I really liked Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, as I indicated in my last post. Jennie Gerhardt provided me with my first Dreiser disappointment, and I was willing to forgive it until I read the author’s Wikipedia page. I had pegged this as a young Dreiser work, and I was right. It was his second. The novel, though characteristically sensitive to poverty and the ostracism of “impure” women, lacked the character development, depth, and narrative coherency of both Sister Carrie and The Genius. I assumed that this was a book written as Dreiser attempted to develop skills that would lead him to the creation of a balanced novel. With that assumption, Jennie Gerhardt could be seen as a step in authorial development rather than a misstep. But, as it turns out, Sister Carrie was his first novel. That makes this second book, also about a young female protagonist carrying on an extramarital affair, seem like an attempt to rewrite Sister Carrie with a miserable ending instead of a happy, or even well-rounded one. Since Dreiser had already proved he knew how to construct a beautiful novel, there isn’t really any excuse for Jennie Gerhardt.
It started out promising. A young girl was taken advantage of by a man so rich and generous she was not in a position to refuse him if she wanted to save her impoverished family. But the rest of the novel detailed an incredibly long affair with another man, reportedly (but not demonstrably) charismatic, and it’s simply drudgery to read. That is of course until the end, where the book doesn’t get better, but things happen. Things like everyone dying except Jennie and her resigning herself to a wretched, lonely life. Eeyorrrreee.
I think the difference between this novel and the other Dreiser works is that you both don’t like the characters and you don’t understand them. As I argued in my post about Sister Carrie, a collection of people you don’t like but understand can be the stuff of a great novel. I didn’t like Jennie for the same reason I didn’t like Carrie–she seemed like the typical Shakespearean waif (see Desdemona, Hero, etc.) who just wanted to humbly martyr herself while knitting children sweaters and trying not to think of the giant empty hole in her where a personality should be. Actually, Jennie is even more this way than Carrie was–at least Carrie protested and eventually left abusive situations. The thing that really bothered me was that Dreiser kept insisting that Jennie was an amazing, exceptional woman and there was no one on earth like her. It’s a glaring example a writerly sin: he’s telling instead of showing. If this were a paper I was tutoring, I would say, “Jennie is an exception woman, alright–let’s cite some specific examples to back up that claim.”
As I implied earlier, her supposedly charismatic lover Lester is also not revealed to be anything of the sort in Jennie. He’s a silly, capricious snob who, with all the proclamations that he owns Jennie, should try out for a leading male role in an Ayn Rand book. Dreiser tries to explain what makes Lester so complicated in a way that won’t turn us against him, but he doesn’t do a very good job of making us understand him or making us like him. Lester does a number of unpredictable things, and the most unpredictable of all is that he stays with Jennie despite how amazingly boring and weepy she is. I could see him being taken with raising the station of a poor girl and then leaving. I could understand him throwing social mores to the side and marrying/staying with Jennie just to annoy his family. But he hates being cast aside. If he loves being with Jennie so much and can’t bring himself to leave her, I just can’t understand why he wouldn’t marry her if it would solve all the problems he has with family and society, which Dreiser seems to imply it would.
I suppose the lesson here is that you can have unlikable characters, and you can have characters you don’t understand, but if your characters are both unlikable and mind-boggling, your chances of creating a masterpiece are virtually nil.
Nonetheless, I am not deterred. On to An American Tragedy! Will be a recipe out of Aristotle’s cookbook? Or will it be an organic form, growing out of itself and creating its own rules? Anticipate a full report!