Sister Carrie

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Carrie Meeber, a poor and inexperienced young woman, leaves her hometown in Wisconsin to live with her sister and find work in Chicago. Life soon becomes a grind of never-ending labor for mere survival. Falling ill and losing her poor-paying job, she accepts money from Charles Drouet, a man whom she met on the train when she traveled to the city. Eventually, she becomes his mistress.

Drouet’s friend, G. W. Hurstwood, is fascinated by Carrie’s charm and beauty. Carrie and Hurstwood fall in love and begin an affair. Mrs. Hurstwood threatens that unless he leaves Carrie, she will sue him for divorce. Faced with social and financial ruin, Hurstwood steals several thousand dollars from his employer and takes Carrie to Montreal. Given the opportunity to return the money, he does give back most of it, but his life is changed forever.

Hurstwood and Carrie marry under the name of Wheeler. She does not realize that the ceremony is not legal. They move to New York, but he cannot find work and they continually flee creditors. Carrie finds work as a chorus girl and eventually becomes well-known as an actress. She leaves Hurstwood and succeeds on her own, becoming rich and famous. As his fortunes decline, hers rise.

During the famous streetcar strike of the time, Hurstwood works as a scab, but soon he degenerates into a bum. He visits Carrie and gets some money from her, but he never goes back to her again and finally dies. Carrie, invited to perform in Europe, sails without knowing that Hurstwood is dead. Although she is now materially successful, her soul has been damaged and she is alone and unable to find happiness.

The book is a startlingly real picture of the social history of the time, a stark indictment of the ruthless nature of capitalism. Dreiser believed that men are inevitably crushed under the wheels of the giant machinery that keeps society moving. People use one another, mercilessly, and have no regrets for those who fall by the wayside. The message is a grim one, but the impact of the novel renders it unforgettable.


Gerber, Philip. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. A biographical and thematic analysis of Dreiser’s major works, which interprets Sister Carrie as a naturalistic novel in the tradition of Émile Zola in France and Stephen Crane and Frank Norris in the United States.

Kaplan, Amy. “The Sentimental Revolt of Sister Carrie.” In The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Excellent discussion of the novel within the framework of American realism. Juxtaposes Dreiser’s power as a realist—challenging moral and literary conventions—with his simultaneous reliance on sentimental codes. A second chapter, “Theodore Dreiser’s Promotion of Authorship,” explores Dreiser’s conception of the realist within the literary marketplace.

Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. A classic treatment of Dreiser’s novels by one of the most important Dreiser scholars. Discusses the composition history of Sister Carrie, its biographical and literary sources, and provides an excellent general introduction to the novel’s themes.

Pizer, Donald. New Essays on “Sister Carrie.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Contains, in addition to Pizer’s thorough discussion of the novel’s historical and biographical background, four essays that explore in depth Dreiser’s naturalism, the novel’s narrative voice, and the relationship between the author and his heroine.

Sloane, David E. E. “Sister Carrie”: Theodore Dreiser’s Sociological Tragedy. New York: Twayne, 1992. A book-length study of the novel that provides literary and historical context. Interprets the work as a sociological tragedy, focusing on plot, style, metaphor, symbol, and character. Also includes a selected annotated bibliography of criticism.

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Critical Evaluation


Critical Overview