Sister Carrie | Study Guide

Theodore Dreiser

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Sister Carrie | Chapters 32–36 | Summary



After their stroll on Broadway Mrs. Vance and Carrie go to a matinee play. Carrie is reminded of how much she loved her brief stint with acting, and as they walk back down Broadway she is even more enamored of the finery and elegance she sees. Returning to her flat she rues what she does not have, what "the rest of the world was enjoying." Hurstwood notices her mood and convinces her to go back to the theater with him that evening, mollifying her for the moment.

About a month later Carrie goes to dinner and the theater with the Vances and a cousin of theirs, Mr. Ames. They dine at a spectacular restaurant, which leaves Carrie in awe. She is puzzled by the young Ames's attitude toward all the splendor and wealth; he finds it "a shame for people to spend so much money this way." She is also uncomfortable with the fact he is obviously much better read and more intelligent than she. "For the first time [she] felt the pain of not understanding." The more she learns about him as the evening progresses, the more she begins to view him as a sort of ideal man, and the more she wishes for his approval. When he says he does admire fine actors, she thinks perhaps her acting aspirations are not so bad.

Hurstwood is in bed sleeping when Carrie arrives home. She is relieved, as she wants to think. The chapter ends with prophetic words, as her longing grows for some sort of different life, a life she could not yet quite articulate; "She was rocking, and beginning to see."

When Chapter 33 begins, six months have passed and, despite the feeling of imminent change readers are left with at the end of the last chapter, not much changes outwardly. Psychologically for Hurstwood, however, things are starting to fall apart as he continues to constantly compare his old and new lives. He broods, entering a state of depression. Hurstwood reads newspapers daily, and as he reads of the successes of people he used to associate with regularly, he becomes more and more despondent. His current situation seems hardly worth bothering with, and as this shows in his attitude, the business at the Warren Street saloon drops off.

Hurstwood finally confesses to Carrie he is not doing well financially, and they need to save money; this news comes on the heels of the Vance's decision to go traveling. So Carrie, too, feels down—a trend that worsens as she and Hurstwood move to a cheaper apartment and she handles the chores without a servant. They reach a new low when the land on which the saloon sits is sold, and the business must be closed. Suddenly Carrie can see for sure that Hurstwood is now "broke."

As Carrie comes to grips with the reality of the situation in Chapter 34 she is filled with fear. "Everything about poverty was terrible. She wished she knew a way out." Her thoughts turn to Mr. Ames, whom she views even more as the ideal man, even though she has not seen him since she met him.

Meanwhile, Hurstwood looks for another place to buy into, but he has only 700 dollars to spend. It becomes apparent this is not enough, so when Warren Street finally closes, he faces the fact he needs to find some other sort of employment. It is a bleak prospect for him at 43 years of age. He feels defeated before he even begins seriously looking.

In Chapter 35 Hurstwood rallies enough to formulate a plan of attack for job hunting. Looking through his beloved newspapers, he finds one advertisement for a liquor salesman. He goes to the place of business the next day, but his interview does not go well. He thinks about going to other places he made notes about, but he becomes hungry and weary and ends up eating lunch and sitting in a hotel lobby until enough time has passed to make it appear as though he has been looking for work all day. And so a pattern begins for Hurstwood. He acts like he is looking for work, then leaves the apartment and wanders around before giving up and seeking comfort either in a hotel lobby or back at the apartment.

On the home front, bills are coming due, and Carrie is beginning to feel more like a servant than a wife. She is no longer the least bit attracted to Hurstwood, who has given up on maintaining his personal appearance, and she begins to sleep separately from him. Looking to economize more, Hurstwood takes over the bill paying and shopping, apparently viewing this as his job now. In doing so he stops seeking employment altogether and sits reading newspapers all day instead.

Mr. and Mrs. Vance have returned to New York, and, although Carrie has stopped corresponding with her friend, they have a chance encounter at a grocery store. Carrie is reluctant to give Mrs. Vance her new address, as she feels shame about where she lives and the state Hurstwood is in. Much to her dismay Mrs. Vance does happen to call at the apartment when Carrie is out, and she sees Hurstwood looking at his worst. When Carrie finds out, she and Hurstwood have a fight, and he reveals the shocking fact their marriage is not even legal.

Hurstwood rallies occasionally and goes out, and on one occasion he decides to play poker. He makes a few dollars and goes back for more games. On his second foray, however, he loses $60 to a young Irish player. On the night he and Carrie argue, Hurstwood goes again to the poker tables. Seventy-five dollars up at one point, he ends up losing it plus another $20. When he counts all the money he has left in the world, the total is $190. To seek comfort, he goes out the next day and spends another $30, and now he is nearing his last $100.


In titling Chapter 32, Dreiser refers to the feast of Belshazzar. This reference is to a scene of gluttony and arrogance found in the Book of Daniel in the Bible. Certainly the gluttony is reflected in the details of the fancy New York City restaurant where Carrie and company dine. What might be more significant about this reference, however, is the famous saying "See the handwriting on the wall," from the Daniel story. Daniel sees a ghostly handwriting on the wall after the debauchery of the feast of Belshazzar. The words foretell the fall of Babylon. As Dreiser ends his chapter, he refers to what Carrie is "beginning to see." The writing is on the wall; she will leave Hurstwood.

In Chapter 33 Dreiser includes a complex explanation of how and why men start to decline in their middle years—and why Hurstwood in particular is "growing weaker, older, less incisive mentally." A true naturalist, Dreiser includes science to support his theories; "A constantly subdued frame of mind produces certain poison in the blood, called katastates, just as virtuous feelings of pleasure and delight produce helpful chemicals called anastates. The poisons generated by remorse inveigh against the system, and eventually produce marked physical deterioration." Dreiser shows sympathy for his characters as victims of these natural circumstances. Readers might or might not be willing to forgive Hurstwood for his lethargy or for making the foolish choice to gamble what little money he has left, but Dreiser can always provide his understanding of the psychological basis for the characters' actions.

Readers see the worsening situation through Carrie's eyes in these chapters. She is watching a once confident, handsome, fastidious man turn into "some one who was out of work, idle, and indifferent to her." Her fixation on appearance and clothes makes his choice to "wear some old clothes he had" abhorrent to her, especially since "he was not bad looking when dressed up." Dreiser uses the word "indifference" frequently in these chapters to describe the suspended state Carrie is in, the only response she can muster as her life spirals downward, and she feels like she cannot control it.

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