Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
James M. Hutchisson and
James L. W. West III
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Dreiser's style is unconventional. If students have heard of him, they've
heard that he's a clumsy stylist. They also will have difficulty understanding
Ida's dilemma in "Typhoon."
The instructor should explain that Dreiser was trained as a journalist
whose main duty was to record the who, what, where, when, why, and how
of a story. Graceful style was a small concern. In fact, some of Dreiser's
verbal clumsiness was more or less deliberate. His writing possesses its
particular power, its ability to move the emotions, in part because of
its bluntness, its lack of grace. Try to imagine "Typhoon" told
by a facile stylist, for example, by F.
Scott Fitzgerald. It would lose much of its voltage.
It's a good idea to show students how thoroughly trapped and damned
Ida Zobel is by an illicit pregnancy. Children of the 1990s will likely
try to foist their own standards back onto her time and place. Students
identify with this story because they feel much peer pressure in matters
of sex. Ask them to try to argue sympathetically for Hauptfuhrer. Can it
be done? Where did Dreiser's sympathies lie?
Another good theme to discuss is Ida's being "forgiven" by
the public, her almost automatic innocence before the court, and her adoption
by the wealthy socialite. Dreiser is indicating some things here about
the influence of the fourth estate over the administration of justice.
We sympathize with Ida, of course, but her exoneration for the killing
is suspect. Certainly she still feels great guilt; it is the major motivation
for her suicide.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Like virtually all of Dreiser's major characters, Ida Zobel in "Typhoon"
is a seeker. She searches for beauty and love in a repressive, unenlightened
society. She is ignorant and at the mercy of instincts and drives that
she does not understand. She is naive enough to be duped by Hauptfuhrer
largely because of her obsessively sheltered upbringing. This was ever
one of Dreiser's major themes--his hatred of repressiveness and its consequences.
The theme fits in well with the general rebelliousness and nonconformity
of American writers of his generation and the generation following it.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Dreiser is best taught as a writer who held philosophically conflicting
ideas in suspension simultaneously. His best writing springs from the tensions
generated by these opposing ideas. On the one hand he was virtually a textbook
naturalist; on the other, a mystic, romantic, and sentimental writer. He
was also a left-leaning social activist, a stance which, strictly speaking,
is incompatible with naturalistic beliefs.
The instructor should emphasize that this story was magazine fiction,
written to sell. In it, Dreiser was dealing with sensational tabloid material.
The story was written in 1926 in order to follow up on the great success
of An American Tragedy, published in 1925 and also based on a real
murder case. The story borrows elements from the Tragedy--also from
Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911), Dreiser's
first two novels.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
This story is written in Dreiser's late style, a fragmented, free-association
style that attempts to accomplish many of the same things that stream-of-consciousness
writers like James Joyce and William
Faulkner were trying to do during the 1920s. Dreiser may have known
of Ulysses; Faulkner wasn't really on the scene yet. Dreiser had
been reading Freud and was much interested in the workings of the subconscious
mind. One can teach this story as an example of early stream-of-consciousness
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Ask students to reflect on the following before class: guilt and
innocence; "peer pressure"; the narrative voice--is it slanted
2. Have them read a big-city newspaper of the period on microfilm and
find similarly sensational material. They might compare the style of reporting
ca. 1926 with the style used today and reflect on what this says about
changes in American society over the past sixty years.
Another useful topic is a discussion of free will as it operates (or
does not) in "Typhoon." Are these characters in control of their
A good short theme can be developed on the last line of the story. How
does it resonate back through the entire narrative?
Gerber, Philip. "Theodore Dreiser." Biographical sketch in
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale, 1981.
Griffin, Joseph. The Small Canvas: An Introduction to Dreiser's Short
Stories. Fairleigh Dickinson, 1985.
Hutchisson, James M. "The Composition and Publication of 'Another
American Tragedy': Dreiser's 'Typhoon.' " Papers of the Bibliographical
Society of America 81: 1 (1987).