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Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser: Summary, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

This lesson discusses Theodore Dreiser's classic American naturalist novel, Sister Carrie, as well as the concept of conspicuous consumption. Get a summary and analysis of the novel, then test your knowledge with the quiz.

Little Fish, Meet Ocean

Have you ever seen one of the singing competition shows that have become so popular, be it American Idol or another incarnation? These shows typically have at least one contestant from small town America, sometimes from a farm, always eager to show their talents and move onto something big. That's exactly how Caroline (Carrie) Meeber felt coming into Chicago on the train from her small farm town in Theodore Dreiser's naturalist novel, Sister Carrie. The novel was considered groundbreaking at its inception, and even scandalous as it became well known. Dreiser faced challenges getting it published, with the subject matter considered racy for readers. Despite this initial struggle, Sister Carrie is considered Dreiser's most prolific work.

The original cover of Sister Carrie
The original cover of Sister Carrie

Country Girl in a Material World: Summary of Sister Carrie

When you first meet Carrie in Dreiser's novel, she is on a train bound for Chicago with nothing to her name except a few dollars and her sister's address. She quickly meets Charles Drouet, a handsome traveling salesman, who shows interest in her. Carrie is both charmed and wary of Drouet, so she gives him the address where she is going, but asks him to wait on her to write to him, and meet.

When Carrie arrives at the station, her sister and brother-in-law, Minnie and Hanson, meet her. They are dull and taciturn, and their apartment is shabby. They expect Carrie to work for her keep. She does not want Drouet to see her in this dull setting, and writes him to keep away. Carrie wants to work in a fancy store, but the stores want girls with polish and nice clothing. She takes a job in a shoe factory, but she is disgusted by the people she works with, and the job is tiring and boring. Minnie and Sven take most of what she makes in wage, and she still pines for nice things and entertainment.

Carrie becomes sick and loses her job. While she's out looking for work again, she runs into Drouet. He takes her to a large lunch, and offers to take her out to buy clothing, and to give her money to get back on her feet. Carrie initially refuses, but eventually gives in to Drouet and moves in with him. Drouet showers Carrie with things she wants, and treats her as an ornament, something to 'show off his success.' Carrie observes her neighbors and other polished women to learn their mannerisms and become the kind of lady Drouet admires.

However, something is lacking in Carrie's life. She is drawn to the theater, and to music. Drouet introduces her to George Hurstwood, who is taken with her beauty, and begins to pay her attention, especially while Drouet is traveling. Hurstwood is a successful manager who is dissatisfied with his life, especially with his nagging wife and children. He begins to spend more and more time with Carrie. George's wife, Julia, becomes suspicious.

Drouet encourages Carrie to perform in a production his social club is putting on, and Hurstwood promotes it, leading to a successful performance, with each man falling more in love with Carrie, and Carrie falling more in love with the stage. Drouet initially plans to marry Carrie, but becomes suspicious that she is cheating on him. He leaves her, and she must begin to search for work again.

In swoops Hurstwood, who has just stolen thousands of dollars from his tavern, and who tricks Carrie into leaving on a train with him, just as his marriage is collapsing. Carrie agrees to stay with Hurstwood if they marry, which they do under the false name of Wheeler. He feels badly about the stolen money, and sends most of it back.

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