Sister Carrie (1900) is a naturalist novel by American author Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945). Carrie is a young woman who moves from small-town Wisconsin to the bright lights of Chicago, where she encounters a cast of characters while trying to climb the social ladder. Dreiser uses Carrie's story to analyze themes of class and morality. Initially considered controversial and immoral, Dreiser's debut novel has become an essential work in American Literature.
Sister Carrie: Summary
Here is a summary of the important plot points from Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.
In 1889, 18-year-old Carrie Meeber leaves rural Wisconsin to join her sister Minnie in Chicago. During the train journey, she meets a charismatic young salesman named Charles Drouet. Handsome and wealthy, Carrie is smitten by Drouet and agrees to meet him the following week and view the city's sights. Carrie arrives at Minnie's apartment and sees the family is struggling to make ends meet. Minnie and her husband expect Carrie to find work immediately to relieve the financial pressure. Embarrassed by the small, shabby apartment, Carrie writes to Drouet, begging him not to visit.
Fig. 1 - Carrie goes to the bustling city of Chicago with high hopes for a better life.
Carrie's romantic notions of life in the city soon disappear. She finds work on an assembly line in a shoe factory but is dismayed by harsh work conditions, low wages, and the vulgarity of her co-workers. When winter arrives, Carrie falls ill and loses her job. Fearful that Minnie will ask her to leave, Carrie wanders the streets, searching for another position. During her search, she bumps into Drouet. The pair go to lunch, and Drouet gives Caroline $20 to buy new clothes. She decides to move in with Drouet and begins to learn the manners of high society.
Dreiser used his sister Emma as inspiration for the novel's lead character.
When Drouet invites his friend, George Hurstwood, over for dinner, Carrie is instantly impressed by the older man's credentials. Hurstwood, the owner of a successful, upscale saloon, has more wealth and independence than Drouet. After seeing Drouet walking with another woman, Carrie begins privately meeting with Hurstwood. Despite having a wife and children, Hurstwood embarks on an affair with Carrie.
When Drouet's Elk Lodge needs a female lead for theatrical production, Carrie steps in and delivers a stellar performance earning her recognition as a rising star. Now pursued by both Drouet and Hurstwood, Carrie promises to marry Hurstwood on the condition he divorces his wife. Hurstwood's wife discovers the affair and demands a large sum of money from him. Facing personal and financial ruin, he steals a large sum of money from the bar's safe and plans to flee the city. Later that day, he tells Carrie that Drouet has been injured and tells her they must visit him. When they board a train, Hurstwood reveals the truth.
The couple settle in New York and live under the assumed name of Wheeler. Hurstwood buys partial ownership in a saloon and rents a modest apartment. As he struggles to provide the standard of living Carrie has become accustomed to, she yearns to return to Chicago.
A wealthy woman named Mrs. Vance befriends Carrie and takes her out to dinner and the theatre. When Vance takes Carrie on a tour of her affluent neighborhood, Carrie is immediately envious of the grand setting and dreams about one day living there. Vance also introduces Carrie to her cousin, Bob Ames. While Carrie believes wealth and prosperity are the keys to happiness, Ames argues that materialism is hollow and fleeting. Carrie feels attracted to the man's high morals.
When Hurstwood loses his stake in the saloon, he grows increasingly bitter and depressed. Desperate to regain his fortune he gambles the last of their money away, and the couple is forced to downgrade to a cheaper apartment. Bored by life in the shabby apartment, Carrie gets a job on a casino chorus line and adopts the stage name Carrie Madenda. As Hurstwood's circumstances worsen, Carrie excels at work and begins to spend more time with her theatre friends. When Hurstwood is injured during a labor dispute, he sinks into a deep depression.
Fig. 2 - Carrie finds fame and fortune as a theatrical actress.
Now a successful star of theatrical comedies, Carrie moves into her own apartment. Although finally able to enjoy her independence, Carrie is haunted by a sense of emptiness. Drouet comes to New York hoping to reconcile the relationship, but Carrie feels she has moved beyond him and rejects his proposal. Soon afterward, Carrie is approached by Hurstwood, now homeless, who asks to loan some money.
Finally, Ames pays a visit to the wealthy and successful Carrie, who seems troubled and distant. Although Carrie is no longer interested in Ames, she takes his advice about choosing more varied roles and reading suggestions. Meanwhile, an impoverished and broken Hurstwood is shown committing suicide in a Brooklyn flophouse.
A flophouse is a cheap, low-quality hotel used by people who are down on their luck and do not have permanent housing.
Sister Carrie: Characters
Here is a look at the most important characters from Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.
The novel's protagonist begins as a young, naive woman from the rural Midwest whose dreams are crushed by the grim reality of poverty and hopelessness in the big city. She believes that wealth is the only anecdote to her problems. After becoming Drouet's mistress, she quickly sees Hurstwood as her next move up the ladder. When Carrie means the idealistic Bob Ames, she briefly reconsiders her materialistic outlook but quickly reasons that happiness can only be found in possessions.
Though Dreiser presents Carrie as driven by her desire for money and possessions, she is not depicted as heartless; her choices often result in moral conflict and guilt. Ultimately, her success is tempered by a sense of emptiness and fear.
Drouet is the first person Carrie meets on her journey to the big city. As a traveling salesman, Droeut's slick fashion sense and polished manners make a big impression on Carrie, who views him as the definition of wealthy sophistication. Although he is good-natured and can provide a comfortable home for Carrie, he cannot compete with the better-off Hurstwood. Despite Carrie's infidelity, Drouet still sees a future for the couple and travels to New York to reconcile their relationship.
When Hurstwood is first introduced he is the embodiment of the American Dream; having worked his way up and acquired a small fortune for himself he is immediately attractive to Carrie. However, Hurstwood is haunted by an emptiness. Despite having financial security and a stable family, he risks everything in his affair with Carrie. Hurstwood views Carrie as an escape from the mundanity of family commitments and is willing to abandon his life to be with her. When Carrie learns Hurstwood's fortune has disappeared, she quickly moves on which further deteriorates his fragile condition.
Sister Carrie: Themes
Here is a look at the most important themes in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.
When Carrie arrives in the big city of Chicago from rural Wisconsin, she is at first shocked by the disparity between the rich and the poor. After encountering Drouet on the train, Carrie forms a simplistic view of class and economics that transforms throughout the book. While walking through the streets of Chicago, she classifies the rich as well-dressed in comparison to her modest clothing. Carrie believes that happiness can be obtained through money and objects and yearns to enjoy the status and comfort of the upper classes. However, as she meets more people in the city, she begins to see that there are levels of wealth and class.
Fig. 3 - While visiting Mrs. Vance's neighborhood, Carrie grows jealous of the grand houses.
When Carrie leaves her sister's cramped apartment to live with Drouet, she feels content initially but soon wants more after meeting Hurstwood. When she moves to New York with Hurstwood, again, she feels envious and empty after seeing an affluent neighborhood. Carrie recognizes that wealth alone is not enough in the upper echelons of society. Her initial belief that possessions indicate distinction is proved wrong. She learns that in the highest circles, grand displays of wealth are viewed as tasteless and crass.
I sometimes think it is a shame for people to spend so much money this way …they pay so much more than these things are worth. They put on so much show.” (Part II, Ch. XXXII)
The novel is set during the Victorian Era, a period when strict moral and ethical codes organized society. During this time, people were expected to adhere to narrow classifications of gender and class. As a single woman, Carrie is often limited by society's expectations, even though she finds them outdated and stifling. Torn between the old expectations and her instincts, Carrie rejects the societal limitations of the day. She is expected to work hard, yet she finds her job at the factory tedious and soul-crushing. She is expected to find a man and get married before having sex, yet Carrie flaunts all of these moral expectations and instead follows her desires.
"In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel." (Part II, Ch. XLVII)
While society would view Carrie as a "fallen woman," Dreiser does not use the book as a moral warning against promiscuity or independence. In fact, by rejecting Victorian morals and making her own choices, Carrie succeeds, but this success is accompanied by a guilty conscience and a sense of emptiness.
Sister Carrie: Analysis
An analysis of the context and literary devices of Sister Carrie provides insight into the late 19th century. Many Victorian novels reflected the stuffy moral atmosphere of the day and portrayed good people fighting against clearly delineated forces of evil. With Sister Carrie, Dreiser rejected this simplistic view and presented a more realistic and complex picture of human Nature. The novel is considered an essential work in the naturalist movement.
Naturalism is an offshoot of the Realist movement of the late 19th century. Like Realism, Naturalism depicts the complexity of real people in real-life situations. Influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of Evolution, Naturalism examines the idea that people's behavior is shaped by their environment and instincts.
Dreiser presents many of the novel's characters as driven by their Nature or urges. In the Victorian Era (1837-1901), control and restraint were highly valued. To be "good," people had to repress their urges and adhere to social morals. In Sister Carrie, the characters are powerless in the face of their urges. Though they struggle with guilt, these characters are not making a moral choice to be wrong but are following their instincts. Dreiser challenges Victorian morals by showing the darker side of human nature but does not pass judgment on his characters.
The novel is narrated from the third-person omniscient point of view, which allows the reader to gain insight into the character's thoughts and motivations. Notably, the narrator shares several philosophical ideas and opinions that might explain the character's actions. However, he does not pass judgment on their actions and asks the reader to withhold judgment similarly.
The third-person omniscient point of view is a form of narration that takes the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. Unlike the first-person view, the narrator is not limited to a single perspective and is able to reveal the character's inner thoughts and secrets.
Fig. 4 - The "American Dream" proves to be empty and unfulfilling.
Many of the characters in Sister Carrie are in pursuit of their "American Dream." Carrie wants to move to the big city and obtain wealth and status that she could never find in her hometown. Drouet has wealth but wants a trophy wife to make him feel complete. Hurstwood has a comfortable level of wealth, and a picture-perfect family, yet finds himself wanting more. In Carrie's case, Dreiser shows that the blind pursuit of materialism is ultimately shallow and unfulfilling.
First published in 1900, Sister Carrie appeared as America was beginning to shake off the strict moral confines of the Victorian Era. Yet the novel's depiction of sex and moral ambiguity provoked a great deal of controversy.
Dreiser initially struck a deal with the publishing firm Doubleday Company to run a limited first print of the book. However, after Dreiser submitted his final draft, the firm tried to back out of the deal on moral grounds. They believe Carrie should face some punishment for her actions and thought the book was inherently immoral because she didn't.
Fig. 5 - Dreiser publishers, Doubleday, did not want to print the controversial book.
After a brief battle, Doubleday agreed to print the book but gave the work little promotion and support. This lack of promotion meant less than 500 copies were sold. The book's poor performance, coupled with the disintegration of Dreiser's marriage, led to the author's mental breakdown around this time.
Critics were also unwelcoming to Sister Carrie when it first appeared. They attacked Dreiser's unique prose and cadence, focusing on several minor grammatical errors. Since then, the book has faced censorship and potential bans but has also emerged as one of the most important works of its era.
Sister Carrie: Quotes
Here is a look at some meaningful quotes from the book. In Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser uses his unique prose to explore morals and materialism in urban America.
Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason." (Part I, Chapter VIII)
The novel's narrator often shares philosophical and scientific ideas that illuminate the actions of the novel's characters. One of the key ideas that influenced Dreiser's writing and the naturalist movement was Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Many characters in Sister Carrie are driven by animalistic instincts and unable to see reason.
When she came to her rooms, Carrie saw their comparative insignificance... She was not contrasting it now with what she had had, but what she had so recently seen." (Part I, Ch. XII)
Throughout the novel, Carrie is driven by her desire for more. After escaping the squalor of her sister's apartment for the comfort of Drouet's place, Carrie soon eyes Hurstwood as her next step up the ladder. Dreiser portrays this quest for possessions and wealth as ultimately unfulfilling and hollow.
Sister Carrie - Key takeaways
- Sister Carrie (1900) is a novel by Theodore Dreiser.
- The story follows a young woman named Carrie who moves from small-town Wisconsin to Chicago with dreams of a better life. To climb the social ladder, Carrie flaunts the social conventions of the day and embarks on a series of affairs.
- Dreiser uses Carrie's story to explore themes of class and morality.
- The novel's groundbreaking depiction of life in urban America was controversial, and the content was considered immoral.
- The novel is a Naturalist work and is considered an essential work of American Literature.
- Fig. 1 - Dearborn Street, Chicago (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dearborn_Street,_Chicago,_Ill_(NYPL_b12647398-69565).tiff) by Detroit Publishing Company is licensed by CC0 1.0 Universal (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)