For her age and the time period, Carrie is very independent. Yet she still has to make difficult choices to get ahead. From a feminist perspective, Carrie exemplifies the struggle of the 19th century woman to succeed in a man’s world.
Carrie defies convention when she leaves her home to go to the city alone. When Carrie gets off the train, she is described in backwardly optimistic terms.
She was eighteen years or age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. (ch 1, enotes etext p. 2)
Carrie expects to be able to be successful by her wits and beauty alone. She comes to the city with nothing. Dresier interjects some typical views of young women.
When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. (ch 1, p. 2)
Clearly, Dreiser believes that the city’s “cunning wiles” will corrupt Carrie unless someone intervenes to save her. She has a mind “rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis” but not high in self-interest. She is a “half-equipped little knight” ready for adventure.
Despite his dismissive remarks, such as about all women knowing about clothes, Drieser does give Carrie some gumption. From a feminist point of view, Carrie is trying to struggle against the chains of femininity. She is enamored of Drouet and does not know how to act. It is a man’s world, and Drouet is going to guide Carrie in it.
Carrie tries to get a job on her own in the city, so she can leave her country life behind for good and be her own person. She mostly wanders aimlessly, “looking for something to do" and being told there is no work.
Carrie finally gets an offer at $3.50 a week, even though she has no skills and no experience. In her imagination, she could do much better. She finally agrees to a job at $4.50.
As a woman, she does not have the opportunities a man would have. There is not much she can do, and little she is trained to do. As a woman, she is at the mercy of the first man who can take care of her.