Article Expert: Feminist Thing Theory in Sister Carrie

Feminist Thing Theory in Sister Carrie by Tracy Lemaster

Main Argument

Critics overlook the significance of Theodore Dreiser’s repetition of things (something, everything, anything, nothing) as merely poor writing or the author’s de-emphasis of the meaning-making of words. Examining Sister Carrie through feminist thing theory challenges these former perceptions by arguing that the novel’s thing rhetoric “offers a proto-feminist depiction of a woman whose desire of things brings a psychological, sexual, and aesthetic development that positions men on the periphery” (53).

Thing Theory

  • Bill Brown: “the animate and inanimate reciprocally shape, mimic, and occupy one another,” thing theory is used to create meaning about identity and anxiety
  • Feminist thing theorists “recognize the political in the personal” and engage “women’s marginalization from democratic processes and their historical positioning as objects” (42).

Key Points: Economics, Sex, Theater

  • Economics Things
    • thing terms are used to reference material objects and immaterial states: the object itself and what that object represents or can be used to represent
    • Benn Michaels observes that Carrie associates money with power
    • Carrie also sees money as a means to achieve her desires by navigating her subjectivity and the value system of the city’s economic structure
  • Sex Things
    • Men, such as Drouet and Hurstwood, use thing rhetoric to objectify women as “something(s)” to be desired or possessed and dematerialize women who fall out of their favor as “nothing”
    • Totalizing language such as “anything,” “everything,” and “nothing” are used to demarcate gender power dynamics, rendering relationships “a commercial exchange of love for things” (45)
      • Lemaster argues that Carrie becomes fluent in this rhetoric and employs it in moments of either internal of verbalized retaliation, such as during her argument with Drouet when she conceives of leaving him
    • Theatrical Things
      • Carrie doesn’t escape objectification on the stage, but instead “assumes control over that objectification” mirroring her author’s creation of her (50)
      • Sarah Pink: “shift from imitation of externals to the inner realm” undercuts Judith Butler’s gender performance theory to emphasize agency in negotiating roles and gender scripts (51).
      • Her trajectory in Under the Gaslight: stage fright (pure object), performing for the audience (object for male gaze), to transforming Laura “into her thing” (controlling her object)

My Thoughts (in brief)

The narrator insertions, especially at the end of the novel, complicate this reading for me; it’s unclear whether Carrie’s seizure of her subjectivity/objectivity is a positive or redeemable trajectory. I’m also interested in how naturalism’s determinism plays a role in this assessment.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree that Carrie is able to utilize this economic system—a system of things—in order to seize control over her means of objectification in urban society? How does this speak to the role of determinism in naturalism? Does it challenge or support it?
  2. If Carrie can be argued to have become savvy about thing rhetoric to a point where she can use it to her advantage, what becomes of Drouet and Hurstwood’s ability to navigate this world of things? What does this say about the potential for mobility of men and women in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie?
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