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Crime, Guilt, and Subjectivity in Dreiser, Mead, and Lacan

Winfried Fluck

Pages 235 - 258


For decades, Theodore Dreiser was seen as an old-fashioned naturalist with narrow-minded deterministic views and modest writing skills. In contrast, this essay focuses on the amazing modernity of his conception of the self in which an individual has to look at others in order to gain a sense of self and then acts in anticipation of what he thinks the reaction of the other will be. Dreiser’s intersubjective theory of selfhood bears striking similarities to that of the American pragmatist George Herbert Mead, who formulated his theory of the self at about the same time that Dreiser wrote his novels. Mead’s work has been a major influence on sociological theories of self and identity. For Dreiser, Mead’s trust in the intersubjective basis of democracy remains illusory, however. His characters need to look at others because they are driven by a deep sense of insecurity. Neither reason nor instinct can provide steady guidance, leading to an incalculable variability of results: on the one hand Carrie Meeber’s success as an actress in ‘Sister Carrie’, and on the other a murder ‘by chance’ in ‘An American Tragedy’. This novel stands in a long line of works, ranging from Dostoievsky to Richard Wright and Albert Camus, in which an accidental or unmotivated murder poses a major challenge to classical philosophical theories of the subject because such seemingly incomprehensible crimes confront us with a hidden, inaccessible dimension of human subjectivity. Although their theories of self-formation are similar in crucial respects, there is nothing to be found in Dreiser’s world of Mead’s pragmatist confidence in the possibility of genuine intersubjectivity and the ‘progressive’ vision of society based on it. As his novels show, very different conclusions can be drawn from the open-endedness of self-formation.


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