Sister Carrie | Study Guide

Theodore Dreiser

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Sister Carrie | Chapters 2–3 | Summary

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Summary

In giving a detailed description of the Hansons' apartment, Dreiser reveals a great deal about the character of the couple. They do not spend money on fine things, and they do not even seem to seek any comfort. In just her first evening at her new home, Carrie knows she cannot have Drouet visit her there, where there is "A settled opposition to anything save a conservative round of toil." Sven Hanson is not particularly talkative; he has "indifference" toward Carrie's presence. Since she will pay board, however, he does offer some advice about how she can go about seeking employment. The family eats, the sisters clean up the kitchen, and the Hansons retire at an early hour, leaving Carrie alone.

Carrie pens a note to Drouet, advising him not to come, and then sits and rocks until sleepy enough to go to bed. The next morning after breakfast, she sets out to seek a job. The vastness and bustle of the city immediately overwhelm her.

As Carrie starts to look at specific places of business, she loses her courage. She eventually gathers enough bravery to be able to speak to a grey-haired gentleman she views through a window. His kind response temporarily bolsters her spirits, but the next words she exchanges with a cold and dismissive manager leave her feeling foolish. After a bit more wandering and a fortifying bowl of soup, Carrie summons the courage to enter an enterprise and ask for work. This time a potential employer, learning she has never worked at anything, steers her toward the department stores and away from the manufacturing sector. However, at the department store Carrie enters, she is again given a cold and dismissive response.

Wandering back into a factory area, Carrie ventures into a building advertising the need for "wrappers & stitchers." Again her lack of experience works against her, but the manager does offer her work at $3.50 per week. Stunned by this meager amount, Carrie enters a sort of daze but makes a final effort as she reaches the edge of the manufacturing area. She enters a shoe factory and is offered $4.50 per week. Suddenly her mood shifts; "This was a great, pleasing metropolis after all." Her spirits soar as she boards a car for the final blocks back to her sister's apartment.

Analysis

After just her first night and day in Chicago, Carrie's new life seems set. Dreiser takes care to provide detailed descriptions of the apartment and of the areas of the city where Carrie will spend her time. The apartment feels dreary, and the fact that Carrie ends her first night alone in a rocking chair is significant. Throughout the novel people sit and rock when they need to escape the world and soothe themselves. It's clear that the apartment is somewhere Carrie will not find happiness.

As for the manufacturing area of the city, where Carrie will be working, Dreiser gives details about all of the noise, imposing structures, and "high and mighty air calculated to overawe and abash the common applicant." It's no wonder Carrie is so overwhelmed. Her dismay worsens as she sees how the working girls look; "stained in face with oil and dust ... careless, slouchy, and more or less pale from confinement." Again, what is foreshadowed is her inability to survive in such a place, among such people who "must be bad-minded and hearted."

In contrast, Dreiser describes the glittering shopping district with the department stores in a positive light. The girls working there are "pretty ... with an air of independence and indifference." The clothes and other finery on display are things Carrie desires, and readers see right away this is the part of the city she wants to occupy.

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