Sister Carrie | Study Guide

Theodore Dreiser

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Sister Carrie | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Young Caroline Meeber, called Sister Carrie by her family, is aboard a train as the novel opens. Eighteen years of age and headed for a new life, Carrie has everything she owns with her. Dreiser describes her as "bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth" as she leaves behind her rural Wisconsin roots for the big city of Chicago where she will seek work and live with her sister and brother-in-law and their baby.

Carrie is guided by her self-interest and somewhat aware of her good looks, although she has not yet blossomed to real beauty. On the train she is also aware of the presence of a young man behind her, watching her. When he finally speaks to her, she takes the bait and converses with him for the rest of the trip.

The young man is the dashing Charles Drouet, a pleasure-seeking salesman who dresses well and enjoys flirting. Carrie, in turn, enjoys his attentiveness and smooth mannerisms. She finds him to be sophisticated, and he finds her to be alluringly sweet and innocent. As they draw close to Chicago, Drouet gives her his card, and she tells him her sister's address. They plan to meet again on Monday night, when he will visit her there. When he offers to help her carry her things off the train, however, Carrie shies away from his meeting her sister. He kindly accepts her caution, saying he will nevertheless keep an eye on her to be sure she is safely met and on her way before going about his business himself.

Analysis

Dreiser gives readers an important look at three main characters in his opening chapter. Carrie's youth and naiveté are obvious. Her nervousness in taking this huge step in life is apparent. She gulps back tears as she leaves her hometown, and as the train comes into Chicago she feels "a little choked for breath—a little sick." Still, her excitement is palpable and fed by Drouet's attentions to her. However, readers learn as quickly as Carrie does that her optimistic feelings will be squashed by the family that awaits her. As her sister greets her with a "perfunctory embrace of welcome," all of Carrie's excitement fades away, replaced by "cold reality" that is without light, merriment, or amusement.

The sister Carrie embraces is Minnie Hanson, described as lean and "rather commonplace." Carrie observes Minnie has a depressing air about her, "the grimness of shift and toil." It is in poignant opposition to the feeling given off by Drouet, who has an easy, relaxed, and confident manner and is far from commonplace in Carrie's estimation. She admires his clothes, his fat wallet, and the fact he is a "brisk man of the world." Through the contrast of the two characters Dreiser establishes Carrie's sensitivity to what the author calls "atmospheres" and begins to explore Carrie's innate gift of feeling her way through life instead of reasoning.

The many words Dreiser uses in this chapter to describe Drouet's clothing and the importance of clothing in general point to the emphasis city people place on appearance throughout the book. To the upwardly mobile, physical beauty trumps inner beauty. Good looks are what will ultimately get Carrie somewhere, and it is not by chance Drouet says upon first meeting her she reminds him of an actress he admires.

In this opening chapter Dreiser also introduces imagery that will appear frequently throughout the novel. It is the image of one of nature's most powerful forces, water, used to emphasize how ultimately helpless people are in the world. Carrie, in her nervousness, is described as "rushing into a great sea of life and endeavor." At the end of the chapter, when she senses the depressing reality of life with Minnie, she is "A lone figure in a tossing, thoughtless sea."

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