Jennie Gerhardt is the daughter of poor German immigrants, living in Columbus, Ohio in the 1880s. She & her mother find work as cleaners at a big hotel in the city. Jennie catches the eye of Senator George Brander who takes an interest in her. Brander helps her family by employing Mrs Gerhardt to wash his laundry & giving the family other gifts. Brander is a lonely man, about to lose his seat in the Senate & he genuinely cares for Jennie & even plans to marry her – after she’s been suitably educated, of course. Mr Gerhardt is a sternly religious man who works hard for his family but doesn’t have much sympathy for his children. Mrs Gerhardt is a much more loving, sympathetic character & the close bond she shares with Jennie is one of the most important relationships in the book. When a neighbour tells Gerhardt about Brander’s visits to the house & that Jennie has been seen out driving with him, he is furious. He confronts Brander & forbids Jennie to see him. Soon after, Jennie’s brother, Bass, is arrested for stealing coal from the rail yards & when Jennie goes to Brander for help, he seduces her. He leaves next day for Washington, promising to return & marry Jennie but he dies of typhoid & Jennie discovers that she’s pregnant. Her father turns her out of the house but Bass & her mother contrive to look after her. When Gerhardt has to seek work in another town, Jennie goes home & her baby daughter, Vesta, is born there.
Jennie’s family go through some hard times & she moves to Cleveland with Bass to look for work, leaving Vesta behind with her mother. Surprisingly, her father becomes besotted with his granddaughter, insisting on having her baptized & looking after her devotedly. Jennie begins working as a maid for a rich family & she is pursued by a friend of the family, Lester Kane. Lester is in his 30s, working in his father’s carriage making business but a little bored & at a loose end. He’s not interested in marrying any of the suitable young ladies of whom his family approve. Lester’s relationship with his brother, Robert, is also difficult. They have completely different temperaments & Robert’s ideas for running the business don’t always meet with Lester’s approval. Lester & Jennie are immediately attracted to each other & she eventually agrees to go to New York with him & become his mistress. Jennie tells her mother the truth but lets her father think she’s going to be married. She doesn’t tell Lester about Vesta & the longer she waits, the harder the confession becomes. Jennie finds it easier to convince herself that she can keep Vesta a secret & that her father doesn’t need to know about her unmarried state. She knows that she is not being honest but she’s frightened of the consequences. Both Lester & Jennie are indecisive & this drifting is one of the main problems in their relationship. Lester isn’t just a rake, he loves Jennie but not enough to defy convention & marry her. He enjoys Jennie’s company & is proud to be seen with such a beautiful woman although he’s careful to keep Jennie in the background of society, setting her up in houses in different towns where he can visit her on business trips. He admires her virtues even while he takes advantage of her, & refuses to give her the status of his wife.
She’s a woman of a curious temperament. She possesses a world of feeling and emotion. She’s not educated in the sense in which we understand that word, but she has natural refinement and tact. She’s a good housekeeper. She’s an ideal mother. She’s the most affectionate creature under the sun. Her devotion to her mother and father was beyond words. … She hasn’t any of the graces of the smart society woman. She isn’t quick at repartee. She can’t join in any rapid-fire conversation. She thinks rather slowly, I imagine. Some of her big thoughts never come to the surface at all, but you can feel that she is thinking and that she is feeling.
After her mother’s death, Jennie brings Vesta to live near her & when the child falls ill, Jennie is forced to tell Lester the truth. Surprisingly he accepts Vesta & the three of them live happily together for some time. Lester is careful to keep their relationship secret but rumours get about & when his family discover their relationship, they disapprove. His parents are especially upset & try to convince Lester to leave Jennie & marry someone “suitable”. He refuses but feels increasingly uneasy about his inability to make a decision about his future. His father dies & the will virtually disinherits Lester unless he leaves Jennie or leaves him with enough to live on if he marries her. It’s the difference between $10 000 a year & millions.
A lot of the story is about Lester’s dilemma, he just doesn’t have the moral courage to carry out the logical end of his actions. Jennie is a good woman & it’s easy to see how she gets involved with Lester who loves her & looks after her family, even having Mr Gerhardt to live with them after the family breaks up after Mrs Gerhardt’s death. Jennie is portrayed as quite spiritual & morally pure. Everything she does is the result of love. She gets involved with Brander because he looks after her family. She falls in love with Lester but she knows that she has no other way to get out of poverty than to live with him so she allows her emotions to lead her into a relationship that her family morally disapproves of. Jennie loves Lester & can see his dilemma. She offers to leave him so that he can please his family but perversely he refuses to let her go. Lester just ties himself up in knots thinking about what he should do. The crisis comes after his father’s death when he is shut out of the family business & begins to speculate with his money. Then, he meets an old flame, now a wealthy widow, & still in love with him. The decision he makes will affect the rest of his life.
This is such a beautifully-written book. Dreiser doesn’t judge any of the characters. He allows us to understand Mr Gerhardt’s religious intolerance, Lester’s indecisiveness & all Jennie’s decisions as a part of the period in which they live. Jennie’s life is constrained by the fact that she was a poor woman in the 1880s & 1890s.Her poverty & lack of education meant that she had few choices. In Dreiser’s eyes she remains pure & good, even after she has been seduced by Brander & then Lester. Brander & Lester are also constrained by society’s expectations, they are not just moustache-twirling villains. Jennie Gerhardt is an involving story, I read most of it in a couple of days, I couldn’t put it down. I’m very glad that my 19th century book group chose to read it & I’d like to read more of Dreiser’s novels..