New York.
Carrie watches her new beau try to eek out a living for them both, and after several failed starts due to his criminal history and shady past he succumbs to depression, unemployment and eventually becomes a wastrel. Her hopes dashed while her man is effectively neutered, she begins to dream of a better life and eventually breaks free of their bond to become a successful and independent actress of the stage.
On the other hand, Jennie is born into a large German family which continually has difficulty making ends meet. She tries to work as a washer woman and a maid, but it is never enough income for her family. At first seduced by the generous Senator Brandor, the man of prestige is quite taken with her and gives her plenty of money for her family. Although the details of their sexual relationship are quite vague, she later gives birth to a child and Senator Brandor dies. Next she is seduced by another affluent man, Lester Kane. At first it seems that Lester wants to trifle with her only, but their relationship turns into a long term cohabitation.
Neither Lester’s nor Jennie’s family approves of their bond, but Lester stands to lose his entire fortune and inheritance unless he marries Jennie or leaves her. Waffling for years between the two, he finally abandons their relationship to marry a wealthy woman.
Unlike Carrie, Jennie never seems to find the motivation to become her own person. Although she’s put up into a tiny cottage and is provided for financially (by Lester), she leads a sad, kind of aimless life, full of loneliness and longing.
Because both of these novels explore similar themes I was led to do a bit of research on Theodore Dreiser. I wondered if he entered into a similar relationship at one point but clues were rather sparse on this point. I learned that Dreiser was born into a large German family, and the fictional Gerhardt family was based partly on his own. He was also an outspoken Socialist, which was most likely due to the experiences formed by his past.
I found this quote over on Spartacus Educational, which provides a bit of clarity:
Since his early days of journalism Dreiser began to observe a certain type of crime in the United States that proved very common. It seemed to spring from the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an ingrown ambition to be somebody financially and socially. Dreiser described this as a form of disease. He added that he observed many forms of murder for money…the young ambitious lover of some poorer girl… for a more attractive girl with money or position…it was not always possible to drop the first girl. What usually stood in the way was pregnancy.
You may be wondering why I took all the trouble to write these many words on a subject which is unrelated to tea. I suppose I found myself contemplating these heroines and what life must have been like for women 100 years ago. It’s a good sign when you read a book that makes you really think for a while about your own circumstances.
As I reflect upon my own life, I know I could be more well-off, better dressed, etc. But having a personal freedom which is tied to making my own way in the world has become very important to me. Entering into a union based on love is far preferable than a union based on necessity. However, women did not have as many options until more modern times.
Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own:
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size.
If you have actually read these pontifications of mine, I thank you. There are so many things to be grateful for in life, and freedom is one. Love should be a choice and not a shackle upon one’s leg. We should all have options, no matter our gender, race or sexual orientation. For my own life now, I am grateful.