Sister Carrie

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Sister Carrie
Theodore Dreiser

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


Sister Carrie shocked the public when Doubleday, Page and Company published it in 1900. In fact, it was so controversial, it almost missed being printed at all. Harpers refused the first copy, and the book went to Frank Doubleday. After the Doubleday printers typeset the book one of the partners' wives read it and so strongly opposed its sexual nature that the publisher produced only a few editions.

In addition to the book's theme of sexual impropriety, the public disliked the fact that Theodore Dreiser presented a side of life that proper Americans did not care to acknowledge. Even worse, Dreiser made no moral judgements on his characters' actions. He wrote about infidelity and prostitution as natural occurrences in the course of human relationships. Dreiser wrote about his characters with pity, compassion, and a sense of awe.

While the book appalled Americans, the English appreciated it. William Heinemann published an English version of the book in 1901. While the book sold well in England, Sister Carrie did not enjoy much success in the United States, even though B. W. Dodge & Co. had reprinted it. In order to make ends meet Dreiser worked at other literary jobs. In 1911, when the magazine where he was employed stopped publication and he was out of work, he began to write nonstop to complete his next novel, Jennie Gerhardt. Critics liked Jennie Gerhardt so much that they began to reconsider the merits of Sister Carrie. A new edition of Sister Carrie was published, and it became Dreiser's most successful novel.

Author Biography

Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871. Dreiser's father, John Paul, fled to America from Germany to avoid the draft. Although the elder Dreiser had mastered weaving in Germany, he found that employers in his new country did not appreciate his skill. He tried to earn a living in Terre Haute while his wife and children moved from place to place looking for other work and more affordable living. Mr. Dreiser and his wife of Moravian descent raised their family on very little money, with the stringent morals and rules of the old country. They communicated with each other in German and followed strict Catholic practices.

One of ten children, next-to-the-youngest Theodore Dreiser felt the influence of his older brothers and sisters who seemed to always find themselves in trouble. For example, one brother, Paul, robbed a saloon in his teens, kept company with a brothel madam, and died of alcoholism and related depression. Two of Theodore's sisters were prostitutes. Because Theodore saw his father's distress over his children's antics, the younger Dreiser learned early how to avoid being caught for his many misadventures. Fortunately, Dreiser loved reading. His fondness for words led him to writing; writing kept him fed and out of trouble. When Dreiser turned sixteen, he left the family and began working at a variety of odd jobs to try to support himself. He lived for a while with a brother in Chicago, then returned to Indiana to attend Indiana University. He left after a year, however, returning to Chicago where, in 1892, he made his writing debut as a reporter for the Daily Globe. After having been a reporter in Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, Dreiser began to discover that he was better at writing impressions than he was at reporting the facts. While working in New York, Dreiser wrote several short stories that quickly sold. Slightly encouraged by this success and the urging of a friend, Dreiser penned Sister Carrie. Based on his sisters' lives, the novel became Dreiser's best-known work. Critics today credit Dreiser with being the first writer to portray nineteenth-century American life in a realistic way. Dreiser died in Los Angeles, California, in 1945.

Plot Summary

Part I

Sister Carrie opens in 1889 with eighteen-year-old Caroline Meeber on her way from her small hometown to the big city of Chicago. She is frightened to leave home, but determined to make her way in the city. An attractive, yet naive young woman, Carrie finds herself in the company of Charles Drouet, a "drummer," or traveling salesman. Drouet, well dressed and flashy, engages Carrie in a long conversation. When they part at the train station, they agree to meet the following week in Chicago.

After Drouet leaves, Carrie, feeling alone and bereft in this big city, waits for her sister Minnie to meet her at the station. Carrie will stay with Minnie and her husband Sven Hanson, who live in a small, meagerly furnished apartment. They expect Carrie's wages to help them make their rent payments. Carrie sits in their rocking chair sorting out her thoughts—a position of repose she will often repeat throughout the novel. Realizing how small the apartment is, Carrie then writes to Drouet telling him she cannot see him because there is no room for visitors.

Carrie finally finds a job but the wages are low and when she wants to go to the theatre or enjoy life in the city, her sister disapproves. Carrie's job on the assembly line is dreadful and nearly all her wages go to her sister at the end of each week. Without enough money to buy warm clothes, when the cold weather comes she turns ill and loses her job. When Carrie recovers from her illness she searches for a new job, but without much success. By accident, she bumps into Drouet, who gives her twenty dollars for new clothes; when she decides to leave her sister's home, Drouet establishes her in a furnished room of her own in another part of the city. After several days of sightseeing and shopping, Carrie and Drouet begin living together.

Drouet invites his friend George Hurstwood, the manager of a prosperous saloon, to visit their home. The visit goes well for Carrie and Hurst-wood, who is unhappy with his home life. They seem attracted to each other and Drouet suffers by comparison with the older man. Carrie continues to interest Hurstwood and he decides to pursue her when he sees Drouet out with another woman. When he turns his full attention to courting Carrie he ignores his own wife and family.

Meanwhile, Drouet promises his lodge brothers that he will find an actress for their upcoming stage show. He convinces Carrie to take the part. Although the other actors are not good, Carrie herself rises to the occasion and turns in an excellent performance. This renews both Drouet's and Hurstwood's interest in her; Carrie agrees to leave Drouet if Hurstwood will marry her and he agrees.

Hurstwood's wife, aware of the affair with Carrie, hounds him for money and begins divorce proceedings. At the time the novel is set, a man exposed as an adulterer would not only lose his marriage, he would also lose his job and social standing in the community. As Hurstwood ponders what his next step should be, he discovers a large sum of money in the saloon's safe and steals it. He then goes to Carrie telling her that Drouet has been injured and persuades her to board a train that will supposedly take her to Drouet. However, once on board, Hurstwood reveals his true purpose.

Part II

Carrie and Hurstwood marry illegally under the assumed name of Wheeler and move to New York City. Carrie soon comes to realize that she does not love Hurstwood, and has used him to escape her life in Chicago. Nonetheless, she stays and keeps house for Hurstwood, who buys an interest in a New York saloon. As the years pass, their routine becomes predictable and monotonous, and Carrie grows increasingly discontented with her shabby clothes and frugal lifestyle.

Mrs. Vance, an elegant and wealthy woman who befriends Carrie, begins to take her to the theatre and helps her pick out new clothes. Carrie then meets Mrs. Vance's cousin, Bob Ames, who convinces her that wealth is not necessarily the means to all happiness. Carrie comes to see Ames as the ideal man.

Meanwhile, Hurstwood grows older and more depressed. He loses the lease on his business and spends his days in hotel lobbies, watching the rich and famous pass by him. This, and reading the morning and afternoon papers, comprise his entire routine. When money grows increasingly scarce the couple move into a cheaper apartment and Hurst-wood gambles away the last of their cash.

Carrie then decides to find a job in the theatre. Under the name Carrie Madenda, she takes a job in a chorus line at the Casino theatre and is soon promoted and earning good money. Preferring to spend her time with theatre friends, Carrie increasingly stays away from the apartment and Hurstwood.

Hurstwood eventually finds work as a scab, working on a Brooklyn trolley line where workers are striking. Although he is not seriously wounded, he is shot and beaten but the experience causes him to sink ever deeper into depression. On the other hand, Carrie wins a speaking part in her show and earns more money. She is tired of supporting Hurst-wood, and leaves him.

Carrie's career continues to grow. She moves into a new hotel with her friend Lola Osborne and lives the life she has always dreamed yet still finds herself unhappy. Meanwhile, Hurstwood continues to sink. He works in a hotel as an errand boy where he catches pneumonia and takes many months in the hospital to recover.

Around this time, Drouet appears, hoping to win Carrie back, but sees that she has changed and they are no longer on the same level. Following Drouet's appearance, Hurstwood approaches Carrie after a performance asking for money. She gives him all that she has with her. Finally, when Ames comes to New York, telling her she ought to consider other roles, she becomes troubled. Carrie takes to her rocker, where she rocks and trys to sort through her life.

In the final chapter, Dreiser briefly revisits his characters. Hurstwood is now a homeless, itinerant man whose mind has gone. Carrie can be seen reading a serious novel—one that Ames recommends. And Drouet is in the lobby of a grand hotel. Dreiser also describes the Hurstwood family on their way to a vacation in Italy and then returns to Hurstwood himself and the final scene where he commits sui-cide in a Bowery flophouse by turning on the gas jet and going to sleep.


Bob Ames

Carrie meets Bob Ames at Mrs. Vance's. Ames has a high forehead and a rather large nose, but Carrie finds him handsome. She likes even more his boyish nature and nice smile. Mr. and Mrs. Vance and Carrie and Ames have dinner together, and Carrie enjoys Ames's scholarly manner. He discusses topics that seem of great importance to Carrie, and admits to her that money possesses little value to him. Carrie is intrigued by this unusual person and views her own life as insignificant in comparison.

Charles Drouet

Charles Drouet travels around the country as a salesman, or drummer, for a dry goods firm. He meets Carrie on the train on her first venture from the farm to the city. Drouet perceives himself as quite a lady's man. Dressed in a vested suit with shiny gold buttons on his sleeves, he fits the 1880 slang term of a "masher," or a person who dresses to attract young women. He starts a conversation with Carrie, and she cannot help but notice his pink cheeks, mustache, and fancy hat. In addition to his fine dress and good looks, he possesses an easygoing nature that puts people, especially women, at ease. Drouet manages to learn where Carrie is going and to arrange to meet her on the following Monday.

Although the two do not meet on that Monday, Drouet thinks of Carrie often while he enjoys his clubs, the theatre, and having drinks with friends, such as George Hurstwood. He brags to Hurstwood one night about meeting Carrie, "I struck a little peach coming in on the train Friday." Drouet vows to Hurstwood that he will see Carrie again before he goes out of town.

Drouet runs into Carrie on the street and takes her out to dinner. He impresses her with his lavish spending and worldliness. He gives Carrie money to buy clothes. Carrie sees him as a kind person; Drouet simply enjoys women. He finally convinces Carrie to move in with him. He is thrilled with his "delicious … conquest."

Unable to keep his conquest to himself, Drouet introduces Hurstwood to Carrie. When Hurstwood and Carrie become too involved with one another, though, Drouet shows his jealousy. He cannot understand why Carrie would be interested in Hurstwood when he, himself, has done so much for her. Carrie resents this and threatens to leave. Drouet leaves instead, angry that Carrie has used him.

Drouet and Carrie do not meet again until he arrives at her dressing room in New York. He tries to act as if nothing has happened, expecting to be able to win back Carrie's fond regard. Carrie, however, ignores his advances and leaves town without telling him. He tries to tell himself that he does not care, but he feels a new sense of rejection.

Mrs. Hale

Mrs. Hale lives with her husband in the apartment above the one Carrie and Drouet occupy. Mrs. Hale is an attractive, thirty-five-year-old woman who is Carrie's Chicago friend. Carrie often accompanies Mrs. Hale on buggy rides to view the mansions neither of them can afford. Mrs. Hale gossips frequently, and Carrie becomes an object of her gossip when Mrs. Hale sees her with Hurst-wood while Drouet is out of town.

Minnie Hanson

Minnie, Carrie's sister, meets Carrie at the train station when Carrie arrives in Chicago. Min-nie dresses plainly and shows the wear and tear of a woman who has to work hard. Her face is lean and unsmiling. Only twenty-seven years old, Minnie appears older. She views her lot in life as duty to her family and sees no room for the pleasures that people around her enjoy. She disapproves of Carrie's desire to experience the many distractions that Chicago offers. When Carrie leaves Chicago, Minnie is angry at first and then concerned for her sister's welfare.

Sven Hanson

An American son of a Swedish father, Sven Hanson is Minnie's husband and Carrie's brother-in-law. He works hard cleaning refrigerator cars at the stockyards and intends to provide a better life for his family in the future. The money he makes goes toward payments on a piece of property where he will someday build their home. Sven expects Carrie to not only do her share of work, but also to contribute to the family's well-being. While he generally demonstrates a serious nature, he handles his baby gently and patiently. He is a caring and ambitious person who sees no room for nonsense in his life.

George Hurstwood Jr.

George Hurstwood Jr., the twenty-year-old son of George Sr. and Julia, works for a real-estate firm but still lives at home. He does not contribute to household expenses and communicates infrequently with his parents. He comes and goes as he pleases, doing little as a family member but reaping the benefits of free room and board.

George Hurstwood Sr.

At the beginning of the novel, Hurstwood imagines himself a man of distinction. While not yet forty years old, he has managed to achieve a certain level of success as the manager of Fitzgerald and Moy's, an elaborately appointed saloon where the best clientele come to socialize. Given his position in the establishment, Hurstwood knows all the right people and can greet most of them in an informal manner. He dresses the part of an important person, too. His tailored suits sport the stiff lapels of imported goods, and his vests advertise the latest patterned fabrics. He complements his suits with mother-of-pearl buttons and soft, calfskin shoes; he wears an engraved watch attached to a solid gold chain. Hurstwood exudes a sense of self-confidence and notoriety.

Hurstwood impresses Carrie the first time they meet. Not only does Hurstwood's appearance hint at class, but he also charms Carrie with his gentlemanly deference and refined manners. Carrie feels an immediate attraction to Hurstwood.

While Hurstwood associates with Drouet and Carrie as freely as if he were single, he does have a wife and children. At home, Hurstwood displays little of his public geniality although he is always the gentleman. The family revolves about him, generally intent on their own matters but enjoying the status Hurstwood provides for them.

Hurstwood's downfall begins when Carrie discovers that he is married. Shortly after that, upset that Carrie wants nothing to do with him, he has a brief lapse of integrity and takes money from his employer's safe. He tricks Carrie into leaving Chicago with him, and the two eventually settle in New York.

New York life brings Hurstwood the realization that he will not enjoy the same preference he had known in Chicago. The status to which he was accustomed in Chicago would cost him more in New York. When he looks for jobs, Hurstwood finds nothing comparable to his position in Chicago. He goes into business with a man whom he later finds to be less than desirable. The business begins failing. With it, Hurstwood's confidence begins to flag, and his conscience nags him about his crime.

Hurstwood's business fails, and he squanders the money he stole. The stress begins to wear on him, and he shows signs of depression. As money becomes tighter and Hurstwood acts more strangely, Carrie feels more dissatisfied. After meeting Bob Ames, a man who represents an entirely different ideal than the men she has always known, Carrie begins to imagine a different life than the one she has with Hurstwood. At the same time, Hurstwood's psychological state further deteriorates. Eventually, he finds no reason to get dressed. When a friend offers to share an apartment with Carrie, Carrie moves out. After Carrie leaves him, Hurstwood wanders aimlessly through life, one of New York's homeless, until he can no longer will himself to live.

Jessica Hurstwood

Seventeen-year-old Jessica, daughter of George and Julia, displays too much independence to suit her parents. Accustomed to having the latest fashions, she insists on replenishing her wardrobe with the change of the seasons. She has high aspirations for herself, picturing a future wherein she will be loved and further pampered by a rich husband.

Mrs. Julia Hurstwood

A vain person, Mrs. Hurstwood dresses in the latest fashions and enjoys all the luxuries her husband's success allows her. She is not an overly affectionate woman and finds pleasure in her relationship with her children rather than with her husband. She oversees the housework done by a succession of maids with whom she always finds fault. Mrs. Hurstwood has little faith in mankind and does not hesitate to point out people's faults. She knows, however, that finding fault with her husband will do nothing to serve her position in life, even though much of the family's property is in her name.

Carrie Madenda

See Caroline Meeber

Caroline Meeber

Carrie, the main character of the story, allows others to guide her actions. This is particularly true of her relationships with men. At the opening of the novel, eighteen-year-old Carrie sits on a train bound for Chicago from the rural Midwest. A Wisconsin farm girl, Carrie dresses true to her ordinary circumstances. She wears a plain blue dress and old shoes, and demonstrates a reserved, lady-like nature. She feels slightly regretful at telling her parents good-bye and leaving the only home and safety she has known, but she looks forward with curiosity and anticipation to her new life in the city.

When a salesman named Charles Drouet starts a conversation with her on the train, Carrie does not know how to be coy and is, instead, simply direct in her responses to him. It is this first bold encounter with Drouet that establishes Carrie's fate in the world that exists beyond her farm home. Her exchange with Drouet sets the precedent for her relationship with him and other men she meets.

Carrie lives with her sister and brother-in-law until they are no longer willing to support her. Having run into Drouet on the street and renewed her acquaintance with him, Carrie accepts his invitation to take care of her. While her upbringing rings a cautionary bell in her subconscious, Carrie can see only the advantages to having Drouet provide her with room and board. Drouet offers all that Carrie desires—nights at the theatre, beautiful clothes, and delicious restaurant dinners. Carrie ignores her misgivings and enjoys Drouet's attentions.

These same enticements guide Carrie's actions after she meets George Hurstwood. His expensive dress and money impress her. At about the same time, she has her first acting experience under the stage name Drouet has given her, "Carrie Madenda." Carrie gains confidence in herself through Hurstwood's attentions and the response she gets from her first audience. She eventually leaves Drouet behind.

Carrie and Hurstwood settle in New York. From this point on in the story, Carrie lives for the good things in life that money and fame can bring her. When Hurstwood fails to provide her with these, she leaves him. As Carrie Madenda, the actress, she lives for herself.

Sister Carrie

See Caroline Meeber

Mrs. Vance

Mrs. Vance is Carrie's New York friend. She lives with her husband across the hall from Carrie and Hurstwood, and Carrie delights in Mrs. Vance's piano playing. She and Mrs. Vance visit one another and often walk along Broadway to see and be seen. Mrs. Vance introduces Carrie to Bob Ames.

Carrie Wheeler

See Caroline Meeber

Media Adaptations

  • Blackstone Audio Books offers Sister Carrie on audiocassette, which was produced in 1989.


American Dream

Each of Dreiser's characters in Sister Carrie search for their own "American Dreams"—the ones offered by a growing and prosperous democratic country. Carrie, a poor country girl, arrives in Chicago, filled with the expectations of acquiring the finer things in life. She imagines the elegant clothes she will wear, the exciting places to which she will go, and the fashionable people with whom she will associate, thinking that everyone who lives beyond the boundaries of her Midwestern state has achieved that higher status. Drouet seeks his own version of the American Dream. He has achieved a certain station in life and wears the clothes to prove it. He frequents the important establishments in town and has befriended many of the right people. Yet, he pursues the other appointments that represent his dream, such as a beautiful woman to adorn his arm and his own home. Hurstwood has the woman, the established home and family, and a good position. He, though, wants more. He knows that his employers leave him out of important decision making, and he knows his friends like him for his position. He seeks love, appreciation, and more prestige.

Change and Transformation

Carrie and Hurstwood undergo dramatic changes from the beginning of the novel to the end. Though gradual, their transformations create immediate repercussions along the way. Carrie's metamorphosis takes her from country bumpkin to glamorous actress. In her wake, she leaves her disillusioned sister, an angry suitor, and a broken-down man. Hurstwood's transition moves him from prominent and trusted businessman, husband, and father to homeless street beggar. Behind him survive robbed employers, a dysfunctional family, and a self-satisfied woman.

Choices and Consequences

Hurstwood makes one choice that dramatically affects the rest of his life. While all choices result in consequences, those consequences can be positive or negative. Hurstwood's decision to take the money from his employer's safe starts his downward spiral to his eventual suicide.

Wealth and Poverty

Industrial growth brought the United States a period of prosperity during the late 1800s and early 1900s. With factories flourishing, job opportunities were abundant. People made good money in factory management positions and other white-collar jobs. Factory workers, however, not only earned low incomes, but they also worked long hours. Consequently, a wide division existed between the wealthy and the poor.

Carrie comes from a lower-middle-class background and determines that she will rise above it. Her sister's family, however, maintain the same struggling existence Carrie has always known. They have no time to enjoy leisure activities and no money to spend on them. Carrie wants more for herself.

Throughout Sister Carrie, the distinction between social classes is obvious. The clothes people wear, the homes in which they live, and the activities in which they are involved distinguish the rich from the poor. The wealthy wear stylish clothes and attend elaborate performances of the arts. The poor buy factory-made clothes and jeans and are lucky to go to the penny arcade or the local dance pavilion. In the final chapter, the description of Hurst-wood's last days offers a vivid picture of the ultimate plight of the poorest.


Experiences contribute greatly to shaping people's identities. Carrie's transformation from the beginning of the novel to the end occurs as a result of her responses to her experiences. The Carrie who boards the train in Columbia City sits primly, trying to ignore the glances of the man seated near her. Having certain morals, Carrie hesitates to acknowledge Drouet's presence. Yet, she responds quickly to his initial comments to her and makes direct eye contact with him when she senses his interest in her. From this point on, Carrie allows herself to act in whatever manner benefits her. Leaving her sister's home and moving in with Drouet, for example, goes against all propriety her parents have taught her. She sees, though, that this action will get her closer to having what she wants. As she understands her value to others, she changes her identity accordingly. As a result, she never really has an identity but adjusts her "act" to fit the situation. In the end, this ability gains her recognition as an acclaimed actress but does not result in her achieving happiness.


In the early 1900s, the morals and virtues of the Victorian era still guided people's actions. People with proper upbringing did not speak of sex. The public was shocked that Dreiser's characters so openly participated in explicit relationships and that Dreiser seemed to condone it.

Carrie uses sex to gain status for herself. She sees nothing wrong in living with Drouet to get the clothes she wants and to have opportunities to move in Chicago's affluent circles. Later, Carrie sees that Hurstwood can offer her an even higher standard of living. She ignores the fact that he is already married and the two of them will be committing adultery. With no regard for Drouet's emotions, she breaks off their relationship and pursues one with Hurstwood. After living with Hurstwood for some time, she realizes she can no longer benefit from the arrangement and leaves him, too.

Topics For Further Study

  • Andrew Delbanco notes in his introduction to the 1999 Modern Library's Edition of Sister Carrie that "Carrie's fate … has been set in motion … by her failure to understand … that a woman does not look a strange man steadily in the eye without signaling to him that she is ready to be included in the system of exchange." Psychologists today would call Carrie's eye contact a form of nonverbal communication. Research the forms of nonverbal communication psychologists have identified. Give examples of the types of messages psychologists believe people are sending when they use different nonverbal clues. What kind of nonverbal clue could Carrie have sent if she did not want to interact with Drouet?
  • Today, critics credit Dreiser with paving the way for writers who came after him to write realistically about life in America. Research late nineteenth-century life in America. Make at least three comparisons between Carrie's life and the life of a typical nineteenth-century American that would support critics' view of Dreiser's realistic portrayal of the American way of life.
  • Carrie was most impressed by the clothes people wore. During the late 1800s, fashions actually did make a statement about a person's socioeconomic status. Read about fashion and social status in the late nineteenth century. Write a paper that discusses the differences in clothes among lower, middle, and upper class people; the changes in the clothing industry that allowed for new looks in clothing; and the changes in women's fashions in particular.
  • Draw three portraits of Carrie that portray the three distinct periods in her life: before Drouet's influence, as a kept woman, and as an actress. Your drawings must accurately reflect both knowledge of Carrie's life and an understanding of the relationship between fashion and a person's status.
  • Depict through illustrations Carrie's rise to and Hurstwood's fall from social acceptance. Be sure that your drawings are accurate representations of the time in which events took place.
  • Dreiser is said to have been an "agnostic." What is an agnostic? What personal beliefs do you find in Dreiser's biographical sketches that would support his being an agnostic? How do you see Dreiser's agnosticism influencing his work in Sister Carrie?
  • Many reviewers describe Dreiser's work using such descriptive nouns as Darwinian, pessimistic determinism, naturalism, and agnosticism. Compare and contrast these terms. Describe specific events from Sister Carrie that would support or repudiate the use of any of these terms in describing this work.
  • Carrie often felt the effects of gender inequity in her endeavors. While women's rights were just beginning to be an issue at the time this book was published, there were certain events occurring that brought the idea of equal rights for women to the forefront. Trace the history of the women's rights movement beginning with the first political convention held in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, and ending with the current decade.


Point of View

Dreiser uses a third person omniscient point of view to tell the story of his heroine, Carrie. Through this point of view, Dreiser provides readers with insight into not only Carrie's thoughts but also those of all his characters. One example of this is found in chapter twenty-seven, when Hurstwood discovers a note from Carrie and later steals money from his employer's safe. Dreiser portrays Hurstwood's distorted thinking as well as Carrie's confusion over Hurstwood's actions.


Early twentieth-century, newly urbanized America provides the backdrop for Sister Carrie. At the start of the story, Carrie travels by train to Chicago, a city of opportunity for not only country girls like herself, but also for immigrants from all over the world. The Chicago that Carrie finds offers an abundance of factory jobs for both men and women. In addition, numerous opportunities for enjoyment of the arts present themselves in the form of theatre, opera, symphonies, and so on. Carrie enjoys the fashionably dressed people around her and her own ownership of the latest styles. The same prosperity exists in New York City, where Carrie and Hurstwood find themselves at the end of the story. Yet here, the less fortunate in this materialistic culture appear more obviously, begging on street corners and seeking refuge in homeless shelters. While upper- and middle-class Americans are envisioning a future full of promise, those at the lower end of the spectrum are suffering the negative repercussions of a stratified society.


Critics recognize Dreiser for the extensive detail he uses in his writing. The hallmark of Dreiser's fiction, his journalistic style, receives criticism for being an "endless piling up of minutiae," H. L. Mencken notes in his Commentary to Sister Carrie. Mencken goes on to say that he wonders if Dreiser actually enjoys creating his collections of words that do not reflect any beauty or even a particular style.

Although Dreiser recieves negative appraisal for his rambling style, he earns accolades for his ability to write realistically. Mencken acknowledges that Dreiser's writing reflects the influences of Thomas Hardy and Honoré de Balzac in its ability to portray drama in the most mundane of life's daily routines. A greater strength, though, is that Dreiser goes beyond the drama of the moment to immerse his characters in humankind's eternal struggles. The portrayal of Carrie's obsession with fashion, for example, merely demonstrates her attempts to escape from physical miseries in her search for true happiness. Dreiser's descriptions, set in underlying universal themes, arouse readers' emotions. As a result, Dreiser is viewed as a pivotal force in changing the direction of twentieth-century literature.


Many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers tried to portray life as it actually existed. Their scenes, characters, and actions reflect daily activities in people's lives, whether noteworthy or not. Literary experts call these writers "realists." Realists who take their writing to the extreme—discussing even life's coarse, brutal, or disgusting aspects—are "naturalists." Critics categorize Dreiser as a naturalist. Sister Carrie's blatant prostitution and supposed marital infidelity shocked people when the novel first appeared. Also shocking is that Dreiser makes no attempt to apologize for his heroine's actions. He sympathizes with Carrie's efforts to survive in a modern world given her lower-middle-class background and less-than-genteel upbringing. Dreiser's Carrie and the settings in which he put her render a vivid and realistic picture of a newly urbanized America populated by people from all walks of life.


Dreiser writes from a philosophic doctrine known as "determinism." Determinists believe that man's actions are not his own; they are determined by inherited or environmental influences. Viewed from this philosophy, Carrie cannot avoid her experiences; her world runs on sex and chance. Neither does Hurstwood deserve his fate. His downfall results only from circumstances around him. The two characters' destinies have nothing to do with morals: They simply happen.


Tragedy describes characters who have survived numerous struggles only to fail in the end. They fail, however, in such a way as to become heroes and heroines, evoking sympathy from readers. Dreiser's Carrie and Hurstwood both portray tragic characters. Carrie struggles to overcome her meager existence and her naivete. Though she gains security, ease, and a taste of the finer things in life, Carrie never fully realizes the happiness she seeks. Hurstwood, on the other hand, represents the average middle-class American struggling to maintain his place in a mercurial class system. One moment of poor judgment ruins the rest of his life. The tragedy of Hurstwood's life is his undeserved punishment.

Historical Context

Late-Nineteenth-Century Industrialism

The United States experienced a huge growth in manufacturing in the late 1800s that resulted in prosperity for many but virtual poverty for others. As a result of improved technology and an increase in the number of people in the workforce, including experienced businessmen, factories could produce more goods at a faster rate than ever before. In addition, changes in government policy and the availability of resources contributed to the expansion of manufacturing. Factory jobs were plentiful, but the wages were not always sufficient. Many workers enjoyed a better standard of living, while others struggled to make ends meet.

Factory conditions varied from workplace to workplace, yet the challenge of the type of work remained the same. First, the work was boring. A factory worker generally stood at an assembly line performing the same job repeatedly and to a degree of perfection. Factory work also meant long hours. Workers often averaged ten hours per day, six days per week with few breaks and little flexibility. People who were accustomed to working on farms or to creating their own handcrafted goods found factory schedules a difficult adjustment. Next, the factories themselves lacked safe working conditions and were often dark, dirty, and poorly ventilated. Illnesses, injuries, and even death were not uncommon. Finally, factory workers' wages varied. Often, women, like Carrie, and children worked at factory jobs because they agreed to lower wages than men did. As a result, men moved from workplace to workplace seeking better conditions and wages or joined labor unions to try to improve their lives at work.

From Tradition and Gentility to Modernism

The last years of the 1800s ushered in a sense of optimism and confidence felt by most Americans in the beginning of the twentieth century, the time period of Sister Carrie. The United States enjoyed a position as a leading world power, and the country's industrial growth and resulting stable economy provided the American people with a great measure of security. They believed that the 1900s would continue to offer them the best of that which had occurred in the previous century. Continued technological advances would make life even easier. Work would take less of people's time; play could take more. People would nurture the same genteel morals, and the arts would reflect their refined tastes. Americans felt that nothing could shake the status quo.

While many Americans basked in their country's success, others lived a less comfortable existence. The cities were comprised of distinct socioeconomic classes: highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow. The very technology that had made the country prosperous also created a huge division between the "haves" and the "have nots." The upper and middle classes, secure in their positions and comforts, were content to continue their lives as they had always known them; they ignored the less fortunate people around them and supported the same traditions in the arts and letters that they had in the past. At the same time, some members of the arts community began to address the realities of the twentieth century and to gain an audience for works that depicted the facts of life. These creative people—painters, writers, musicians, and architects—began the movement that would mark the beginning of modernism in America.

Social Class and Status

Social class distinction revealed itself not only through the disparity in wages earned but also through the kinds of leisure activities people en-joyed and the fashions they wore. In Sister Carrie, Carrie strove to attend the events of the wealthier set as well as wear their fashions, hoping she would one day be part of high society.

As technology in the early twentieth century helped create a variety of paying jobs for workers and production methods improved, workers were allowed more time to pursue leisure activities. Sports and show business became amusement favorites for everyone; the kinds of events people attended reflected their socioeconomic status. In addition, the trend towards healthy activities dictated clothing styles.

Compare & Contrast

  • Late 1800s: Women's fashions favor Victorian styles. Dress indicates a woman's status. Upper-and middle-class women wear constrictive underclothing (corsets), high-heeled shoes, and elaborate, vividly colored dresses made of luxurious fabrics.

    Early 1900s: As women become more involved in leisure activities, such as sports, and take on new roles in society, such as office workers and students, their fashions evolve to freer, less structured styles. The styles include loose bloomers instead of corsets, less bulky skirts, and shirtwaist blouses. Shoes are flatter and more feminine.

    Late 1900s: Women become more health conscious and involved in professional careers; they begin to define their own unique styles of fashion. Clothing varies from jeans to pants to short and full-length skirts. Form-fitting clothes that show off a woman's figure are popular.
  • Late 1800s: The arts become a popular form of entertainment. Drama, musical comedy, and vaudeville acts proliferate. Modern art and architecture reflect simplicity and realism. A movement from tradition and gentility begins.

    Early 1900s: The Progressive Era begins. Artists bring social relevancy to their work. Blacks, immigrants and women contribute in unprecedented ways, breaking color, cultural, and gender barriers.

    Late 1900s: Art becomes a bigger cultural presence: bigger in scope, ambition, theme, budget, and promotion. Media coverage makes all forms of art more accessible than ever before. People have more money to spend as a result of the healthy economy, and they are ready to enjoy themselves. They buy fine art and electronic gadgets; they enjoy huge film and television productions. Overall, arts and leisure of the late 1900s reflect America's obsession with wealth and success.
  • Late 1800s: The United States is considered the leader in manufacturing and has the largest economy in the world.

    Early 1900s: Automotive leader Henry Ford introduces the moving assembly line, which results in greater productivity, more consistent quality, higher wages for workers, and lower prices for the consumer.

    Late 1900s: Advanced technology, such as computers, aid in greater information access and allow for expansion of commerce and economy.

Organized sports heralded amusement activities for the wealthy. Baseball, the most popular sport for years, was enjoyed only by upper and middle classes until 1876. After that, spectators and participants of all classes became involved in it, although it appealed more to men than to women. Women preferred croquet and bicycling. Croquet and bicycling allowed middle- and upper-class men and women to socialize. Tennis and golf appealed to the wealthy of both sexes. Football began as a sport for privileged college students but soon became as popular as baseball. Women became more involved in sports such as rowing, track, swim-ming, and basketball as a result of being exposed to these sports in college.

While sporting events drew the interest of mostly wealthy people, show business entertained the common people. As railroad travel improved, circuses reached small towns across the country and prospered. In the cities, popular drama, musical comedy, and vaudeville provided Americans with a means of escape from their daily trials.

Very early on, fashions made a statement about social status. As the times changed, though, the clothes people wore said less about them and more about changes in society. Before the Civil War, only the wealthiest people could afford finely tailored clothes; others wore hand-sewn clothes. Because of changes in the textile industry to accommodate the mass production of Civil War uniforms, however, clothing became more available and affordable to everyone. Clothing continued to indicate social status. Department stores appeared and catered to the wealthy. Chain stores, like the "five and dime," met the needs of the general public. In order to look like everyone else, poorer people bought cheap factory-made clothes. The working poor wore the first blue jeans. The wealthy, though, stood out. The men wore three-piece suits in somber colors; the women wore restrictive underclothes and elaborate dresses and hats made of bright, luxurious fabrics.

As women became increasingly involved in sports and new occupations, clothing became more comfortable and sensible. Women needed freedom to move, so Victorian-style dresses and tight corsets gave way to "shirtwaist" styles, loose undergarments, and shoes with shorter heels. No longer did plain dress indicate low socioeconomic status.

Critical Overview

Dreiser wrote successfully for years as a newspaper reporter. Yet readers appreciated his stories not for their exact reporting of the events, but for their relating of personal impressions about people, places, and happenings. Dreiser grew to understand that providing his readers with realistic impressions was his strength and began to cultivate it. When critics read his early fiction, they did not at first appreciate his truthful portrayal of life in America. Only later did they applaud this in Dreiser's writing. Critics did, however, immediately praise his sensitivity and viewed it as a powerful storytelling tool. While reviewers did not particularly like his style of writing, they did like the content.

The very characteristic that disturbed the public about Sister Carrie when the book first came out is the same characteristic that critics now recognize as a strength in Dreiser's work. That characteristic is Dreiser's realistic treatment of real-life occurrences. At the time that Sister Carrie appeared, fiction seldom touched upon the darker side of human endeavors and relationships. Prostitution, for example, might occur in the real world, but authors did not make it an overt part of their plots. For Dreiser's Carrie, though, prostitution was a way of life. She would not have been able to survive without using men to get to her next level of existence. Dreiser writes about Carrie's lifestyle in a matter-of-fact manner. The public was appalled that Dreiser viewed it so lightly. Today, however, readers are not as shocked by Carrie's way of life. While readers may not approve of it, they understand how a woman of that period might feel compelled to seek her independence in this manner.

In addition to being known for his realistic treatment of topics that most other writers of his time considered taboo, Dreiser also receives acclaim for his sensitivity to his characters' predicaments. H. L. Mencken says in his Commentary in the 1999 Modern Library Edition of Sister Carrie that what Dreiser lacks in style in comparison to other novelists, he makes up for in his serious consideration of human nature. Mencken says, "What they lack, great and small, is the gesture of pity, the note of awe, the profound sense of wonder … which even the most stupid cannot escape in Dreiser."

Dreiser started Sister Carrie at the urging of his friend, Arthur Henry. While Dreiser had written for years as a newspaper reporter, and had recently completed and sold four short stories, he doubted that he had the talent to write a novel. He sat down to write Sister Carrie with the image of his own siblings in mind. His sister, Emma, who had run away with her married lover, served as Dreiser's model for Carrie. Dreiser wrote about Carrie from a sense of feeling, rather than from a sense of purposeful problem-solving. That is, he wrote as if he were experiencing the events and their effects as they occurred. Critics have often noted this artistic passion in Dreiser's writing. For example, Mencken compares Dreiser to Franz Schubert. Mencken says that Schubert knew little of the technique of music but had such an artistic sense of the music he was able to create musical works of art. Dreiser, says Mencken, has the same ability to create stories from his sense of the world around him.

While Dreiser possessed a sense of the world around him and could write about it realistically, he lacked the ability to create beauty with his words. His writing style is highly criticized by experts as being too verbose, and the words too commonplace. Mencken, even as one of Dreiser's first advocates, agrees with this assessment. In his Commentary he describes Dreiser's writing as a "dogged accumulation of threadbare, undistinguished, uninspiring nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, participles, and conjunctions." Most writers work to find the perfect words to communicate ideas to their readers. Dreiser does not appear to bother. Critics see this as a fault in Dreiser's works. They consider his writing less precise and less elegant than the works of other writers. Not only do experts discredit Dreiser's style, they also disapprove of his contradictory conveyance of a deterministic philosophy. While Dreiser believed that life results from blind chance, he still evoked sympathy for this characters.

Even though Dreiser did not immediately find success as a writer, he did not get discouraged. Dreiser wrote prolifically for more than forty years. Over the years, critics saw more value in Dreiser's writing. They set aside their problems with his style to appreciate the lasting influences his messages portrayed. Today, critics note that Dreiser's greatest influences were to pave the path for writers to convey realistic images of American life and to help launch modern naturalism. Jack Salzman said in Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception, that Dreiser's "significance in the history of American letters is no longer a matter for dispute. We may continue to debate his merits as an artist, but his importance to American literature has been well established."


Diane Andrews Henningfeld

Henningfeld is an associate professor at Adrian College. She holds a Ph.D. in literature and writes widely for educational publishers. In this essay she examines Sister Carrie as a tragic novel, focusing on Carrie's use of sex as capital.

Sister Carrie, written by Theodore Dreiser from 1899 to 1900, was published by Doubleday, Page in 1900. The novel created a stir from the moment of its publication, caused in part by a supposed attempt by the publisher to suppress the novel. The truth behind the "suppression" of Sister Carrie is difficult to uncover. Regardless, the novel met with mixed reviews from contemporary readers, who found the book unpleasant and gloomy. Some critics suggest that these initial negative reviews were because Sister Carrie was a novel ahead of its time. The novel has grown in stature over the years until it has come to be considered one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century.

Sister Carrie is the story of young Carrie Meeber, who comes to Chicago in 1889 to make her fortune. Chicago is not as she envisions it, however. In her desire for material possessions and success, she begins and leaves two different illicit affairs. By the close of the book, she is in New York, having embarked on a highly successful stage career. Even this success does not bring her happiness; the novel closes with Carrie rocking in her chair, considering her sense that there is more to life than she has experienced.

While the book received many negative reviews upon publication, it nonetheless attracted the attention of the literary establishment, igniting a controversy that still has fire. Stuart P. Sherman, in the famous and much-anthologized essay "The Barbaric Naturalism of Mr. Dreiser," takes Dreiser to task for his naturalism. He distinguishes between realism and naturalism, finding realism an acceptable form of literature and naturalism unacceptable. He writes,

A realistic novel is a representation based upon a theory of human conduct. If the theory of human conduct is adequate, the representation constitutes an addition to literature and to social history. A naturalistic novel is a representation based upon a theory of animal behavior. Since a theory of animal behavior can never be an adequate basis for a representation of the life of man in contemporary society, such a representation is a blunder.

H. L. Mencken, one of Dreiser's earliest supporters, wrote at length in response to Sherman and about Sister Carrie and its contribution to American literature. He writes of Sherman's criticism in "The Dreiser Bugaboo," "Only a glance is needed to show the vacuity of all this irate flubdub," before going on to connect Dreiser's realism with the classical Greek writers. He argues, "In the midst of democratic cocksureness and Christian sentimentalism, of doctrinaire shallowness and professorial smugness, he stands for a point of view which at least has something honest and courageous about it; here, at all events, he is a realist."

It is important to understand what these writers mean when they use the term "naturalism." The Harper Handbook to Literature states that naturalism, a literary movement of the late nineteenth century, grew out of realism, but preferred to focus on "the fringes of society, the criminal, the fallen, the down-and-out, earning as one definition … the phrase sordid realism." Further, naturalism grew as an interest in science and Darwinism grew. "Darwinism was especially important, as the naturalists perceived a person's fate as the product of blind external or biological forces, chiefly heredity and environment, but in the typical naturalistic novel chance played a large part as well." Dreiser's novels are nearly always critiqued through the naturalistic lens. Critics point to Carrie's upward rise and Hurstwood's downward spiral as the result of forces beyond their control. The chance event, such as the open safe at Hurstwood's saloon, lead him to take actions resulting in negative consequences. Carrie's chance meeting with Drouet on the street when she is out of money and looking for a job leads to her involvement with both Drouet and Hurstwood.

Although it cannot be denied that Sister Carrie is a good example of early twentieth-century naturalism, it is also possible for the novel to be read in different ways. Karl F. Zender, for example, argues, in Studies in the Novel, that the emphasis on circumstance and the de-emphasis on character "is adequate neither to the artistic power nor to the culture implications of Sister Carrie." Zender goes on to examine the novel as a tragedy of character caused by emotional repression. Other critics have examined the tragic nature of the novel as well. However, in general, critics see the novel as the story of Hurstwood's tragedy. It is possible to examine the novel as a tragedy in another way, one that focuses on Carrie as capitalist, engaged in the exchange of goods.

The circumstances that swirl Carrie through the novel are largely economic. The great life she imagines for herself in Chicago centers on the attainment of material goods. It is this desire that drives her away from her small town in Wisconsin and toward the bright lights of Chicago. Once in Chicago, she discovers that her sister and her husband see her as the means for their own economic security. In exchange for her small room, Carrie must produce enough capital to help her sister meet their rent.

Carrie has few resources to produce this capital. She hits the streets of Chicago, looking for work. She finally finds a job, producing shoes on an assembly line. The assembly line, as a means of production, removes the worker from the product. She is responsible for running a machine that punches the lace holes in the right upper half of a man's shoe. She becomes a machine herself, fitting leather to machine, over and over. In exchange for the mechanization of her life, she receives four dollars and fifty cents per week. She must turn over four dollars per week to her sister, leaving her with little capital or hope for economic advancement.

If, therefore, it is economic forces that allow a person to rise or fall in the culture presented in the novel, Carrie's problem becomes one of economics. What does she have that can be exchanged for the goods she wants? Clearly the money she earns at the factory will never keep up with her material desires. When Carrie accepts the astronomical sum of twenty dollars from the drummer Drouet, she is doing more than accepting a loan. She is embarking on an economic arrangement, the first step in an exchange of capital. Quite simply, Carrie discovers that she has capital in the form of sex. In a materialistic society, sex becomes a commodity, something that can be bought, sold, and exchanged for goods.

Carrie's rise, then, is directly linked to the way she barters her sexual capital. Her appearance in the lodge theatre performance offers her the opportunity to market her sexual capital. The men in the audience all represent potential buyers. The competition for Carrie's capital renders her as a more attractive commodity to Hurstwood. As a result of her appearance on stage, Carrie finds that she can trade upward. Hurstwood offers better material conditions than those she enjoys with Drouet.

While it is true that Carrie continues to trade in on her own sexual capital throughout the book, leading eventually to her rise as a famous stage star, the story is nonetheless a tragedy. Looking at the novel as Hurstwood's tragedy, however, is too limiting. The novel as a whole can be read as the tragic results of making sex a commodity.

Dramatic literature can usually be divided into two categories, comedy and tragedy. Comedy is characterized by young love, sex, fertility, marriage, spring, and birth. Tragedy, on the other hand, is characterized by sterility, waste, and death. While comedy rejoices in each new generation, tragedy marks the end of the generation without progeny. The tragedy of Sister Carrie is one of sterility and death. Although sex is at the foundation of the novel, there are no pregnancies and no births. Carrie's sister and her husband are childless, and Carrie remains childless and unmarried throughout the novel. Carrie's rocking chair, in this reading, takes on new significance. Rocking chairs are often associated with nursing mothers. Carrie, however, rocks incessantly in her chair without purpose. While she wants marriage, what she obtains in exchange for her sexual capital is a place to live and clothes to wear. Her liaisons with Drouet and Hurstwood are sterile. Although there is a hint that she would like to start a relationship with Ames, that relationship remains platonic. Indeed, it is Ames himself who tells Carrie that he sees her more as the star of a drama than of the comedies she has been playing. Ames reads Carrie well. As the novel ends, Carrie is in her rocking chair, reading a tragic novel. While Hurstwood's suicide seems the more apparent tragedy, Carrie, too, is a tragic figure, locked in sterile longing and futile hope.

In sum, it is possible to read Sister Carrie as a cautionary tale, a lesson in what happens when a culture reduces all human interactions to the exchange of capital. In such a culture, intimate emotional and physical bonds are reduced to tradable commodities, sex can be traded for material goods, and comedy is no longer possible. Instead, what remains is a bleak and desolate picture of a fallen society, a landscape of waste and sterility.

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.

Martin Bucco

In the following essay, Bucco presents an overview of Sister Carrie.

In Sister Carrie Theodore Dreiser went beyond the Hoosier romanticism of Meredith Nicholson's "Alice of Old Vincennes" (1900) and the genteel realism of Booth Tarkington's The Gentleman from Indiana (1899). Growing up poor in Indiana, the daydreamy Dreiser envied the escape to the metropolis of his older brothers and sisters. Later, he drifted from one newspaper to another—Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Charged with Balzac's Come-die humaine, Herbert Spencer's First Principles, and his own vivid memories, Dreiser began Sister Carrie in New York in 1899. The author based his first novel partly on his sister, Emma, who in 1886 had fled from the law with a saloon clerk. Because of the novel's sexual frankness, Dreiser's own publisher (Doubleday Page) did not promote it; but the senior reader, the writer Frank Norris, zealously sent out review copies. When B.W. Dodge (in 1907) and Grosset and Dunlap (in 1908) reissued the controversial book, Sister Carrie reached a larger public.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Like Sister Carrie, Dreiser's second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, draws from experiences in Dreiser's sisters' lives. Published in 1911, the story centers on Jennie, the poor and immoral daughter of an immigrant who detests the methods by which his daughter tries to achieve happiness.
  • Jennie Gerhardt has been compared to Thomas Hardy's 1919 classic, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, if only because of the similarities between their main characters. Like Jennie, Tess comes from a common background. She admits to her husband that she has had a child out of wedlock, who died in infancy. Her husband leaves her. In order to save her family, she goes to live as the mistress of the wealthy Alec D'Urberville, the father of the dead child.
  • Jude the Obscure, another of Thomas Hardy's books, is similar to Sister Carrie. Published in 1919, the story is about a young man and his unhappy experiences with love, sex, destiny, and social status.
  • The Awakening, Kate Chopin's highly controversial novel published in 1899, tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a married woman who experiences a summer romance and returns to the city a changed woman. She turns her back on her old life—family, social involvement, and traditional morals—to search for self-fulfillment through new love, life ventures, and sexual activity.

The novel has an hourglass structure. Carrie Meeber—pretty, eighteen, penniless, full of illusions—leaves her dull Wisconsin home in 1889 for Chicago. On the train Charles Drouet, a jaunty traveling salesman, impresses her with his worldliness and affluence. In Chicago, Carrie lives in a cramped flat with her sister and brother-in-law. Her job at a shoe factory is physically and spiritually crushing. After a period of unemployment, she allows Drouet to "keep" her. During his absences, however, she falls under the influence of Drouet's friend, a suave, middle-aged bar manager. George Hurstwood deserts his family, robs his employers, and elopes with Carrie, first to Montreal and then, after returning most of the money, to New York, where they live together for several years. As Hurstwood declines, Carrie develops. To earn money, she goes on stage, rising from chorus girl to minor acting parts. When Hurstwood, failing to find decent work, becomes too great a burden, Carrie deserts him. In time, she becomes a star of musical comedies. Meanwhile, Hurstwood sinks into beggary and suicide. In spite of her freedom and success, Carrie is lonely and unhappy.

Critics have labeled the novel's biological-environmental determinism, graphic fidelity, and compassionate point of view as the work of, respectively, a "naturalist," a "realist," a "romanticist." Consistently, Dreiser intermingles the world-as-it-is, -seems, and -should-be. Like Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Jack London, he creates characters caught in the web of causation and chance. In one of his numerous philosophical asides, the narrator informs us that physico-chemical laws underlie all activity: "Now it has been shown experimentally that a constantly subdued frame of mind produces certain poisons in the blood called katastates, just as virtuous feelings of pleasure and delight produce helpful chemicals called anastates." To evoke the illusion of mechanical motion and spiritual drift, Dreiser relies on metaphor and symbol—Carrie attracted to the magnetic city, Carrie tossed about in the sea of humanity, Carrie rocking in a chair. Against baffling forces, she is a "half-equipped little knight," a "little soldier of fortune." And as fortune propels Carrie upward, so it spins Hurstwood downward. Though the narrator avows glorious reason at the end of human evolution, at the end of the novel he pictures a discontented Car-riefated to remain in the clutch of her powerful opportunistic instincts.

Dreiser's network of dramatic contrasts, parallels, foreshadowings, and ironies (not to mention the cryptic chapter headings his publishers requested) help unify this episodic novel. The sheer mass of detail obscures the chiasmic symmetry of Carrie's rise and Hurstwood's fall, as it screens somewhat the improbability of Hurstwood's "accidental" theft of money and his calculated "abduction" of Carrie. Still, Hurstwood's destitution and matter-of-fact death seem less melodramatic than the tacked on apostrophe sentimentalizing Carrie as no Saved Sinner or Lost Soul but rather as the Beautiful Dreamer. The awkwardness, repetition, and cliches of Dreiserian prose often grate on fine-tuned sensibilities—as when the narrator informs us that Carrie had "four dollars in money" or when a chapter begins: "The, to Carrie, very important theatrical performance was to take place at the Avery on conditions which were to make it more noteworthy than was at first anticipated." For all this, the author retains the power to endow his factories, hotels, department stores, slums, theaters, and restaurants with an extraordinary sense of life.

At first, Sister Carrie (in the 1901 abridged Heinemann edition) was better received in Britain than in America, though the myth of its "suppression" contributed to later interest both in America and abroad. Through Sister Carrie Dreiser led so-cio-literary novelists in the first decade of the 20th century into the creation of closer ties between American life and American literature. Although Dreiser did not receive the Nobel Prize, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy are among the truly important novels in American literature. Sister Carrie is now available in the Pennsylvania edition (1981), which restores the novel as closely as possible to the author's more complex original manuscript. Whatever one might say about Dreiser's graceless genius, the raw integrity of Sister Carrie helped pave the way for the more candid, more crafted American masterpieces of the 1920s.

Source: Martin Bucco, "Sister Carrie," in Reference Guide to American Literature, third edition, edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.


Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception, edited by Jack Salzman, David Lewis, 1972.

H. L. Mencken, Commentary in Sister Carrie, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 1999, pp. xxxvii-lxxx.

H. L. Mencken, "The Dreiser Bugaboo," in The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Alfred Kazin and Charles Shapiro, Indiana University Press, 1955, pp. 84-91.

"Naturalism," in The Harper Handbook to Literature, edited by Northrup Frye, et. al., Longman, 1997, pp. 313-14.

Stuart P. Sherman, "The Barbaric Naturalism of Mr. Dreiser," in The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Alfred Kazin and Charles Shapiro, Indiana University Press, 1955, pp. 71-80.

Karl F. Zender, "Walking Away from the Impossible Thing: Identity and Denial in Sister Carrie," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 63-76.

For Further Study

Theodore Dreiser, Letters of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Robert H. Elias, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.

Contains Dreiser's communications with friends over the years. Especially pertinent are the references to Doubleday's suppression of Sister Carrie after it was already in print.

Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

This work expands characters Carrie and Hurstwood through a research team's efforts to reconstruct portions of the novel that reviewers edited in the publishing process.

Philip L. Gerber, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of Theodore Dreiser, Archon, 1977.

A quick reference for students providing a synopsis of every short story and novel by Dreiser as well as details about every character.

Philip L. Gerber, Theodore Dreiser, Twayne, 1964.

A good introduction to the life and literature of Dreiser, providing biographical detail as well as critical analysis.

Herbert G. Gutman, Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, Knopf, 1976.

As a historian, Gutman offers a critical view of the beliefs and behaviors of various labor groups throughout American history in relationship to class, race, religion, and ideology.

New Essays on Sister Carrie, edited by Donald Pizer, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

A collection of late-twentieth-century essays on Sister Carrie, including a useful bibliography.

Donald Pizer, Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, revised edition, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

An important study of a literary period by a major scholar of Dreiser's work.

Joan L. Severa, et. al., Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840–1900, Kent State University Press, 1997.

The author presents fashions through photographs arranged by decades and comments on the effects of material culture, expectations of society, and so-cioeconomic conditions that affected choices of style.