Study Guide

Sister Carrie

by Theodore Dreiser

Sister Carrie Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

While working as a freelance journalist, Theodore Dreiser wrote his first novel, Sister Carrie, which was accepted for publication by Frank Norris, the author of McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899) and an editor for Frank Doubleday, but Frank Doubleday objected to the novel. Bound to a contract, Doubleday printed, but did not distribute or advertise, one thousand copies; few sold, a fact that crushed Dreiser. The book was ahead of its time—readers were not ready for the realism and frank language that Dreiser championed.

Carrie Meeber, the main character, is a young woman from a small town in the Midwest who leaves her family to attempt to make her own way in Chicago. Her excitement at this prospect soon changes to sorrow when she realizes that the life she will lead working in a factory is not glamorous. In a state of despair, she accepts money from a traveling salesman, Drouet, and she moves to his apartment, where she lives in comfort without working. Later, she is tricked into leaving Chicago for New York with another man, Hurstwood, who is more successful than Drouet, but who soon fails. It is hard to read this novel and fully understand the objections that Frank Doubleday and other readers had. One must remind oneself that Carrie, according to the standards of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a fallen woman. She lives with a man, Drouet, without first marrying him. If that were not scandalous enough,...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Sister Carrie Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When Carrie Meeber leaves her hometown in Wisconsin, she has nothing but a few dollars and a certain unspoiled beauty and charm. Young and inexperienced, she is going to Chicago to live with her sister and find work. While on the train, she meets Charles Drouet, a genial, flashy traveling salesman. Before the train pulls into the station, the two exchange addresses, and Drouet promises to call on Carrie at her sister’s house.

When she arrives at her sister’s home, Carrie discovers that her life there would be far from the happy, carefree existence of which she had dreamed. The Hansons are hardworking people, grim and penny-pinching; they allow themselves no pleasures and live a dull, conventional life. It is clear to Carrie that Drouet cannot possibly call there, not only because of the unattractive atmosphere but also because the Hansons are sure to object to him. She writes and tells him not to call, and that she will get in touch with him later.

Carrie goes job-hunting and finally finds work in a small shoe factory. Of her first wages, all but fifty cents goes to her sister and brother-in-law. When Carrie falls ill, she loses her job and again has to look for work. Day after day, she trudges the streets, without success. It seems as if she will have to go back to Wisconsin, and the Hansons encourage her to do so, since they do not want her if she cannot bring in money.

One day while looking for work, Carrie visits Drouet and tells him her troubles. He offers her money, and with reluctance, she accepts it. The money is for clothes she needs, but she does not know how to explain the source of the money to her sister. Drouet solves the problem by suggesting that he rent a room for her, where she can keep her clothing. A few days later, Carrie begins living with Drouet, who promises to marry her as soon as he completes a business deal.

In the meantime, Drouet introduces Carrie to a friend, G. W. Hurstwood. Hurstwood has a good job as the manager of a saloon and has a comfortable home, a wife, and two grown children. More than twice Carrie’s age, he nevertheless accepts Drouet’s suggestion that he look in on her while the salesman is out of town on one of his trips. Before long, Hurstwood is passionately in love with Carrie. When Drouet returns, he discovers from a chambermaid that...

(The entire section is 955 words.)

Sister Carrie Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Carrie Meeber, the protagonist of Sister Carrie, may seem somewhat shallow in her preoccupation with clothing and popular entertainment, she has been called a seeker of beauty. Carrie has grown up in an impoverished rural district, probably knowing only the essentials of life. To her, luxuries such as fashionable clothes, theaters, and elegant restaurants are beautiful things.

At first, Carrie plans to acquire material beauty through her own efforts, working in Chicago. She soon learns, however, that her lack of training and experience qualifies her only for factory work, which does not pay well. Following a bout of flu, Carrie loses her job in a shoe factory (sick leave did not exist in 1889) and cannot find another position. During one of her futile job searches, she chances to encounter Charles Drouet, a traveling salesman whom she had met on the train to Chicago. As Carrie is rather passive and pliable by nature, Charles easily persuades her to postpone her job search, have dinner with him, and let him buy her some nice clothes. Before long, Carrie has moved into this man’s cozy apartment, enjoying material comforts she has never known, without having to scrabble for work.

When Carrie meets George Hurstwood, the manager of a prosperous saloon, however, she realizes that this man is superior to her present lover. Not only is Hurstwood more intelligent, but also his clothes are finer in quality—a clear indication that he can provide her with a higher form of material beauty. Attracted to Carrie, Hurstwood plans an elopement to New York. In order to execute this plan, he needs a supply of ready cash—something he lacks because most of his money is in investments. This situation leads to a scene that exhibits Dreiser’s belief in one’s ability to weigh moral issues rather than only acting on impulse.

Closing the saloon one night, Hurstwood notices that the lock on the safe is not fastened. Tempted, he reaches in, takes out ten thousand dollars in bills, puts them back, then takes them out again. Aware that theft is intrinsically wrong as well as tremendously damaging to one’s reputation, he knows that he should replace the cash. Yet he hesitates,...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

Sister Carrie Overview

Sister Carrie is the story of Carrie Meeber, a young woman who leaves her small hometown in Wisconsin and goes to Chicago to find work...

(The entire section is 237 words.)

Sister Carrie Summary

Part 1 Summary

Sister Carrie opens in 1889 with eighteenyear- old Caroline Meeber on her way from her small hometown to the big city of Chicago. She...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Part 2 Summary

Carrie and Hurstwood marry illegally under the assumed name of Wheeler and move to New York City. Carrie soon comes to realize that she does...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Sister Carrie Chapter Summaries

Chapters 1-3 Summary

Eighteen-year-old Caroline Meeber (known as “Sister Carrie” among her family) leaves her parents’ home in Wisconsin for an extended stay (or permanent residence, should she find employment) at her sister’s home in Chicago. On the train, Carrie is approached by Charles H. Drouet, a “masher” (a well-dressed man who preys on lone women). He strikes up a conversation with Carrie, who is overwhelmed by the presence of such a worldly man. He knows some of the businessmen of her hometown who own a clothing establishment far above her own means. She tells him about herself and agrees to receive him at her sister’s home the following Monday. Drouet offers to take Carrie to her sister’s, but Carrie declines, not wanting to...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Chapters 4-5 Summary

Carrie thinks of all the things she can buy and do with her prospective wages. At dinner that evening, she describes all the places she saw while job hunting. As she and Minnie clean up, Carrie proposes going to the theater. When Minnie hesitates, Carrie offers to pay. Hanson disapproves of the idea. Afterward, as Carrie is downstairs looking out at the sights on the street below, Hanson worries that already she is wasting her money. Carrie can now see that her sister’s home will be narrow and confining in more ways than one. Over the weekend, she wanders the streets alone, enjoying the sights and her own independence.

On Monday morning, Carrie nervously gets ready for work. On her arrival, she is shown to her work...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Chapters 6-7 Summary

At home, Minnie and Hanson question Carrie about her new job. She explains that it is hard and that she does not like it. She expected sympathy and feels nonplussed when Hanson and Minnie disapprove of her refusal to accept her lot with good grace. This showcases for her the inadequacies of her new life. She must pay four dollars a week for room and board to her sister, which leaves just fifty cents for all her other expenses, including clothes. Winter is approaching, and she needs a hat and coat. She stands in the doorway, expecting that Mr. Drouet might come after all. She feels disappointed when he does not. Hanson comes downstairs. He says he is going for bread but in actuality is checking on what Carrie is doing; he...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Chapters 8-9 Summary

In the morning, Minnie finds Carrie’s note. Hanson is cynical and indifferent. Minnie aches for the choice her sister has made. Carrie wakes up alone in her new flat. The following day, Drouet takes her to breakfast and to go shopping for more clothes. Over the next several days, he takes her sightseeing throughout Chicago. She sees the opera and dines in high-class restaurants. Occasionally, Carrie thinks of her old life and how far she has separated herself from it. One day, Carrie recognizes one of the shop girls from the shoe factory; she looks at Carrie with vague recognition. Carrie feels that a great distance has been created between her life now and the life of the shabby factory girl.

Carrie continues to feel...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Chapters 10-11 Summary

Drouet rents a three-room flat in one of the better neighborhoods of Chicago. He and Carrie move in together; he provides the young woman with a lifestyle far beyond her past experiences. She has every physical comfort, but she is psychologically tormented by the moral price she has paid for it. She is at leisure, she has no need for employment, and yet she is not truly happy. When she is alone, as she frequently is when Drouet is on one of his many business trips, the voice inside her head haunts her.

Drouet tells Carrie that he has invited a friend to come home with him some evening. He describes Hurstwood and tells Carrie that he has told him she is his wife. Carrie asks why they cannot truly get married. Drouet...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Chapters 12-13 Summary

Mrs. Hurstwood does not know about any moral indiscretions of her husband’s, but she does not put it past him. Hurstwood suspects her of suspecting him, but this does not bother him. One evening, he, Drouet, and Carrie go to the theater. Hurstwood’s son, George Jr., also goes, and he sees his father in the company of a woman. The next day, he confronts his father. Hurstwood smoothly explains that he was there with Mr. and Mrs. Drouet, who are business connections. Mrs. Hurstwood says she thought he had to work—she had requested that he go with her to the theater that very night. Hurstwood says that this was unavoidable and he afterward worked until two in the morning. For the next few days, Mrs. Hurstwood invites him to go...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Chapters 14-15 Summary

Carrie returns home, completely in love. She agreed to meet Hurstwood in town. Mrs. Hale notices that Carrie has gone out with Hurstwood and is suspicious that Carrie, whom she thinks is married to Drouet, is going out with another man. The housemaid also takes notice. She has a preference for Drouet because of his attention to her, so she spreads her gossip to the cook. From there, Carrie’s relationship with Hurstwood becomes the topic of much conversation.

Hurstwood is enjoying his new life. He thinks only of the pleasure of it, not the responsibility. He does not intend for it to intrude on the rest of his life. He sees that Carrie takes their relationship more seriously than he does, but she resists consummating...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Chapters 16-17 Summary

Drouet belongs to a secret society in Chicago, but he has not been heavily involved in its activities. However, he begins to notice that the men who rise in their business professions take a leading part in their lodges. With this in mind, he pays a visit to his club and finds them in the midst of a fund-raising event: a play performed by amateurs connected with the lodge. Wanting to be connected in a more meaningful way, Drouet offers to find a young woman to fill one of the parts. He forgets all about his promise, however, until he sees a notice in the paper concerning the upcoming performance.

At home, he tries to convince Carrie to take the part. Carrie refuses, stating that she has neither talent nor experience in...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Chapters 18-19 Summary

Hurstwood goes to work and rounds up an impressive audience of the well-to-do for Carrie’s performance. He convinces a friend in the newspaper business to print a notice in the paper. Carrie has learned her lines well but is nervous about experiencing stage fright. Last-minute cast changes highlight Carrie’s abilities.

On the night of the performance, Drouet takes Carrie to the theater in a carriage sent by the lodge and then goes looking for some good cigars in the shops nearby. Carrie is overwhelmed at the lights and refinement of the theater. She dresses, hearing the voice of Mr. Quincel, the director, as he hustles the other cast members in their preparations. She thinks this would be delightful if it could...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Chapters 20-21 Summary

The next morning, Hurstwood still feels intensely jealous of Carrie’s relationship with Drouet. He would give anything if she would get rid of Drouet and accept him instead. At breakfast, he has no appetite. There is a new servant who has already shown herself inadequate. Mrs. Hurstwood berates her, and Hurstwood feels more irritated by her than ever. His wife asks him if he has decided when he will take his vacation. He tells her there is no rush and that he is very busy at the moment. Mrs. Hurstwood warns him not to put it off until the season is over. He points out to her that she will not want to leave until the races are over. Mrs. Hurstwood says she might because Jessica has decided there are not as many eligible men at the...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Chapters 22-23 Summary

Mrs. Hurstwood berates Jessica for not coming down to breakfast. Jessica says she is not hungry, but her mother tells her to show some consideration to the servants, who must wait to clean up. As she leaves, Mrs. Hurstwood meets Dr. Beale on her steps. He accuses her of ignoring him when he saw her out riding on Washington Boulevard. Mrs. Hurstwood is immediately suspicious but tells him that it must have been Jessica whom he saw.

Mrs. Hurstwood and Jessica attend the races the day after Carrie’s triumphant performance. Jessica is involved in conversation with the young men around her, so Mrs. Hurstwood is left to talk with her acquaintances. She learns that her husband was at the theater the previous evening and told...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Chapters 24-25 Summary

After work, Hurstwood does not go home at all but takes a room at the Palmer House. He paces the floor, wondering what he should do now. If his wife takes the action she threatened, it would most likely lose him his job as well as his friends. He realizes that she has property in her name, which leaves him with very little. The only pleasing thing about this mess is his approaching escape with Carrie.

In the morning, Hurstwood goes to his office and looks through his mail, fearful of finding some letter from his wife or a lawyer. He finds nothing but does not feel great relief. He goes to the park to meet Carrie as they had arranged, but she does not appear. He wonders if his wife has contacted her, but he doubts that...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Chapters 26-27 Summary

Carrie is unsure what to do now. She has only seven dollars and some change, and she knows she must find some sort of employment. The rent has been paid through the end of the month, and Drouet has taken most but not all of his clothing. She must find a way to earn money soon so she can move out. She does not consider Hurstwood an option; she is furious that he lied to her and was willing to “marry” her while he was still married.

On Saturday, Carrie wanders through the business section, although most of the shops are closing down by afternoon. She uses this as an excuse to avoid going in to inquire about work. On Monday, she wanders outside of theaters, thinking about asking for some role, but she cannot bring up...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Chapters 28-29 Summary

In answer to Carrie’s questions, Hurstwood assures her that Drouet is not seriously injured. He is on the South Side of town, he tells her, and so they must take the train. Carrie can get no more information out of him, though she thinks it is strange that they must go to the depot to take a train within the city. As the train leaves, Hurstwood asks himself why he did this. He has stolen a large sum of money, and now he has kidnapped a young woman. He continues to give Carrie vague answers to her questions, and she soon becomes suspicious. He tells her that they are not going to see Drouet, but he is taking her to another city. She immediately tells him to let her go and that she does not want anything to do with him. He explains...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

Chapters 30-31 Summary

Hurstwood and Carrie, now living under the names of Mr. and Mrs. G. W. Wheeler, find a flat in New York. Hurstwood worries about living on the money he kept back from the amount he stole from his former employers. He looks around for a job for several days with no success; he learns that Tammany Hall controls much of the business in New York. At last he finds a saloon in which he can invest money to own thirty percent of the business. He turns over a thousand dollars and begins work. He had hoped to earn at least a hundred and fifty dollars a month, but he soon realizes that he will be lucky to get a hundred, at least in the beginning. He bought furniture on an installment plan and asks Carrie to wait before buying any new clothes....

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Chapters 32-33 Summary

As Carrie attends the play, she remembers her desire to go on the stage professionally. The lifestyle she sees portrayed on stage heightens her desire for the finer things, which she does not have with Hurstwood. She feels increasingly dissatisfied with her lot in life and becomes moody on her return home. When Hurstwood comes in, he senses her mood and asks her what the matter is. On learning that she had attended the matinee, he states that he planned on taking her that evening, if she wants to see it again. She says she does not, but during dinner she changes her mind.

About a month later, the Vances invite Carrie for a night out to the theater and dinner at Sherry’s, an upper-class restaurant in the heart of the...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Chapters 34-35 Summary

Carrie evaluates her life as inexorably sliding into poverty. She thinks more of Ames’s ideas that wealth and material positions are not everything. Hurstwood takes parts of days off to look for opportunities, but he finds nothing. He reads in the papers that it is expected that 80,000 people will be unemployed this winter. He thinks of his family in Chicago and wonders how they are doing. Mostly he hates them for living off his property when he considers that he did not really do anything so bad.

He looks into investing in current businesses but finds that they want more money than he has. Discouraged, he returns to the new flat in which he and Carrie now live. Tension sparks between them, and Carrie is hurt. He...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Chapters 36-37 Summary

When she is out shopping, Carrie runs into Mrs. Vance, who has returned from their summer stay in the country. Mrs. Vance has not heard from Carrie because Carrie did not let her know that she and Hurstwood had moved. When Mrs. Vance hears their new address, she knows the “Wheelers” have fallen on hard times. Both women invite each other to visit.

When Carrie returns to her flat, she tells Hurstwood of her meeting with Mrs. Vance. Hurstwood is dismissive of the woman; he says she moves in too fast a crowd for Carrie. Carrie retorts that the Vances have money because Mr. Vance works. Hurstwood goes out for a shave and then joins in a poker game at a saloon. He does not do well and loses sixty dollars. He is...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapters 38-39 Summary

Carrie continues her search for a position in a theater chorus. The manager at the Casino tells her to come around at the beginning of the next week and he might have something for her then. This is encouraging, but Carrie still worries. Hurstwood still has not found anything, and Carrie is not sure that he is even looking for work when he goes out. On Monday, Carrie goes back to the Casino. The manager looks her over and likes her appearance. He has been told that the chorus is getting thin as to the looks department, so he tells her to show up for rehearsal the next morning; he warns that she will be dropped if she is late. Carrie goes home very excited, and Hurstwood goes out to get a shave and buy a steak in celebration.

...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Chapters 40-41 Summary

Carrie learns that the hotel is not expected to open until October now. She feels more contemptuous of Hurstwood’s inability to find a job. She learns that her show will be closing and going on the road. She and Osborne go to another theater, where they are immediately given spots for twenty dollars a week. Carrie is jubilant at the increase in her salary. Hurstwood can see that she is doing better at her job because she is buying new and better quality clothes.

Hurstwood reads in the paper that the streetcar conductors may go on strike. As he reads over their demands, he sympathizes with them at first. However, he changes his mind when he learns that the streetcar company is hiring replacements for the strikers....

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Chapters 42-43 Summary

One evening during a performance, one of the lead actors ad libs a line to Carrie, who ad libs one of her own. This is a hit with the audience, and she is told to keep the line in. Hurstwood, in the meantime, no longer has work because only police are running the streetcars during the strike. He hides in the flat, refusing to answer the door when creditors come calling. Lola Osborne, Carrie’s friend in the chorus line, asks her to share an apartment. Carrie’s share would come only to three dollars a week. This appeals to her because it would leave her more money for clothes. She hesitates, though, and tells Lola that she does not really want to move at the moment.

Carrie is soon offered a larger speaking part, which...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapters 44-45 Summary

Carrie’s status in the theater troupe changes overnight. She is given a larger dressing room and the attitude of the other actors toward her becomes more polite and ingratiating. As she picks up her first hundred and fifty dollars’ pay, she thinks back to her time in the shoe factory, making four fifty a week. A representative from a new up-scale hotel offers her rooms at a bargain price of three dollars a day, compared to the normal one hundred dollars a week. She and Lola are overwhelmed by the luxury but move in at once. One day at the theater, Mrs. Vance arrives. She says no word about Carrie’s past poverty and asks no questions about Hurstwood. They arrange to dine together soon.

Carrie begins to receive love...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Chapters 46-47 Summary

When Carrie returns to New York after being on tour, Drouet forces himself into her dressing room. He looks the same and is still loud and overbearing. He tries to get Carrie to go out to dinner with him that evening but she puts him off until the next day; she tells him to meet her at the Waldorf, where she is now living. Drouet clearly wants to reconnect with her and resume their relationship, but Carrie has moved passed that. She avoids meeting him again.

That evening Carrie is startled when Hurstwood approaches her, asking for money. At first she does not recognize him, but when she hears his voice she feels concerned about his obvious physical decline. She gives him money and he leaves, promising not to bother her...

(The entire section is 453 words.)