Sister Carrie | Study Guide

Theodore Dreiser

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Sister Carrie | Chapters 16–19 | Summary



Drouet decides his career will benefit from aligning himself more closely with the Elks Lodge he belongs to, so when he returns to Chicago he stops by to catch up with the members. They enlist him to find a young woman to take the role in a play they are producing to raise money. He agrees, but after thinking about it for a while he forgets. Down to the last days before rehearsals begin Drouet decides Carrie is the one for the role. By flattering her with his belief in her theatrical talents, he gets her to agree. When he goes by the lodge to get her the part, he realize the Elks think he is single and comes up with a stage name for her—Carrie Madenda. Carrie does not protest, and as she begins practicing her small part, both she and Drouet are impressed with her natural talent.

In Chapter 17 Carrie writes immediately to let Hurstwood know she will be acting in a play. They meet in the park to talk about it, and he is so enchanted by her excitement he determines to attend the play himself and to do all he can to make it be a big success for her. The next time he sees Drouet he cleverly sets himself up to send Carrie flowers and take them to dinner after the performance, as an act of friendship and support.

As rehearsals begin, Carrie stands out in a cast of mostly miserably untalented amateurs. Hurstwood continues to delight in her excitement and offer her encouragement.

By the evening of the performance Hurstwood has managed things so there will be a big crowd of well-to-do people in the audience. He greets everyone, exchanging pleasantries and claiming he is without his wife because she is ill. Backstage Carrie is nervously getting ready, attending to hair and makeup. Drouet is busy buying and passing out cigars to his Elks buddies.

As the curtain goes up the amateur status of the players is painfully obvious. They are all nervous, including Carrie. Her first lines are delivered in a weak manner, and it's clear the audience is disappointed. At the intermission Drouet goes backstage to try to bolster Carrie's nerves. When he promises to stand in the wings and watch her, she seems to be less nervous. From then on she commands the stage.

The effect of Carrie's successful performance on the two men—Hurstwood and Drouet—is extraordinary, both of them reaching new levels in their affection and desire for her. Both relate to the drama unfolding on the stage in terms of Carrie's effects on their lives. For the first time, Hurstwood feels a surge of jealousy toward Drouet. The dinner with the three of them—he having to act as nothing more than a friend—is almost more than he can bear.


These chapters represent an emotional roller coaster for the novel's main characters. As the opening of the play approaches, Hurstwood happily assumes the role of "big man" and benevolent benefactor. Behind the scenes he gets publicity for the play and spreads the word about it to the illustrious patrons of Fitzerald and Moy's, ensuring a packed house of people attired for a "full-dress affair." He is the star, walking among men who are there at his bequest; "It was greatness in a way, small as it was." Yet his triumph dissipates quickly when he realizes it is Drouet who can rightfully claim Carrie as his own, when it is Drouet who is able to comfort her and boost her morale so she can succeed. By the time Hurstwood gets a moment with the triumphant Carrie, she has become the star; "She was looking down, rather than up, to her lover." All he sees is he wants her to be his.

Dreiser uses the character Laura whom Carrie plays, to deepen his themes, foreshadow later events, and to also comment on love, which is not typically the focus in Sister Carrie. Laura tells her stage lover in the play, "Courtship is the text from which the whole sermon of married life takes its theme." This line is applicable to the courtships of Carrie and Drouet and Carrie and Hurstwood. Carrie and Drouet have an amiable courtship without much passion, and this is how their relationship will end, too, without much adieu. But Carrie and Hurstwood's courtship is based on deception, and it will not end well for Hurstwood. Carrie's character, Laura, also says, "Her beauty, her wit, her accomplishments, she may sell to you; but her love is the treasure without money and without price." Indeed, neither man will ever have Carrie's love, but for the security they offer her, they both enjoy her beauty and company for a brief time.

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