Although he was to embrace Oriental mysticism as a philosophy of life in his later years, at the time he was writing Sister Carrie Theodore Dreiser ascribed to a "mechanistic" theory of reality. His early life impressed him with the brutality and necessity of a blind fate that imposed itself upon the weak. He came to hate ill luck and blind chance, which invariably ground to shreds any effort the common man made to raise himself, He did not rebel against fate as one rebels against evil; instead, he was so overpowered by the experiences and sights of human suffering that he saw it as a universal principle.
In the 1890's Dreiser began to read the philosophy of nineteenth-century mechanism in Darwin and Spencer, in Tyndall and Huxley. These writers afforded no new revelations but cemented and gave authority to what he had long suspected. Human life was without purpose or meaning; man is an underling, a worthless blob of protoplasm on a dying planet whirling aimlessly through space — in Dreiser's own words, "a poor, blind fool."
Hating from early childhood anything to do with religion, Dreiser found in mechanism a scientific sanction for suffering. The theory of evolution, as it was then conceived, revealed nature as a ruthless process of the struggle for survival; this was merely an extension on a larger scale of what Dreiser had observed in his boyhood and youthful travels through the eastern United States.
Untrained in logical thought, he had little trouble in transferring the theories of evolution to everyday reality. Mechanism, although it was rather more complicated than Dreiser perceived it, became his notion of "chemisms." Chemic compulsions consist of those desires and drives which are usually unconscious. Dreiser coined the term to evoke the sense of something largely out of human control. "Chemism" attempts to explain human behavior in the terms of chemical or physical science. Through chemisms Dreiser sought to explain all phenomena, organic as well as inorganic. Life is chemism, personality is chemism, emotions and needs are chemisms. Thus, Dreiser makes no distinction between the behavior of beasts, the human sex urge, or any sentiment which people agree to call higher or noble.
Materialism is simply mechanism as it appears in the human order. The world of men, like the world of indifferent nature, is a savage place where only the strongest can survive. Society is an aggregate whole of atomic underlings, each one an independent unit of force and desire, determined somehow by mechanical forces, pushing or making way for other forces as it bumps crazily along. Each individual encounters obstacles which destroy him or meets with fortuitous currents which help him toward his goal. The strong surge ahead, the weak fall back, or worse yet, become the slaves of their betters. This is "Darwinism" at its starkest.
Dreiser combines both the biological determinism of Darwin and the concept of blind fate in Sister Carrie. Severely handicapped by her innocence and poverty, Carrie appears to be caught in an inevitable spiral of disappointment and poverty, were it not for a series of circumstances and coincidences that lift her out of her condition. If Carrie had not met Drouet accidentally on the street after she lost her job, she would have returned home to Columbia City. If the safe door had not by unaccountable chance closed as Hurstwood stood by with his employers' money in his hands, Carrie would not have gotten to New York or become a famous actress. In such a world each one must take advantage of what little opportunity he has, even though it means abandoning or injuring others.
In the bleak world of Dreiser's philosophy, morality is a myth for assuaging the weak. It is a cynical agreement on the part of master and slave to keep the whole system of chemisms from running amuck. Dreiser also believed, however, that "life was somehow bigger and subtler, and darker than any given theory or order of life." It is through this loophole that Dreiser finds the way to write novels of life as it is.
Dreiser not only responds to his fellow man in a very immediate and sympathetic manner, but more importantly, despite the limits of his vision, he understands human beings. His understanding goes far beyond the determinism and chemisms through which he seeks to explain them. Were Dreiser unable to understand humanity in terms other than his restrictive philosophy, readers would not discover in his novels insights about other human beings which they did not have before. In short, Theodore Dreiser is a better artist than his philosophy would allow him to be.