Sister Carrie | Study Guide

Theodore Dreiser

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Sister Carrie | Chapter 4 | Summary



When Carrie shares the news of her job, Hanson and Minnie respond to her proud announcement with their usual practicality. Minnie wonders if she will be able to walk and save car fare. Stodgy Hanson declares, "It's not very hard to get work now."

Still hopeful she might have some fun in Chicago, Carrie asks Minnie if they can all go to the theater that evening. Hanson will not even consider it, remarking to Minnie that Carrie should not be thinking of such a wasteful use of money. Discouraged, Carrie decides she will go stand at the foot of the stairs to try to experience some of the excitement of big city life. Then, on Saturday, she walks around the city by herself, relieved to get out of the "narrow, humdrum" apartment.

On Monday Carrie arises early, dresses for work, eats breakfast with Minnie and the baby, and sets off on foot for the factory. She is quite nervous by the time she arrives. Mr. Brown, who hired her, takes her to the stern foreman who will be her boss. In short order Carrie is introduced to the machine girl who teaches her the task she is to do in the assembly line process of making a shoe. It is not difficult to master the simple task, but Carrie finds it extremely difficult to sit still in the stifling heat, repeating the same motions over and over. Her physical discomfort is great by the time the noon bell rings.

As Carrie eats her lunch alone she is disturbed by the comments and actions of her fellow workers. She feels there is "something hard and low about it all," and she finds the shop boys "uncouth and ridiculous," especially as compared to Drouet.

After the noon break, the long afternoon stretches on and on. Carrie detests the grinding work and determines she can never make friends with her fellow workers. As she leaves the factory to walk home, it is clear she cannot last long as a machine girl. "Her heart revolted."


The title of Chapter 4 indicates the continuing ups and downs of Carrie's emotions as driven by her circumstances: "The Spendings of Fancy: Facts Answer with Sneers." Carrie hopes for so much, but reality keeps showing her the impossibility of those hopes.

Dreiser opens the chapter by revealing Carrie's fantasies of the money she will be earning and her belief it will buy her entrance into a better life. She rocks in the rocking chair each night before she reports for her first day of work, dreaming of "every joy and every bauble which the heart of woman may desire." Her longing for fun, rejected by Minnie and Hanson along with her request to go to the theater, cannot be overstated. Dreiser places it at the center of her personality profile. "Her craving for pleasure was so strong that it was the one stay of her nature."

At work, although the other machine girls seem to notice Carrie's distress and do what they can to help her, Carrie does not return their charity. Her criticism of them is harsh; she holds herself far above them in status and decency and is ashamed to be associated with them.

As Dreiser describes the miserable working conditions of the factory he also passes judgment on those who allow it. Even though he is a realist in style, his journalistic side comes through as he comments on the reasons for the conditions. "Not the slightest provision had been made for the comfort of the employees, the idea being that something was gained by giving them as little and making the work as hard and unremunerative as possible."

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