When Caroline "Carrie" Meeber arrives in Chicago from a small Wisconsin town at age 18, she is naive. She soon discovers she wants a life nothing like the simple, hardworking life of her sister and brother-in-law, with whom she stays at first. Carrie is drawn to the excitement of the city and to fine things and people of a higher social order. She cannot make it in a factory job or in the stifling environment of her sister's apartment, and she makes the shocking decision to build a life instead with a dandy salesman named Drouet—as his mistress. It doesn't take long for Carrie to continue climbing up the social and wealth ladders. She falls in love with the wealthy and well-established Hurstwood, not realizing he is married. When he tricks her and takes her away to Canada, then New York City, she goes along with it, having been unable to find work on her own in Chicago and still very desirous of a life of wealth and ease. As Hurstwood suffers a downward spiral, Carrie gains a foothold in the New York theatrical world and leaves him behind for fame and fortune, but true happiness continues to elude her.
Charles Drouet first meets Carrie on her train trip from Wisconsin to Chicago. He finds her lovely, and she finds him equally charming. They plan to see each other, but Carrie cancels those plans. However they have a chance meeting on the street after Carrie loses her factory job, and she is desperately trying to find a way to stay in Chicago. He woos her with food and cash and shopping sprees until she makes the quick decision to let him keep her in an apartment. Soon they live together; Drouet is content but not interested in marrying her. Drouet loses Carrie to Hurstwood, but his impact on her goes beyond his initial rescue of her. He also introduces her to the world of theater. When Carrie becomes famous, he visits her and tries to take up with her again, but she is not interested.
George Hurstwood wins Carrie's heart because of what he represents: maturity, wealth, respect, and social status. Yet he loses these very traits through his involvement with her. He begins to lie almost immediately. He does not tell her he is married. He does not tell her he has stolen money from his employers. He does not tell her how greatly reduced his financial circumstances are. As she finds out each of these deceptions in turn, Carrie steadily loses her love for him. Hurstwood becomes more and more paralyzed as the novel progresses. He is unable to accept his own diminished status in life. He cannot take action—until finally, his loneliness and misery drive him to suicide.
Julia Hurstwood enjoys the status and monetary rewards of her life with her husband, although passion in their marriage has long been dead. He appreciates how fine their home is, but he does notice how spoiled and money-oriented his wife, son, and daughter are. When Hurstwood betrays Julia by having an affair with Carrie, Julia turns nasty. She sues him for divorce immediately and literally locks him out of her life, interested only in holding on to the material trappings of their years together and avoiding scandal as much as possible.
Minnie Hanson precedes her sister Carrie in choosing to live in Chicago, but with very different results. Her husband works hard, and so does she. They live a narrow life, interested in thrift and the future more than in enjoying any of the things Carrie views as glamorous in the big city. They like to be at home with their baby, saving their money for the new home they hope to build. When Carrie loses her job, Minnie, having not much real affection for her sister and being too meek to stand up to her husband, makes very little effort to help Carrie, which drives her to become Drouet's mistress rather than give up and go back to Wisconsin. Once Carrie moves out, the two sisters never see each other again.
Sven Hanson is a stern man. He has very clear ideas about right and wrong, which include thrift, strict morals, and duty. The only gentleness he shows is toward his baby.