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Sister Carrie | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, how and why does the concept of getting off at the next train station recur?

The idea of getting off the train and returning home to Columbia City probably never really occurs to Carrie, even though she is nervous. She has already done what she has to do to break away from the small town and venture into the big city. And she does have her sister awaiting her arrival. As Dreiser makes clear from the beginning, Carrie is driven to things that do not exist back home; she is "quick to understand the keener pleasures of life, ambitious to gain in material things." Any urge to run back home cannot be anything but a passing emotion. The next time Carrie has the option of getting off a train and returning to her starting point is when Hurstwood whisks her away to Detroit/Montreal under the pretense of taking her to Drouet's hospital bedside. In this instance, Carrie has outrage in her heart, not a fleeting feeling of homesickness. By this time, however, she is so far into her pursuit of all that a glittering city can offer her—and her constant longing for something better—she cannot pass up the chance to see new places in the company of a man she views as wealthy and sophisticated. Carrie's fate plays a hand in her choice as well. When Drouet leaves Carrie and she is faced again with having to support herself, she turns to her dream of acting and tries to pursue it in Chicago. All of the advice by industry professionals is the same—she must get experience in New York City. The timing couldn't be more perfect, as it happens just before Hurstwood whisks Carrie away. When Carrie is on the train to Detroit, Hurstwood dangles New York City in front of her as the supreme temptation—even if he is unaware of it. The reader knows Carrie's desire to act has never cooled or left her mind. A mix of fate, desire, and Carrie's natural passivity combine at just the right moment, all in motion just as the train is, propelling her into the future.

Dreiser characterizes Drouet as a womanizer at the beginning of Sister Carrie. Is that characterization accurate, and does the final chapter support or refute this impression of him?

Drouet is a static character in Sister Carrie; he hardly changes at all. When readers are first introduced to him, he is described as a masher "whose dress or manners are calculated to elicit the admiration of susceptible young women." Drouet loves the opposite sex, but he is also a happy and kind man, not a predator by any means. His only fault in his dealings with Carrie is his unwillingness to be tethered to her through marriage. When readers see Drouet again at the end of the novel, he is as happy-go-lucky as ever. He is still handsome and well-dressed. He would be more than willing to take up with Carrie where they left off, not because of her stardom but because he genuinely still likes her and was not particularly wounded by her actions with Hurstwood. His nature does not allow for holding grudges. When it is clear Carrie does not wish to see him, Drouet continues on without missing a beat. The last readers see of him, he is light-heartedly pursuing "those pleasures which shut out the snow and gloom of life." As Dresier puts it, "The old butterfly was as light on the wing as ever."

In Sister Carrie how does Minnie's relationship with Hanson compare and contrast to the relationships Carrie will have with men?

Minnie and her husband have a traditional marriage. She is intent on doing his bidding, particulary when it comes to the household budget, even if it causes some hardship for her own sister. Although Minnie does figure out how to take a little less money from Carrie for room and board so Carrie can buy warm clothing, she is distressed about ever pushing Hanson with any request outside of their very controlled and staid life. She is not with her husband to have fun. She is with him for stability, and she is dutiful in the role she plays. Carrie is not bound by strict rules of conduct or social mores when it comes to relationships. Although she may not be happy about living with men outside of marriage, it is not enough to make her leave a relationship that gives her what she needs and wants: clothes, a nice home, a certain amount of adoration. She does not mind keeping house, but she detests being kept from liveliness and fun. Unlike Minnie, she feels no real sense of duty or acceptance of a man's budgetary restrictions. By the end of the novel it seems clear Carrie does not need a man in her life at all. This would surely never be true of her sister Minnie, whose life revolves around her small family and home.

Based on Dresier's first description of Hurstwood in Chapter 5 of Sister Carrie, what would have most drawn Carrie to him, and why?

Carrie is impressed by the finer things in life, especially clothes. Hurstwood is a very fine dresser, usually attired in "excellent tailored suits of imported goods, a solitaire ring, a fine blue diamond in his tie, a striking vest of some new pattern, and a watch-chain of solid gold, which held a charm of rich design, and a watch of the latest make and engraving." So she would have been very attracted to his looks. Carrie is also always drawn to things that seem just a little out of reach. Hurstwood is clearly a notch above Drouet in the social order, and since she will meet him while she is with Drouet, she will be lured up that social ladder by his ease in a circle that seems out of her reach without him.

Why is illness a particularly serious problem for the characters in Sister Carrie?

Throughout Sister Carrie when characters become ill, their sickness leads to significant loss. The first example is Carrie, who loses her job at the shoe factory when she is ill enough to miss several days of work. This puts her in danger of losing much more. When she cannot find other work, it seems clear she will have to return home to Wisconsin. This reality makes her much more vulnerable to Drouet's offers. Hurstwood also experiences loss with illness. When he is sick in New York City after losing the Warren Street saloon, he loses what little attraction Carrie still had for him. She is repelled by his haggard appearance and feels like "a servant to him now, nothing more." Much later, when Hurstwood is reduced to poverty but finds a place to work and sleep at the Broadway Central Hotel, pneumonia causes him to lose his last safe haven. He will never recover enough to escape homelessness.

Throughout Sister Carrie which of Carrie's physical features is most commented on, and why?

Many times in the novel Dreiser focuses on Carrie's eyes and the effect they have on others. In his opening description of her, Dreiser mentions she has "an eye alight with certain native intelligence." He also mentions she is not afraid to look others directly in the eye. This is indicative of a certain boldness women of the era did not usually possess. As Carrie gets deeper into her relationship with Drouet, the magnetism that draws them together is mostly felt when their eyes connect. This is also true when she takes up with Hurstwood. Her sexuality seems to be palpable in her gaze. When her eyes fill with tears, it tends to make the men in her life feel undone. Carrie's eyes are often described as pretty as well. Even she herself notices them as such. "Weren't her eyes pretty." She seems to know her eyes are especially attractive and something men want to possess along with the rest of her. When she needs to control situations, she diverts her eyes, as she does when Hurstwood first demands to know if she loves him; "Her eyes fell consciously." Finally, Carrie's eyes are the source of pleasure for her. She sees the beautiful, rich things she desires with her eyes. "Her eye was once more taken by the show of wealth—the elaborate costumes, elegant harnesses, spirited horses, and above all, the beauty." These things are ultimately more important than anything she feels in her heart.

In Chapter 1 of Sister Carrie, how does Dreiser establish that Drouet is clever with regard to women, and how does Drouet convince Carrie to become his mistress?

Dreiser sets readers up to view Drouet as an expert on courting women. This happens in Chapter 1 with his detailed descriptions of the attentiveness Drouet shows women and the actions he deliberately takes to win their trust. He takes these same sorts of actions with Carrie. He knows she loves clothes, and he couches his offer of money around the idea it is a loan with which she can buy clothes, make herself more presentable, and thereby attain decent employment. He makes sure she sees his approval of how she looks as they shop, and he has her give the department store girls the money when she buys clothes rather than appearing to buy them for her. Drouet is careful about how he touches Carrie. He is respectful yet affectionate. He shows he is in tune with her every mood and need. When she seems troubled, he reassures her she is fine. If it is cold outside, he reminds her to "wear that boa about your throat." It's no wonder within a week he apparently has her living with him. She trusts him, and she wants the things and attention he so readily lavishes on her.

Early in Sister Carrie Hurstwood has no "sympathy for the man that made a mistake and was found out," but how will Dreiser reveal this attitude as absurd?

The Hurstwood of Chicago is practically pompous in his insistence on "a dignified manner" characterized by being "circumspect in all he did." He finds folly in the actions of those of his station in life who are foolish enough to get into trouble. Yet he falls for Carrie, steals money, and must leave behind all of it. Not knowing Carrie has never learned of Hurstwood's theft, when Drouet meets with her years later in New York City he practically quotes Dreiser's earlier line: "A man always makes a mistake when he does anything like that." Hurstwood's "holier than thou" demeanor obviously could not save him from the same fate of those he once looked down upon.

Carrie is obviously pleased with her living situation with Drouet in Sister Carrie, but what parts of the situation make her vulnerable to taking up with Hurstwood?

The description of the apartment shows how delightful it is and how much Carrie enjoys living there and tending to it. That the apartment includes a large gilt mirror and rocking chairs as part of its decor is not coincidental, however. The mirror symbolizes the constant lure of beautiful, fine things. Carrie delights in the reflection of her clothes and sees her increasing attractiveness in the mirror. Yet she retreats to the rocking chair to tamp down thoughts of the immoral choices she has made in acquiring these things. These thoughts and Drouet's glibness around the possibility of marriage give her a sense of unease. Dreiser also reveals Carrie is not in love. "She really was not enamoured of Drouet." Early on she realizes he is missing attributes she might desire, such as intelligence and sophistication. Since the place she first meets Hurstwood is in the apartment, side-by-side with Drouet, it is easy for her to see how Hurstwood outshines him.

What is the significance of Drouet's nickname for Carrie in Sister Carrie?

Drouet calls Carrie by the nickname "Cad." This is an interesting choice, since the word cad refers to a man who treats women with little or no respect. Although Drouet is not disrespectful toward Carrie, he is not exactly honorable since he never intends to marry her. Carrie, on the other hand, is somewhat more irresponsible in the way she takes up with Hurstwood while still living with Drouet—rather "caddish" behavior. The origins of the word cad trace it to the 1730s, as a shortened form of cadet, with a connotative meaning suggesting a person called a cad would be viewed as a snob or as someone who does not relate particularly well to the feelings of those lower than they. Carrie does, in fact, hold herself as above common people such as the other machine girls she works with, even though she is no better off than they are at the time.

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