Theodore Dreiser

Jennie Gerhardt

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Jennie Gerhardt Summary

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Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt (1911) follows the plight of a socially disadvantaged woman whose love affairs with wealthy men put her in stressful situations, but enable her to survive all the same.

Dreiser was of the naturalist school of thought, and as such, his characters made choices that were opposed to the moral code of their time, while still maintaining a sense of morality. Jennie is an example of this: though she follows her romantic sensibilities into socially unacceptable actions, she is still painted as a good, moral protagonist.  Dreiser loosely based the novel on his upbringing, with his two sisters as the inspiration for Jennie.

Jennie Gerhardt is the daughter of German immigrants who are in need of money as their patriarch, William, is ill. Jennie and her mother become charwomen at a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, eventually laundering clothes for some of the wealthy people who frequent the hotel. One such person is Senator George Brander. When Jennie takes George’s laundry to him, he is instantly attracted to her. Eventually, George expresses his intention to marry Jennie, but Jennie’s father, a staunchly religious glassblower, forbids Jennie to see him anymore.

Once again in financial distress, Jennie and her brother, Bass, take to gathering the coal that falls off of passing trains. Bass, described as a dandy who feels himself above his social standing, jumps onto a train and shoves some of the coal off, earning himself a fine. Jennie goes to George in an effort to rescue her brother from imprisonment, and George agrees to help, effectively seducing Jennie into his bed. Before they have a chance to marry, the Senator dies of typhoid fever, and Jennie has become pregnant.

Jennie’s father denounces her and sends her away. William leaves to find work shortly after, and Jennie returns home to her mother. There, she gives birth to her daughter, Vesta. William takes a liking to Vesta and has her baptized.

Jennie leaves Vesta behind to move with Bass to Cleveland in search of work; their mother and younger siblings eventually join them. In Cleveland, Jennie procures a job as a lady’s maid in a wealthy home where she meets her employer’s friend, Lester Kane.

Wooing her, Lester showers Jennie with gifts and money and convinces her to go with him to New York. Jennie decides to keep her daughter a secret from Lester. Likewise, she keeps her unmarried status a secret from her father.

Lester considers marrying Jennie but chooses instead to make her his mistress because of the discrepancy in their social classes. This arrangement goes on for a few years. Jennie comes clean about her illegitimate daughter when Vesta becomes ill. Lester is undeterred by this revelation, and Vesta comes to live with Jennie.

Meanwhile, Lester’s family, worried about the permanence of his romantic entanglement, urges him to give Jennie up. Lester refuses until his father dies, and he learns that he must leave Jennie to inherit his part of the family’s prosperous business. Jennie selflessly insists that he do so.

Lester meets a former flame and wealthy widow, Letty Gerald Pace, in Europe. Jennie thinks she is a good match for Lester. He first sets Jennie up financially so she is taken care of and then marries Letty.

Vesta dies of typhoid fever, and Jennie adopts two orphans. Despite all that has happened, Jennie and Lester still love each other. When Lester becomes ill, he calls for Jennie to nurse him on his deathbed. He confesses that he loves her still. Jennie attends Lester’s funeral but must hide her mourning.

Jennie Gerhardt was Dreiser’s second novel, but first commercial success. Dreiser had Lester marry Jennie in his original draft, but decided during revisions to make the ending more realistic given the social constructs at the time. Because the tale had a certain moral ambiguity about it (premarital intimacy, questions of religious morality), Harpers revised the book, ultimately removing 25,000 words before publication. Because of these changes, the social commentary that Dreiser was making became more of a backdrop to the love story. Areas where Dreiser seemed to be questioning social constructs, such as William’s unrelenting religious stance and Jennie’s evasive marital status, lost their poignancy.

Harpers stated, “some 25,000 words had been cut, and the prose rewritten extensively. Profanity had been removed; slang spoken by characters had been corrected; virtually all mention of sex had been muted or cut.”

Jennie is a victim and critics define her as “weak-willed,” but the story reveals that every character is a victim of circumstance in some way: Lester to the expectations of an affluent society, Jennie to her romantic sensibilities, William and his family to their immigrant status and poverty.