Article Expert: The Naturalist Novel and the City

“Even when people appear just as they are they play their appearance as a role.” (553)

“These plots of exhaustion have as their central subject the realm of energy rather than value. They revolve around strength and weakness, not good and evil. Their essential matters are youth and age, freshness and exhaustion. Behind the plot of decline is the Darwinian description of struggle, survival, and extinction.” (555)

“The Naturalist plot of decline in Hardy, Zola, and Dreiser bases itself to a large extend on the history of the body and not that of social position. It is therefore a chronicle of subtraction and weakening of social position.” (556)

“This life history is that of products and objects which are best when new or fresh then become worn out and discarded.” (558)

“What they [the audience of aging males] rent in the theater is her vitality and youth and not at all her talent or remarkable beauty. Dreiser is careful to give Carrie no particular talent or remarkable beauty.” (557)

Fisher begins the novel by discussing Sister Carrie in somewhat Marxist terms. Jobs at the bottom of society are a transaction where the self is extinguished through toil. He continues to intertwine identity with labor, describing jobs as roles that are put on, just as Carrie literally puts on roles as a performer in the novel.

This transitions into a discussion of the structure of the novel. The notion that the city plays a character has become almost trite at the moment, but Fisher goes to great lengths to describe how the two cities play a role in the novel, applying some credence to the concept. The Chicago story is a traditional bildungsroman, while the New York story begins a narrative of decline. Fisher constantly stresses the rises and falls of the novel, combining social determinism with biological determinism, pointing out, for example, how youthful energy is converted into wealth, which melts away with age just as the body does.

Determinism is a central theme of naturalism, however many of the articles we have read and our discussions have centered on it as a loose, pessimistic, philosophical concept. The character died at the end and of course she was going to die because this is the reality of living in poverty. I appreciate Fisher’s article for charting out how exactly determinism is grounded in biological science, by paying special attention to the ways age functions not only in relation to social constructs, but strict Darwinian evolution. Class struggle is always at odds with nature, in that the youthful toil so that they may one day be rich enough to buy some of the pleasures of youth after it is long gone.

Questions: What are some ways we can chart social relations in Sister Carrie and other naturalist novels using a more biological terminology?


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