Places: Jennie Gerhardt

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1911

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: 1880’s-1890’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Columbus

*Columbus. Jennie GerhardtMedium-sized industrial city in southern Ohio in which the novel opens. Jennie, the daughter of a German immigrant laborer, and her mother seek employment in the city’s “principal hotel.” While working there, she meets and is subsequently seduced by, a U.S. senator, whose illegitimate child she bears.


*Cleveland. Northern Ohio city to which most of Jennie’s family moves after she gives birth to a child and her father moves to Youngstown in search of employment. The members of the family see Cleveland as a place of superior opportunity–a good place “to seek a new start.” While working as a domestic in Cleveland, Jennie meets Lester Kane, a member of a wealthy and influential Cincinnati family.


*Chicago. Illinois city to which Lester takes Jennie as his mistress. They initially live in a North Side apartment near Lake Michigan; later they live in an old eleven-room house in South Hyde Park. Lester oversees the Chicago portion of his family’s growing carriage empire. During the years they spend together in Chicago, Jennie grows more comfortable with wealth, and her relationship with Lester deepens. At the same time, the fact that they remain unmarried becomes a scandal in their Chicago social circle and causes a conflict within the Kane family. After Lester leaves Jennie to marry a wealthy widow, Jennie lives in “a simple cottage in a very respectable but not showy neighborhood near Jackson Park,” and the Kanes occupy “a handsome mansion on the Lake Shore Drive”–clearly symbolic of the social distance that separates them.


*London. Capital and leading city of Great Britain, which Jennie and Lester visit during a trip abroad that they make while trying to sort out their problems during the midst of a financial and social crisis. Another major stop on their journey is Cairo, Egypt. In the midst of the splendor and exotic character of these foreign settings, Lester meets and is again attracted to Mrs. Gerard, a wealthy widow whom he knew in Cincinnati, and decides to leave Jennie. Meanwhile, the same settings make Jennie realize that she can never truly be a part of Lester’s world.

A poignant symbol of the gulf that separates Lester and Jennie can be seen in the grinding poverty of parts of Europe that impelled Jennie’s father to emigrate to America to seek a better life. The harsh economic conditions in Europe are juxtaposed against the romantic elegance of these foreign locales for wealthy American travelers.


“Yalewood.” Proposed real estate development in the southwest side of Chicago in which Lester invests, hoping to acquire enough wealth to allow him to distance himself from his family and remain with Jennie. When a large meat packing company plans to locate itself in the same area, Lester loses his investment.


Sandwood. Small Wisconsin town in which Lester helps Jennie find a house for her and her daughter after he leaves her. A pleasant place, the house has flowerbeds and trees and a lake view; it serves as a place of quiet retirement for her until the death of her daughter draws her back to live in Chicago.

BibliographyDreiser, Theodore. Jennie Gerhardt. Edited by James L. W. West III. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Reclaims Dreiser’s original intentions for the novel. Includes informative introduction, explanatory notes, a map, illustrations of pages from Dreiser’s manuscript, and other useful materials.Hapke, Laura. “Dreiser and the Tradition of the American Working Girl Novel.” Dreiser Studies 22, no. 2 (Fall, 1991): 2-19. Uses social history to discuss the situation Jennie Gerhardt and her five million historical contemporaries faced struggling to survive in low-paying jobs.Lingeman, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907 and Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908-1945. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1986, 1990. The standard biography offers information on the writing and biographical context of Jennie Gerhardt in volume 1 and information on its revision, publication, and critical reception in volume 2.Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. The section on Jennie Gerhardt establishes information about the novel’s sources and composition. Gives biographical details suggesting that Jennie was modeled after Dreiser’s sister Mame. Valuable discussion of structure, characterization, and themes.West, James L. W., III, ed. Dreiser’s “Jennie Gerhardt”: New Essays on the Restored Text. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. A collection giving historical background and new interpretations of the novel in its restored version.
Categories: Places