Imagery, Symbolism, and Rhetorical Devices in "Sister Carrie" and "An American Tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser

A Comparative Analysis

Term Paper 2009 14 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



1. Short Introduction on Dreiser’s Style

2. Imagery, Symbolism, and Rhetorical Devices

3. Imagery, Symbolism, and Rhetorical Devices in Sister Carrie
3.1. Imagery and Symbolism
3.1.1. Water and Sea
3.1.2. Animals
3.1.3. Fairytales
3.1.4. Physics
3.1.5. Theater
3.2. Rhetorical Devices
3.2.1. Anaphoras
3.2.2. Alliterations
3.2.3. Catalogues

4. Imagery, Symbolism, and Rhetorical Devices in An American Tragedy
4.1. Imagery and Symbolism
4.1.1. Water and Lake
4.1.2. Animals
4.1.3. Fairytales
4.1.5. Physics and Chemistry
4.2. Rhetorical Devices
4.2.1. Repetition
4.2.2. Alliterations
4.2.3. Catalogues

5. Short Comparative Analysis of Imagery, Symbolism, and Rhetorical Devices in Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy

6. Bibliography
Primary Literature
Secondary Literature

1. Short Introduction on Dreiser’s Style

Theodore Dreiser published his first novel, Sister Carrie, in 1900. His most famous work, An American Tragedy, was printed in 1925.

Reading criticism on Theodore Dreiser’s novels, one can get the impression that Dreiser’s style is atrocious and chaotic. “It is questionable whether he ever wrote a single sentence capable of giving pleasure to itself” (qtd. in Allen 81). Stoll quotes critics that maintain that Theodore Dreiser was never able to obtain a technique of narrative writing. They argue that his writings are poor or that he writes without structure and that his style influences his novels’ quality in a bad way (cf. Stoll 4-12). “Dreiser’s writing inevitably suffered from his poor taste, inadequate attention to the niceties of diction and an ear insufficiently attuned to style and tone” (qtd. in Flanagan 289).

However, these critics are not completely true. The following paper will show that Dreiser’s writing is not entirely bad and that his diction was not completely arbitrary. Therefore, the novels Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy will be analyzed with respect to imagery, symbolism, and some rhetorical devices.

2. Imagery, Symbolism, and Rhetorical Devices

Before analyzing the books Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy with respect to imagery, symbolism, and some rhetorical devices, these three terms will be defined.

According to Cuddon, “The terms image and imagery have many connotations and meanings” (qtd. in Cuddon 316). He explains that the term imagery “covers the use of language to represent objects, actions, feelings, thoughts, ideas, states of mind and any sensory or extra-sensory experience” (qtd. in Cuddon 316). Furthermore, Cuddon states that various images are expressed by the use of figurative language. Figurative language is used in metaphors or in similes, for instance (cf. Cuddon 317).

The word symbol implies an object, which stands for something else. As an example, Cuddon mentions the scale, which is the symbol for justice (cf. Cuddon 655). Cuddon explains that symbols are used to “express an emotion or an abstract idea (qtd. in Cuddon 656).

Cuddon does not talk about rhetorical devices but about rhetorical figures, which is a synonym for rhetorical devices. The dictionary defines a rhetorical figure as “An artful arrangement of words to achieve a particular emphasis and effect” (qtd. in Cuddon 557). This means that rhetorical devices do not change the words’ meanings, but they support and stress the meanings and the statements of the words. There are a vast number of rhetorical devices. With respect to Theodore Dreiser’s books, anaphoras, repetitions, alliterations, and catalogues can be considered as important rhetorical devices. An anaphora is a rhetorical figure that is given by the repetition of a word or of several words at the beginning of successive sentences. A repetition can be the repetition of a word, an expression or even of a topic. The rhetorical figure alliteration implicates the repetition of the same letter at the beginning of successive words. A catalogue is characterized by a series of expressions belonging to the same category of words (cf. Cuddon 26-104).

3. Imagery, Symbolism, and Rhetorical Devices in Sister Carrie

At first, this paper will study the novel Sister Carrie. The themes imagery and symbolism can be combined and will be surveyed first.

3.1. Imagery and Symbolism

Theodore Dreiser makes use of many images and symbols in his first novel. In the following, the images and symbols water and sea, animals, fairytales, physics, and theatre will be evaluated.

3.1.1. Water and Sea

“The largest and most obvious group of images in Sister Carrie is that clustering around the sea” (qtd. in Phillips 572). The image is first used when Carrie rushes into a “great sea of life” (qtd. in Sister Carrie[1] 8) and when she feels “alone, a lone figure in a tossing thoughtless sea” (SC 10) in the new, big city Chicago. At the end of the second chapter, Dreiser makes use of another sea image when he describes the difference between the poor and the rich people living in Chicago as “gulf” (SC 16). One of the most important words in this context is the word “drift” which is utilized several times by Dreiser, for example, when Carrie thinks about returning home to her family: “Carrie saw the drift” (SC 69). When Hurstwood and Carrie talk about her unsettled feelings, Dreiser also uses the image of water: “The little shopgirl was getting into deep water. She was letting her few supports float away from her” (SC 117). Right at the beginning of chapter 30, the city of New York is described as an “ocean” which “was already full of whales” and in which a “small fish” like Hurstwood cannot survive (SC 281). The word “tide” is also important in this context, for example, when Carrie’s helplessness is explained: “She felt the flow of the tide of effort and interest – felt her own helplessness without quite realizing the wisp on the tide that she was” (SC 25).

For Dreiser, in his early novels, the sea symbolized the modern life in the city. In his first novel, he uses this image to illustrate the life in the big cities Chicago and New York, which is mostly very turbulent. Life is a sea and one must be a very good swimmer to survive.

3.1.2. Animals

Besides the sea and the water, Dreiser also utilizes animals to write metaphorically. In Sister Carrie, wild animals, as well as domestic animals, act as symbols (cf. Phillips 573-574).

In chapter 10, the winter approaches. It is explained that everybody, “dogs and all men” feel the change of nature: “The sparrow upon the wire, the cat in the doorway, the dray horse tugging his weary load, feel the long, keen breaths of winter” (S C 93). Dreiser compares the timid animals, fearing the winter, with Carrie. She stays with Drouet, even if they are not married, because she fears to be alone in the cold world. When Hurstwood becomes interested in Carrie, he does not mind that his beloved is already spoken for Drouet. In this context, Dreiser compares Hurstwood with a spider:

“He never for a moment concealed the fact of her attraction for himself. He troubled himself not at all about Drouet’s priority. He was merely floating those gossamer threads of thought which, like the spider’s, he hoped would lay hold somewhere. He did not know, he could not guess, what the result would be” (SC 104).

The author compares human life to the exhausting life of animals that have to struggle and to assert themselves to survive:

“Among the forces which sweep and play throughout the universe, untutored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is no not yet wholly guided by reason. On the tiger no responsibility rests. We see him aligned by nature with the forces of life – he is born into their keeping and without thought, he is protected. We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near an approach to free will, his free will not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect guidance. He is becoming too wise to hearken always to instincts and desires; he is still too weak to always prevail against them. As a beast, the forces of life aligned him with them; as a man, he has not yet wholly learned to align himself with the forces. In this intermediate stage he wavers […]” (SC 74).

Finally, it can be said that Dreiser works with the animal symbol like with the water and sea symbol: he wants to show how hard life can be. “Life is a sea; life is a jungle […]” (qtd. in Phillips 574).

3.1.3. Fairytales

“[…] reality is outside, wet, cold, snarling, swarming, and dark […]. What is inside, dry, warm, comforting, and light, is only illusion, an Arabian Nights tale which man invents to keep himself from suicide […]” (qtd. in Phillips 574). Chapter 16, in which Carrie gets in contact with the theatre as an actress for the first time, is called “A Witless Aladdin: The Gate to the World” (SC 148). The theatre seems to be the gate, Carrie’s possibility to become successful. Later, in New York, when Carrie is becoming famous and starts earning a lot of money as an actress, the theatre is described as a very interesting and profitable place: “What a door to an Aladdin’s cave it seemed to be” (SC 440).


[1] Dreiser Theodore. Sister Carrie. 1900. Signet Classics. New York: Signet, 2000. – all further quotations from this novel will be abbreviated with SC


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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Imagery Symbolism Rhetorical Devices Sister Carrie American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser Comparative Analysis

Title: Imagery, Symbolism, and Rhetorical Devices in "Sister Carrie" and "An American Tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser