Theodore Dreiser’s Short Story “Free”

“Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of troubles. He comes forth like a flower and fades away; He fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.” Job 14, 1-2

“Why was it that these virtues of people, their good qualities, did not make you love them, did not really bind them to you, as against the things you could not like? Why?” Theodore Dreiser, from “Free”


The word Free appears 26 times in this approximately 13,000-word story by the American writer who was controversial for writing about morally suspect people and situations, was also a Nobel Prize Nominee, a Communist, and considered one of the greatest American writers by many of his generation.

“Free” is the brilliant title story of his story collection. I read it 20 years ago, in my house in upstate New York near the Delaware River. I lost that house that meant so much to me when my husband of over 2 decades left me. I lost most all of my books there- a house of books- because I couldn’t bear to go back and get them. I was broken by the abandonment and that house was our family’s house: I no longer had a family. I still don’t.

The first time I read “Free”, it was in a yellow paged, leather or fake leather-bound book, old as can be, and I have no recollection where I got it. But it moved me tremendously and my interpretation of it was – as is usually the case- very different than how I feel about it now- a middle aged woman, alone in the world, as opposed to a married woman, in love, with small children. This time, I found it online, from the archive of the 1918 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and printed it out.

Another thing that colors my new reading of this story is learning that Dreiser himself is imagining a man who stays with his wife and family, instead of leaving, and that Dreiser left his wife, had many affairs throughout his life, which his second wife tolerated.

“Free” revolves around an architect in New York City, Rufus Haymaker, a man from a simple background in the Midwest (like Dreiser) who remains married to his wife he doesn’t love (unlike Dreiser) out of duty and convention to social norms. In learning more about Dreiser himself, it almost reads as if he’s writing about the man he’s glad he never was.

When I first read it, and I knew nothing about the author, and I read it purely, the way I prefer to read. But now, in hindsight, I see that I projected my own feelings onto the story, feelings I still feel, that to stay married is the right thing, that vows matter, that family is everything. That everything else is delusional narcissism. That Dreiser lived a different life, to say the least, than his character Rufus Haymaker, does nothing to change my feelings of marriage, but clearly changes my understanding of what this story means to the author.

“Free” not only uses the word free over and over again, it also endlessly chews on a man in his 60s, contemplating his deep regret of staying married, his dislike of his dying wife, his desire for her to die so he can be “free”, his delusions of what that freedom will look like at 60. Some reader might find all the repetition tedious. I love the subtle differences of his mental machinations, as he goes over and over all of his regrets and dislikes of his dying wife, I love the details of his long life that he endlessly ponders, his painful disdain for his two surviving children. I love this story. It’s in a simple way, about a life, a long, rich life- career, family, marriage.

Here is a quote where I wrote in the margins – “Lies. Delusions.”

“…he himself wanted nothing so much as to be alone for a time, at least in this life, to think for himself, to do for himself, to forget this long, dreary period in which he had pretended to be something that he was not.”

And again-

“If only he were free for a little while just to be alone and think, perhaps to discover what life might bring him yet; only on this occasion his thoughts were colored by a new turn in the situation. Yesterday afternoon, because Mrs. Haymaker’s condition had grown worse…)

What follows, plot wise, is first a human blood transfusion, then later- creepily- a horse blood transfusion. Neither cure her. (1)

And again, with his regrets and his ideas of what could have been:

“All those years he had wanted, wanted- wanted- an understanding mind, a tender heart, the someone woman- she must exist somewhere-who would have sympathized with all the delicate shades and meanings of his own character, his art, his spiritual as well as material dreams.”

In reality, Dreiser went looking, searching, and I can’t say if he found what he was looking for in a woman. He had so many, one wonders if his search proved somewhat futile.

My father, was born in 1939, not 1871, like Dreiser. But my father was still of a generation where it was marriage had a moral element, that an engagement mattered, that the word of a man to a woman was taken seriously. My father was engaged to an appropriate woman in Memphis, Tennessee, where he grew up. While in graduate school during a year abroad in Paris, he met my mother, broke his engagement, and married my mother 6 months later. They died married and faithful.

This is what I know of his fiancée that he abandoned: she had had polio, so she had one bad leg. (2) I know that she never married, I know the rumor, from my mother, that she never got over my father. I know for a fact that many decades later, when my parents were living in Vienna, she visited them there. This fact was told to me in hushed tones, and it was inferred- and my mother generally was not an inferrer, she was very straightforward- that it was an uncomfortable visit.


Like many a work of fiction, there is an important digression that illuminates the emotional life of Rufus. His firstborn child, a son named Elwell, died at the age of 2. His attachment to his firstborn hugely outweighed his attachment to his 2 other, surviving children, and the attachment and the loss, seems to have greatly shaped Rufus. Here he is about the arrival of Elwell:

“(Elwell)…in some chemic, almost unconscious way, seemed to have arrived as a balm to his misery, a bandage for his growing wound—sent by whom, by what, by how?”

Dreiser was raised Catholic before he became a strict atheist. But “sent by whom”- I can only think of God.

And here is Rufus on Elwell’s attachment to Rufus:

“Elwell was never so happy apparently as when snuggling in his arms, not Ernestine’s (his wife, the mother), or lying against his neck. And when he went for a walk or elsewhere there was Elwell always ready, arms up, to cling to his neck. He seemed…inordinately fond of his father, rather than his mother and never happy without him.”

And in return, Rufus’s feelings for his firstborn:

“…Haymaker came to be wildly fond of him…that queer little lump of a face, suggesting a little of himself…not so much of Ernestine…Ah, those happy days with little Elwell, those walks with his over his shoulder or on his arms, those hours in which of an evening he would rock him to sleep in his arms!”

When my first son was born, the father was working long hours and didn’t like it if I asked him to hold his son. Our apartment was very small, and one night he came home and I had pumped breastmilk (something I did twice before tossing the thing- it wasn’t for me) and having been up all night with my son, I asked him to feed him a bottle so I could nap. Refusing to go into the living room to let me rest in bed in peace, he angrily sat next to me in bed. I begged him. He wouldn’t move. I may have cried in despair, which always made him angry, if I cried, if I showed any sign of suffering. So, to depict a man so helpful, so attached, so willing to soothe, especially that generation, is significant, special, “chemic”, as Dreiser wrote. It’s a gift from God, in my mind.

And then Elwell dies. Rufus had stopped loving his wife well before this, before he even married her: he did that only out of obligation to his engagement, unlike my father, and like Dreiser, although then Dreiser left his wife shortly thereafter.

The Haymakers have 2 more children, but Rufus never bonds with either of them; indeed, as they grow, his disdain for them, as they become social animals (not artists, like Rufus) like their mother, only grows with time. (3)

Loss defines us. The loss of Elwell was not the impetus for Rufus’s misery- his marriage was- but deepened it. Rufus’s feelings on the loss of Elwell:

“How he had groaned internally, indulged in sad, despondent thoughts concerning the futility of all things human, when this happened! It seemed for the time being as if all the color and beauty had really gone out of his life for good.”

I’ve lost my father, my mother and my husband.

Recently, I watched a movie where the main character, lost in the wilds of Alaska, said, “I read somewhere that most people who die in the wild, die of shame.” I did not write in my father’s obituary that he died of self-defenestration- I was ashamed. My mother died in a diaper, treated poorly- it was a shame. She – of she had been of sound mind- would have been so ashamed. After my abandonment by my husband, I was so ashamed, that I stopped going to many places who knew me when I was married- hairdresser, restaurants, laundromat, friends’ houses- and lost my mind in pain and shame. I had become, at that point, many things I didn’t want to be- but mostly someone people felt sorry for- I was a middle-aged woman alone. Being that alone in the world- no parents, who I loved, no husband, who I loved: I was in the wild. (3)

Rufus is in the wild- we all are, really. He is lost in his thoughts- torn between wanting to be “free” and his obligations to society, to his family, despite how he disdains them. He is in the wilds of his thoughts, the wilds of his torn moral dilemma.

His wife briefly gets better. Rufus thinks:

“He would be bored if course as usual, but it would be too bad to have her die when she could be saved. And yet – …’Now she will really get well. All will be as before. Shall I never be free? Shall I never have a day—a day?”

Her improvement is brief. She dies. Rufus is confused, bereft. And yet- clarity is the gift her death gives him, no freedom, but a bright spot of reality hits him, hard. For all of Dreiser’s atheism, his Catholic background keeps sneaking around in his work, the morality of good and evil, of right and wrong. Indeed, I read this ending as Divine Justice:

“The figure he made here as against his dreams of a happier life; once he were free, now struck him forcibly. What a farce! What a failure!…’Free!” he said after a time. “Free! I know now how that is. I am free now, at last! Free!…Free!…Yes – free…to die!”


On my first reading of “Free” , in my thirties, happily married, in love, but like all marriages- having gone through many hard times – I read the ending and thought yes! Yes! How stupid of him to dream of “freedom”! Marriage and commitment are real- our vows to God are real and everything! He deserves this terrible let-down.

Now that I know that Dreiser actually didn’t believe in marriage or commitment or fidelity- and like me, he didn’t believe in all the social climbing and status driven crap this world is full of- I read the ending very differently. Dreiser is writing about the life he is happy he never lived. And yet, I still wish I had the life I once had, and my belief system hasn’t changed an inch. Commitment is everything to me. I don’t think I’ll ever change in that regard.


Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Paula Bomer is the author of the novels, Tante Eva (Soho Press, 2021), Nine Months ( Soho Press, 2012) and the story collections, Inside Madeleine (Soho Press, 2014), Baby and Other Stories (Word Riot, 2010), as well as the essay collection, Mystery and Mortality (Publishing Genius Press). “Free” will appear in a forthcoming essay collection in progress. 

  2. This novel is about a woman with a “withered” leg from polio, by a writer who stayed married forever, and credits the love and support of his wife with enabling him to have such an amazing career. I envy him and love him.
  3. A friend in college was the second child born after her older sister died at the age of 13. She confessed her parents only compared her to her dead sister, and not favorably. It was something that defined her.