Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie might be described as an anti-romance. As Jane Austen's romantic novels reflected the settled, ordered society in which they take place, so Sister Carrie uses a story of a restless, continually dissatisfied young woman to reflect a constantly changing society. In a conventional romantic novel, the heroine is hoping to meet the ideal man. She may be disappointed, but her objective is clear. The men in Carrie's life are stepping stones to the next opportunity rather than ends in themselves. Drouet's initial attraction is simply the fact that he gives her twenty dollars. When she finally goes through a marriage ceremony with Hurstwood, it is a bigamous one. Like Drouet, he is merely a temporary solution to the problem of how to live in comfort while pursuing a career.
Carrie's world is precarious and uncertain. She becomes a star but could just as easily have become a homeless beggar, as Hurstwood does. The novel is set among traveling salesmen and actors, people who are constantly on the move and whose incomes and lifestyles are always fluctuating. One of the most realistic aspects of this realist work is the constant atmosphere of uncertainty in the big swiftly developing cities of Chicago, Montreal, and New York. In the first chapter, Dreiser personifies the city as an unreliable and seductive character:
The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms.
The rapidly expanding cities, with new skyscrapers rising every day, provide a background of constant change to the characters' restless lives.