Sister Carrie

by Theodore Dreiser

Quotes & Notes
by Stephen Balbach, October 2007

See main review at Cool Reading.


On the misfortune and happiness of others:
We are inclined sometimes to wring our hands much more profusely over the situation of another than the mental attitude of that other, towards his own condition, would seem to warrant. People do not grieve so much sometimes over their own state as we imagine. They suffer, but they bear it manfully. They are distressed, but it is about other things as a rule than their actual state at the moment. We see, as we grieve for them, the whole detail of their blighted career, a vast confused imagery of mishaps covering years, much as we read a double decade of tragedy in a ten-hour novel. The victim, meanwhile, for the single day or morrow, is not actually anguished. He meets his unfolding fate by the minute and the hour as it comes.

On responsibility:
Many individuals are so constituted that their only thought is to obtain pleasure and shun responsibility. They would like, butterfly-like, to wing forever in a summer garden, flitting from flower to flower, and sipping honey for their sole delight. They have no feeling that any result which might flow from their action should concern them. They have no conception of the necessity of a well-organized society wherein all shall accept a certain quota of responsibility and all realize a reasonable amount of happiness. They think only of themselves because they have not yet been taught to think of society. For them pain and necessity are the great taskmasters. Laws are but the fences which circumscribe the sphere of their operations. When, after error, pain falls as a lash, they do not comprehend that their suffering is due to misbehavior. Many such an individual is so lashed by necessity and law that he falls fainting to the ground, dies hungry in the gutter or rotting in the jail and it never once flashes across his mind that he has been lashed only in so far as he has persisted in attempting to trespass the boundaries which necessity sets. A prisoner of fate, held enchained for his own delight, he does not know that the walls are tall, that the sentinels of life are forever pacing, musket in hand. He cannot perceive that all joy is within and not without. He must be for scaling the bounds of society, for overpowering the sentinel. When we hear the cries of the individual strung up by the thumbs, when we hear the ominous shot which marks the end of another victim who has thought to break loose, we may be sure that in another instance life has been misunderstood—we may be sure that society has been struggled against until death alone would stop the individual from contention and evil.
(Ch XV)

On travelling:
To the untraveled, territory other than their own familiar I heath is invariably fascinating. Next to love it is the one thing which solaces and delights. It is a boon to the weary and distressed, the one thing, which, because of its boundless prodigality of fact and incident, causes the mind to forget. Not even wounded love can long wander to and fro amid new scenes without in a measure forgetting its wound. The things to see are too important to be neglected, and mind, which is a mere reflection of sensory impressions, succumbs to this flood of objects. It is so busy storing new ideas that there is scarcely any time for old ones. Thus lovers are forgotten, sorrows laid aside, death hidden from view. There is a world of accumulated feeling back of the trite dramatic expression—"I am going away." To the untraveled, that is the only equivalent for love lost—the one partial compensation, the thing which, if it cannot restore, can make us forget.

On working and sloth:
We know that certain forms of life, used to certain conditions, die quickly when exposed. The common canary, hardy enough when captured, loses, after a few years of confinement in a gilded cage, its power to shift for itself. The house-dog, held until middle age in comfort, will die of starvation if turned out into the woods to hunt alone. The house-dog, turned out a puppy, becomes a wolf, or so much like one that the difference is one of appearance only. So man, held until middle age in peace and plenty, forgets the art of shifting and doing. The skill and wit of the mind is atrophied. He appears to be something and lo, the poor brain argues that it must live up to that something, else it is disgraced. Courage to belie its feelings is not there. It must sit and wonder, waiting for the thing which it can do. It can scarcely change itself sufficiently to do as the thing requires.

In art and artists:
"The world is always struggling to express itself-to make clear its hopes and sorrows and give them voice. It is always seeking the means, and it will delight in the individual who can express these things for it. That is why we have great musicians, great painters, great writers and actors. They have the ability to express the world's sorrows and longings, and the world gets up and shouts their names. All effort is just that. It is the thing which the world wants portrayed, written about, graven, sung or discovered, not the portrayer or writer or singer, which makes the latter great. You and I are but mediums, through which something is expressing itself. Now, our duty is to make ourselves ready mediums."