Cosmopolitan Standards of Virtue

1900 New York: Sister Carrie’s City
“When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.” So wrote Theodore Dreiser in his 1900 novel, Sister Carrie. Carrie goes to the big city of Chicago, falls in with a salesman, Drouet, only to leave with another man, Hurstwood, and off the two go to the even bigger city, New York.  
 
Does she assume the “cosmopolitan standard of virtue”? She certainly does. And Dreiser uses the city as the backdrop for her simultaneous rise in fortune and decline in virtue.
 
Carrie rises to fame as an actress in the theatrical world, becoming wealthy beyond her dreams, and, after leaving her once prosperous (and married) lover, she settles into her suite of rooms at the Wellington Hotel, one of New York City’s  “newest and most imposing hostelries” at Seventh Avenue and W. 55th Street.

Advertised as “a new, commodious and modern fire proof structure,” the hotel is situated “on one of New York’s most spacious avenues, directly on the line of the Broadway cars, within three minutes’ walk of two elevated stations,” and thus it “affords quick transit to the business section, to shops and places of amusement. But ten blocks removed from the brilliancy of Long Acre Square [now known as Times Square], and within two blocks of Central Park, with its winter sleighing and summer greenery, its riding, driving and automobiling—the Wellington is free from the noise and dust of downtown hotels, but still in the midst of social life.” (Engineering Review, March 1904, 1.)
 
All of this Carrie receives nearly gratis.

Owing to her fame on the stage in New York, the Wellington’s manager, a Mr. Withers, allows her to live in deluxe accommodations for a nominal fee. He explains his generosity: “Every hotel depends upon the repute of its patrons. A well-known actress like yourself,” and he bowed politely, while Carrie flushed, “draws attention to the hotel, and—although you may not believe it—patrons.”
 
And so, along with her friend, Lola, Carrie moves into a suite.
 
The rooms “were done in chocolate and dark red, with rugs and hangings to match. Three windows looked down into busy Broadway on the east, three into a side street which crossed there. There were two lovely bedrooms, set with brass and white enamel beds, white, ribbon-trimmed chairs and chiffoniers to match. In the third room, or parlour, was a piano, a heavy piano lamp, with a shade of gorgeous pattern, a library table, several huge easy rockers, some dado book shelves, and a gilt curio case, filled with oddities. Pictures were upon the walls, soft Turkish pillows upon the divan, footstools of brown plush upon the floor. Such accommodations would ordinarily cost a hundred dollars a week.”
 
Such a structure, with its indoor plumbing and modern features included a bathroom described as “a handsome affair, done in white enamel, with a large, blue-bordered stone tub and nickel trimming; It was bright and commodious, with a bevelled mirror set in the wall at one end and incandescent lights arranged in three places.”
 
Whatever qualms Carrie might have in accepting Mr. Whithers’ offer, she has already assumed the city’s standard of virtue: live to fulfill yourself, no matter what the cost.
 
The city, in Dreiser’s hands, is rendered as a place of extremes. It is a place where people freeze to death on the streets because they haven’t the penny to secure themselves a bed in a flop house. And it is a place where people are given the best the city has to offer simply because of their fame.
 
But despite having realized her dreams, Carrie is lonely and unhappy. Her closest friends and family are no longer around her; Hurstwood has suffered a fate opposite her own, with his body now resting in a Potter’s Field.
 
But here is Carrie in New York. Sitting at her window in her suite of rooms, staring off into the glittering picture of cosmopolitanism that is unfolded before her.
 
“In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone,” Dreiser writes, “In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.”
~Jenny Thompson
table of contents

Still Striving: A modern version of “Sister Carrie” appears in Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City (1997). Carrie Bradshaw and Co. still seek to realize their dreams; apartments still matter; and Carrie dreams looking out the window (albeit with her laptop set in front of her).


 

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