Literature · Novels and Novellas

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser: An Analysis

sister carrie

A young woman named Caroline Meeber (Carrie) moves to Chicago where she first lives the working class life. She continuously yearns for material things and more high class living. She is soon involved with two wealthy men and later becomes an actress.

“With her sister she was much alone, a lone figure in a tossing,thoughtless sea.” Here is the last sentence of the first chapter. It gives a good overview of Carrie’s situation when she first arrives to Chicago to live with her sister Minnie. Minnie and her husband, Sven Hanson, want Carrie to pay rent every week. And so she has to go looking for work which turns out to be a very grueling task. Many employers are turning her down due to lack of experience.

This search for work is one way Carrie gets tossed around. Many in the city are cruel and indifferent towards her. She eventually does get a job at a factory, where her job is to poke holes in shoes. This life doesn’t bring Carrie any happiness – she is far too materialistic and craves for more. Such a life isn’t easy, constantly working in order to survive. One’s entire existence nearly becomes based around labor and money as they struggle to rise above. However, many simply do not rise above their social class – like Minnie and her husband. And they often can’t due to the nearly unchangeable social structure.

And Carrie’s drive for material things is strong. She feels she needs the best clothing, trinkets, etc. “Carrie was an apt student of fortune’s superficialities. Seeing a thing she would immediately set to inquiring how she would look, properly related to it…Fine clothes to her were a vast persuasion; they spoke tenderly and Jesuitically for themselves.”

How can Carrie rise in order to gain the things she wants? By getting involved with wealthy men. The first man who she gets romantic with is a traveling salesman named Charles Drouet. He takes her in and provides her with what she desires. But it later becomes clear that Drouet doesn’t want to get serious with Carrie (as in marriage). Soon she gets drawn to Drouet’s friend, George Hurstwood, a wealthy manager. Hurstwood does seem to fall in love with Carrie – the problem is he’s married with two children.

The difference between Hurstwood and Drouet’s feelings for Carrie are interesting. Drouet is not a serious man, as a traveling salesman he goes from place to place indifferently. This is also how he is in his relationships with women: “The truth is, that this goodly drummer [another word for salesman] carried the doom of all enduring relationships in his own lightsome manner and unstable fancy.”

Hurstwood, on the other hand, is different. He has a much more intense desire for Carrie. “As for Hurstwood he was alive with thoughts and feelings concerning Carrie. He had no definite plans regarding her, but he was determined to make her confess and affection for him.” What is Carrie’s appeal to Hurstwood? Well, his marriage with his wife isn’t exactly happy and he doesn’t care much for his children either.

What seems to attract to Carrie is her naivety and the general thrill of sneaking around with her. She revives a sense of youth in his life. “Such anxiety and enthusiasm had not affected him for years. He was youth again in feeling – a cavalier in action.” This seems like a rather typical feeling for those that have affairs.

And then there’s Carrie herself. She doesn’t have much feeling, in fact, she’s almost cold. She goes with whoever is offering her the best option and she adapts. To the two men, she is an object and prize. A role which she pretty much accepts. “The manager looked at his lovely prize, so beautiful, so winsome, so difficult to be won, and made strange resolutions.”

Carrie’s adaptation is how she grows and survives in the world. Her biggest flaw is her inability to love and she constantly craves material things in order to fill that void within her. How Carrie feels about Hurstwood: “True love she had never felt for him. She would have known as much if she could have analyzed her feelings, but this thing which she now felt aroused by his great feeling broke down the barriers between them.” She doesn’t feel any real love for Hurstwood – she just likes what he’s able to provide at the moment. His appeal is the excitement he currently brings but she doesn’t care for him as a person. But Hurstwood’s affection for Carrie is pretty superficial as well. He likes the feeling she gives him in the moment but once that’s gone his desire for her will dwindle.

Hurstwood and Carrie do end up together. Once Hurstwood steals a large some of money from a safe at work and tricks Carrie into moving out of Chicago with him. Once they’re in New York, Hurstwood’s fall begins. He is soon unable to find work and is eventually reduced to poverty.

“Of course, as his own self-respect vanished, it perished for him in Carrie.” Once he can’t offer her anything, Carrie basically becomes disgusted with the man. And Hurstwood no longer seems to have that same desire for her. Hurstwood is unable to adapt to his changing surroundings while Carrie does. That’s why she’s the survivor out of the two of them. She’s able to become an actress, mostly because of her looks alone.

As said before Carrie is a cold, nearly unfeeling person and that’s exactly why she’s able to survive in the world. Here’s a short passage that sums up the type of person Carrie is: “Being of a passive and receptive nature, Carrie accepted the situation. Her state seemed satisfactory enough.” Because she doesn’t get strong emotional attachments to others, she’s able to gradually rise in almost any situation. This idea of survival, in this case, is a part of naturalist thinking. Something that Dreiser was heavily involved in.

As someone unable to adapt to his situation, Hurstwood dies near the end. To be specific, he commits suicide. His fall from a wealthy manager to homeless man is significant. It was pretty easy for him to make it in Chicago, but once he’s thrust into a new environment (New York), he fails. Formerly being a part of the elite, he is completely unable to cope with poverty. This is the story with many who have had their wealth stripped away.

But Carrie’s ending isn’t really happy either Sure, she survives and becomes an actress with plenty of money. But she’s never going to experience real happiness or love: “In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.” This is the final line of the book and it describes Carrie’s fate – a constant search for fulfillment that she will never reach.

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