Industrialisation and Identity

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Industrialisation and Identity

In 1889 Chicago had the peculiar qualifications of growth which made such adventuresome pilgrimages even on the part of young girls plausible. Its many and growing commercial opportunities gave it widespread fame, which made of it a giant magnet, drawing to itself, from all quarters, the hopeful and the hopeless – those who had their fortune yet to make and those whose fortunes and affairs had reached a disastrous climax elsewhere. (Dreiser 15f) At the turn of the 19th century, the industrialisation brought about tremendous change in the US.

With innovations and inventions like the steam engine, railroads, electricity, telephones and telegraphing, the structure of American society shifted and evolved. People from the rural areas started flocking to the big cities in hopes of finding work and a better life, a dream many chased in vain. The protagonist in Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie, 18-year old country girl Carrie Meeber, is one of the “hopeful”; she leaves her hometown to find happiness and success in the big city of Chicago.

At first, she stays with relatives and experiences the miserable, tiresome day-to-day struggle of the working middle-class of job-hunting and then hard menial labour in a factory. However, she soon grows tired of her situation. She lets herself be mesmerised by the wealth displayed by others, which both intimidates her and fills her with an insatiable longing for money and status. With this desire growing in her heart, she is willing to make all the sacrifices to achieve her goal, leaving her safe, but unexciting home to live with Charles Drouet, a man whom she barely knows, but who offers her a comfortable lifestyle.

Nevertheless, Carrie still is not satisfied, so she leaves him for the wealthier George Hurstwood and continues to search for a way to success and happiness by obtaining status and commodities, losing herself in the process. In his novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser illustrates how the industrialisation did not only change the structure of American society at the turn of the 19th century, but also have a deep impact on the consumer culture and individual consumer behaviour of the American middle-class, marking the beginning of the impossible quest of struggling to create one’s identity through consumption.

The Industrialisation The inventions and innovations of the industrialisation brought about great change for American society and people’s everyday lives. Roughly before 1750, even though the Americans with their steadily advancing frontier were a very progress-oriented people, the general expectation was to die in a world not much different to the one one was born in. (Cross 53) However, during and after the industrialisation, the increased development of ground-breaking new technology did not only affect the economy, but also the way people viewed the world.

The inventions of the steam engine and electricity, the new ways of travelling and communication over long distances and new forms of retail created new employment and consumption possibilities (Cross 53), allowing a more and more comfortable and luxurious lifestyle in the cities for the upper-class and those middle-class citizens who were able to afford to keep up with the latest trends and fashions. The steam engine is said to be the central invention of the industrialisation period from the 18th to the 20th century, as it inspired as many technological advances as no other invention before it.

Invented in Britain at the beginning of the 18th century, Gary Cross explains it took quite some time until was imported, adapted and improved by the Americans to fit their needs. In the 18th century, he reasons, there was no need for an alternative source of energy, as vast forests, coal deposits and water energy were available. In the 19th century, however, this indifferent attitude towards the steam engine changed fundamentally and its potential as an energy source for manufacturing was exploited. Cross 84) By 1830, only about five per cent of the American factories used steam power; by 1900, it was over 80 per cent. (Cross 93) Steam also found its uses in the non-industrial sector as central heating for buildings. In Sister Carrie, Carrie delights in her modern New York apartment “supplied with steam-heat” and a “bath with hot and cold water” (307). In addition to that, the steam engine was applied in the area of transportation as energy source for street cars, steam boats, and locomotives.

The railroad had a tremendous effect on both the American economy and society in the 19th century. Daniel W. Howe mentions three main consequences of the railroad (among many others): Firstly, it sped up the process of urbanisation by connecting rural areas to the big cities. (Howe 565) For example, Chicago, one of the main settings of Sister Carrie, evolved from a village of less than 100 inhabitants in 1830 to a city of 30,000 in 1850, which would have been absolutely “inconceivable […] without the railroad. (Howe 567) In 1889, the time the story of the novel sets in, its population is greater than 50,000 (16). Secondly, allowing the efficient transport of commodities across the country by shortening waiting times and cutting costs, the railroad not only led to a tremendous change in trading business, but also provided the incentive for technological advancement in steel production as well as in the efficiency and safety of trains and tracks, laying the groundwork for further innovation of methods of transport later in history. Howe 566)

Finally, as a comparatively convenient and affordable way of travelling, railroads also provided the opportunity for long-distance trips and vacations in far-away places even for the American middle-class. (Howe 565) There are two reasons for taking the train in Sister Carrie: for business purposes, and with the intent of moving to another city. Interestingly, there are no actual vacations taking place in the novel; merely plans of travel are mentioned, mostly overseas trips to Europe (142;357). Of far more interest are Drouet and his ambivalent feelings about business travel.

He undoubtedly enjoys meeting and flirting with the ladies he meets on the road. He has no reservations of striking up a chat with Carrie on her first train journey from her hometown to Chicago, who (unsurprisingly) is very impressed by Drouet and his knowledge of the various places he has visited on business. (4ff) Drouet is a “drummer”, a travelling salesman, a job requiring the railway for fast long-distance travel. For him, train journeys hold no deep meaning; they are simply a necessary part of his work.

In a short flirtation with a chambermaid, he reveals that he travels far, but does not care for travelling all that much, explaining, “You get tired of it after awhile. ” (200) The same trip, merely a boring return of a business trip for Drouet, is a life-altering, exciting journey for Carrie. Never having travelled before, she is reassured by the thought that home will never be far away since the cities were “bound more closely by these very trains which came up daily” (3). The railroad shortened travel times drastically.

While it took five weeks to travel from Chicago over the Appalachians to New York in 1790, seventy years later the distance could be crossed in merely two days. (Cross 104) Originally, Carrie moves from the countryside to the city because she is in need of work; however, her expectations for her future are far more ambitious. Her hopes of fortune and fame she projects on “[t]his onrushing train”, which “was merely speeding to get there. ” (3) The second and by far most dramatic journey in Sister Carrie, however, is the elopement of Carrie and Hurstwood.

Having stolen a large sum of money from his employers, he tricks Carrie into leaving Chicago with him on a train bound for Detroit, from where they continue to Montreal, Canada. Again, all hope is set on the train as the (only) way to a better future. In this case it is Hurstwood, who in his desperation loses all eloquence, who considers the only possible future as “a thing which concern[s] the Canadian line. ” (275) Making the train his lifeline, he hopes to cross the border as soon as possible, since abroad he will be safe from the legal repercussions of his crime.

Hurstwood manages to persuade Carrie to stay with him, but since life in Montreal does not seem worthwhile to either of them, they soon decide to move on to New York, again with the hope of a promising future awaiting them once they get off the train. The invention of the telegraph revolutionised long-distance communication thoroughly, possibly even more so than the railroad did long-distance transportation. Professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse and his team were the first to develop a commercially viable kind of electric telegraph in America; by 1848, the system of wires reached Chicago. Howe 695) Research and experiments led to Thomas Edison finding a way of sending messages back and forth over one wire at the same time in the 1870s and to his invention of the phonograph, with which messages could be recorded. (Cross 176)

Unlike the telephone, which was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 and was mainly used for social purposes (Cross 181), the telegraph was mostly used for commercial purposes and information transmission. It also found its use in communication on the railroad, improving the safety and efficiency of trains. Cross 102) In Sister Carrie, the telegraph and even the telephone have short appearances at crucial points in the story, both concerning Hurstwood’s crime and dramatic escape. Coming across a “famous drug store” with “one of the first private telephone booths ever erected” (271), Hurstwood phones the train station to obtain information regarding the train times, as he wishes to leave as soon as possible. Opposed to the novelty of the telephone so explicitly stressed by Dreiser, the already well-established telegraph is casually integrated in the story.

On the train bound for Detroit, Hurstwood worries that the afternoon papers might already cover his theft and wonders “what telegraphs might come” (282), indicating his fear of not being able to escape fast enough. The telegraph was a useful tool for the police to coordinate searches and catching criminals before they were beyond reach, apparently leading to a few successful arrests. (288) Once in Canada, Hurstwood anxiously checks the newspaper, and, “among the riff-raff of the telegraphed murders, accidents, marriages and other news items from out the length and breadth of the land” (297), he discovers a small notice of his own crime.

Because he cannot see himself staying abroad, he tries to negotiate with his former employers the return of the money and a possible rehiring, the latter of which obviously eliciting a much colder response than the first–also via telegraph. (302) Electricity was one huge step towards a modern economy and society. At first mainly used to replace gas lighting, its uses expanded rapidly with every new innovation and improvement of existing technology; as mentioned, the telegraph and telephone depended on electric energy, and the electronic signal for the railway introduced in 1872 greatly improved the safety of trains. Cross 102)

However, in the first years, electricity was mainly used to making America a brighter place–in the literal sense. (Cross 157) Brighter and cleaner than gas lighting, the electric light bulb invented by Thomas Edison in 1879 gradually took over homes, offices, and city streets. (Cross 158) In the late 1880s, steam-powered street cars in many cities were replaced by electric ones, as they were a faster alternative to get the workers from their homes to their work places and back.

They were also less expensive, and the inevitable pollution was concentrated in the area the energy was generated and not spread throughout the city; electric streetcars did, however, increase noise pollution. (Cross 159; 168) Light is the element creating the most obvious distinction between places of luxury and places of suffering in Sister Carrie: The former are all bathed in light, while the latter are cast in shadow or are dimly lit at best. For example, the shoe factory Carrie works in in the beginning is xtremely poorly lit (36f), while the department stores as temples of consumption and the streets as their runways are practically aglow (30).

As their financial situation in New York becomes irreversibly dire, Hurstwood one day finds Carrie “reading, quite alone. It was rather dark in the flat, shut in as it was. ” (358) Bright lights, on the other hand, are abundant in places Carrie enjoys being; she quite literally experiences the “bright side of life” when she dines out with friends at Sherry’s, a very popular and expensive restaurant the high society of New York likes to dine at.

She marvels at the splendid dining chamber, all decorated and aglow, where the wealthy ate, [with its] incandescent lights, the reflection of their glow in polished glasses, and the shine of gilt upon the walls […]. On the ceilings were colored traceries with more gilt, leading to a centre where spread a broad circle of light–incandescent globes mingled with glittering prisms and stucco tendrils of gilt.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 2 November 2016

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