Excerpt: 'Jennie Gerhardt' by Theodore Dreiser


From poster for Jennie Gerhardt, Paramount Pictures, 1933

From Chapter XVII:

The shock of this sudden encounter was so great to Jennie that she was hours in recovering herself. At first she did not understand clearly just what had happened. Out of clear sky, as it were, this astonishing thing had taken place. She had yielded herself to another man. Why? Why? she asked herself, and yet within her own consciousness there was an answer. Though she could not explain her own emotions, she belonged to him temperamentally and he belonged to her.

There is a fate in love and a fate in fight. This strong, intellectual bear of a man, son of a wealthy manufacturer, stationed, so far as material conditions were concerned, in a world immensely superior to that in which Jennie moved, was, nevertheless, instinctively, magnetically, and chemically drawn to this poor serving-maid. She was his natural affinity, though he did not know it—the one woman who answered somehow the biggest need of his nature. Lester Kane had known all sorts of women, rich and poor, the highly bred maidens of his own class, the daughters of the proletariat, but he had never yet found one who seemed to combine for him the traits of an ideal woman—sympathy, kindliness of judgment, youth, and beauty. Yet this ideal remained fixedly seated in the back of his brain—when the right woman appeared he intended to take her. He had the notion that, for purposes of marriage, he ought perhaps to find this woman on his own plane. For purposes of temporary happiness he might take her from anywhere, leaving marriage, of course, out of the question. He had no idea of making anything like a serious proposal to a servant-girl. But Jennie was different. He had never seen a servant quite like her. And she was lady-like and lovely without appearing to know it. Why, this girl was a rare flower. Why shouldn’t he try to seize her? Let us be just to Lester Kane; let us try to understand him and his position. Not every mind is to be estimated by the weight of a single folly; not every personality is to be judged by the drag of a single passion. We live in an age in which the impact of materialized forces is well-nigh irresistible; the spiritual nature is overwhelmed by the shock. The tremendous and complicated development of our material civilization, the multiplicity, and variety of our social forms, the depth, subtlety, and sophistry of our imaginative impressions, gathered, remultiplied, and disseminated by such agencies as the railroad, the express and the post-office, the telephone, the telegraph, the newspaper, and, in short, the whole machinery of social intercourse—these elements of existence combine to produce what may be termed a kaleidoscopic glitter, a dazzling and confusing phantasmagoria of life that wearies and stultifies the mental and moral nature. It induces a sort of intellectual fatigue through which we see the ranks of the victims of insomnia, melancholia, and insanity constantly recruited. Our modern brain-pan does not seem capable as yet of receiving, sorting, and storing the vast army of facts and impressions which present themselves daily. The white light of publicity is too white. We are weighed upon by too many things. It is as if the wisdom of the infinite were struggling to beat itself into finite and cup-big minds.

Lester Kane was the natural product of these untoward conditions. His was a naturally observing mind, Rabelaisian in its strength and tendencies, but confused by the multiplicity of things, the vastness of the panorama of life, the glitter of its details, the unsubstantial nature of its forms, the uncertainty of their justification. Born a Catholic, he was no longer a believer in the divine inspiration of Catholicism; raised a member of the social elect, he had ceased to accept the fetish that birth and station presuppose any innate superiority; brought up as the heir to a comfortable fortune and expected to marry in his own sphere, he was by no means sure that he wanted marriage on any terms. Of course the conjugal state was an institution. It was established. Yes, certainly. But what of it? The whole nation believed in it. True, but other nations believed in polygamy. There were other questions that bothered him—such questions as the belief in a single deity or ruler of the universe, and whether a republican, monarchial, or aristocratic form of government were best. In short, the whole body of things material, social, and spiritual had come under the knife of his mental surgery and been left but half dissected. Life was not proved to him. Not a single idea of his, unless it were the need of being honest, was finally settled. In all other things he wavered, questioned, procrastinated, leaving to time and to the powers back of the universe the solution of the problems that vexed him. Yes, Lester Kane was the natural product of a combination of elements—religious, commercial, social—modified by that pervading atmosphere of liberty in our national life which is productive of almost uncounted freedom of thought and action. Thirty-six years of age, and apparently a man of vigorous, aggressive, and sound personality, he was, nevertheless, an essentially animal-man, pleasantly veneered by education and environment. Like the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who in his father’s day had worked on the railroad tracks, dug in the mines, picked and shoveled in the ditches, and carried up bricks and mortar on the endless structures of a new land, he was strong, hairy, axiomatic, and witty.

“Do you want me to come back here next year?” he had asked of Brother Ambrose, when, in his seventeenth year, that ecclesiastical member was about to chastise him for some school-boy misdemeanor.

The other stared at him in astonishment. “Your father will have to look after that,” he replied.

“Well, my father won’t look after it,” Lester returned. “If you touch me with that whip I’ll take things into my own hands. I’m not committing any punishable offenses, and I’m not going to be knocked around any more.”

Words, unfortunately, did not avail in this case, but a good, vigorous Irish-American wrestle did, in which the whip was broken and the discipline of the school so far impaired that he was compelled to take his clothes and leave. After that he looked his father in the eye and told him that he was not going to school any more.

“I’m perfectly willing to jump in and work,” he explained. “There’s nothing in a classical education for me. Let me go into the office, and I guess I’ll pick up enough to carry me through.”

Old Archibald Kane, keen, single-minded, of unsullied commercial honor, admired his son’s determination, and did not attempt to coerce him.

“Come down to the office,” he said; “perhaps there is something you can do.”

Entering upon a business life at the age of eighteen, Lester had worked faithfully, rising in his father’s estimation, until now he had come to be, in a way, his personal representative. Whenever there was a contract to be entered upon, an important move to be decided, or a representative of the manufactory to be sent anywhere to consummate a deal, Lester was the agent selected. His father trusted him implicitly, and so diplomatic and earnest was he in the fulfilment of his duties that this trust had never been impaired.

“Business is business,” was a favorite axiom with him and the very tone in which he pronounced the words was a reflex of his character and personality.

There were molten forces in him, flames which burst forth now and then in spite of the fact that he was sure that he had them under control. One of these impulses was a taste for liquor, of which he was perfectly sure he had the upper hand. He drank but very little, he thought, and only, in a social way, among friends; never to excess. Another weakness lay in his sensual nature; but here again he believed that he was the master. If he chose to have irregular relations with women, he was capable of deciding where the danger point lay. If men were only guided by a sense of the brevity inherent in all such relationships there would not be so many troublesome consequences growing out of them. Finally, he flattered himself that he had a grasp upon a right method of living, a method which was nothing more than a quiet acceptance of social conditions as they were, tempered by a little personal judgment as to the right and wrong of individual conduct. Not to fuss and fume, not to cry out about anything, not to be mawkishly sentimental; to be vigorous and sustain your personality intact—such was his theory of life, and he was satisfied that it was a good one.

As to Jennie, his original object in approaching her had been purely selfish. But now that he had asserted his masculine prerogatives, and she had yielded, at least in part, he began to realize that she was no common girl, no toy of the passing hour.

There is a time in some men’s lives when they unconsciously begin to view feminine youth and beauty not so much in relation to the ideal of happiness, but rather with regard to the social conventions by which they are environed.

“Must it be?” they ask themselves, in speculating concerning the possibility of taking a maiden to wife, “that I shall be compelled to swallow the whole social code, make a covenant with society, sign a pledge of abstinence, and give to another a life interest in all my affairs, when I know too well that I am but taking to my arms a variable creature like myself, whose wishes are apt to become insistent and burdensome in proportion to the decrease of her beauty and interest?” These are the men, who, unwilling to risk the manifold contingencies of an authorized connection, are led to consider the advantages of a less-binding union, a temporary companionship. They seek to seize the happiness of life without paying the cost of their indulgence. Later on, they think, the more definite and conventional relationship may be established without reproach or the necessity of radical readjustment.

Lester Kane was past the youthful love period, and he knew it. The innocence and unsophistication of younger ideals had gone. He wanted the comfort of feminine companionship, but he was more and more disinclined to give up his personal liberty in order to obtain it. He would not wear the social shackles if it were possible to satisfy the needs of his heart and nature and still remain free and unfettered. Of course he must find the right woman, and in Jennie he believed that he had discovered her. She appealed to him on every side; he had never known anybody quite like her. Marriage was not only impossible but unnecessary. He had only to say “Come” and she must obey; it was her destiny.

Lester thought the matter over calmly, dispassionately. He strolled out to the shabby street where she lived; he looked at the humble roof that sheltered her. Her poverty, her narrow and straitened environment touched his heart. Ought he not to treat her generously, fairly, honorably? Then the remembrance of her marvelous beauty swept over him and changed his mood. No, he must possess her if he could—to-day, quickly, as soon as possible. It was in that frame of mind that he returned to Mrs. Bracebridge’s home from his visit to Lorrie Street.

Excerpted from Jennie Gerhardt, by Theordore Dreiser, first published in 1911.