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Sister Carrie | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


in Chapter 12 of Sister Carrie, the relationship between Carrie and Hurstwood begins to more seriously develop. What role does music play for each of them?

When Hurstwood comes to call unexpectedly on Carrie as described in Chapter 12, she has been lost in a reverie of rocking and singing. Her state of mind is the result of a carriage tour with Mrs. Hale to the richest part of Chicago. Having seen what true wealth looks like, she is now filled with unhappiness with her current situation and longing for more. Music comes to her at these times, as she is "affected by music ... certain wistful chords ... awoke longings for those things which she did not have." Hurstwood sees how she feels and presses her; "You are not satisfied with life, are you?" He gains strength from her wistfulness, since she views him as a step up toward that which she desires. By the time he leaves her, he is sure she likes him. His response is to whistle merrily; the tune he chooses is one that represents him as a younger, happier man.

In Sister Carrie how does Julia's character fight the accepted rules of her society about a woman's role in marriage?

The social mores of the Victorian era for people of wealth were based on "proper" behavior by men and women according to their expected roles. Women were to take good care of the home, raise the children well, and maintain their feminine allure by making sure their husbands knew they viewed them as superior. Men were to earn a good living and avoid getting caught in any affairs, in their business or social lives, that might be the least bit nefarious. However, men did not necessarily avoid illicit love; the hypocrisy of the system was based on the fact that the only time such dalliances were a problem was when a man was caught. In contrast to most women of her time, Julia, who has a strong personality and need for control, does not make her husband feel superior or the least bit sure of what she might do in any given circumstance. She has managed to get most of their property in her name. She watches his every move carefully and is not hesitant to demand what she wants. When she does suspect he is cheating on her, she acts swiftly, as a person who is far from feeling subjugate; "You can't dictate to me nor my children."

In Chapter 13 of Sister Carrie what is the significance of "She came fresh from the air of the village, the light of the country still in her eye"?

This sentence is part of Dreiser's reflections about why Carrie is better than Hurstwood. Dreiser in general may have preferred the values associated with simple country life to the materialistic pursuits of the Industrial Age city. This description of Carrie shows the author's opinion that country life may be better than city life in forming a person's character, since the paragraph that follows is about her lack of understanding of the urban world. Because she has not grown up in "the great maze of the city" she is pure in a desirable way. He says Carrie is without guile and "too full of wonder and desire to be greedy." In contrast, Hurstwood represents all of the success of city life, the supposedly desirable state of material ease and status. Yet, in meeting Carrie, Hurstwood himself becomes dissatisfied. He wants what Carrie represents, and so he "picked her as he would the fresh fruit of a tree."

In Chapter 14 of Sister Carrie, Carrie decides Hurstwood "needed her, while Drouet did not care." How was this an error in judgement?

Carrie makes this decision in Chapter 14 just after Dreiser has explained Hurstwood's state of mind toward Carrie at the time. Since Carrie does not have this information and is an inexperienced lover, she is in a weak position. In actuality Hurstwood is thinking of Carrie as a little "added pleasure" in his life. Although he makes pretty claims to her about his loneliness and longing for her as a companion, in his mind he will be able to have his secure position, stable home life, and personal freedom along with an affair with her. In contrast Drouet is actually committed enough to Carrie to live with her and have people view their situation as marriage. He will not actually marry her then, but he does care a great deal for her. He is exactly what he appears; Hurstwood, on the other hand, is presenting a false picture to her.

In Sister Carrie how do the story lines of the plays Carrie attends or takes part in mirror what is happening in the novel itself?

Several times in Sister Carrie plays help to illuminate the drama of the story: "The Covenant" (Chapter 14): The heroine is drawn to a lover when her husband is gone, just as Carrie is drawn to Hurstwood and their relationship becomes serious when Drouet is away. Drouet comments on how little regard he has for the husband who can lose his wife in such a way; this is dramatic irony since he is about to lose Carrie for what she views as a lack of caring. "Under the Gaslight" (Chapter 19): As Carrie says her lines in the role of Laura, in the audience both Hurstwood and Drouet feel the relevance of them; each man makes a personal vow to have Carrie as his own. "A Gold Mine" (Chapters 32 and 33): Carrie has just seen the "showy parade" of Broadway and longs to join the glittering throngs. The play features these same richly costumed people and so she sees in the life portrayed on stage the life she would love to live. Her longing for it reaches an all time high at the point when she is growing dissatisfied with Hurstwood.

An Irish lad admires Carrie and Hurstwood as they leave a park at the end of Chapter 15 in Sister Carrie, but what is striking about his envy?

Carrie and Hurstwood have just had a very romantic conversation, but the Irish lad is not envious of their romance. Rather, he notices them because they appear to be rich. He wants what they have: their wealth. This is one more example by Dreiser of how the American Dream has become focused on wealth. It seems that characters in Sister Carrie cannot be completely happy with just love and family and freedom. Happiness seemingly comes from money and the fine things it can buy; things that make social status obvious to others. However, relationships without love will fall apart in Sister Carrie, and Carrie's lack of love for Hurstwood winds up being deadly for him in the end.

How is Carrie's sense of comfort in her dressing room as an amateur actress relevant to Dreiser's overall observations about the artifice of society in Sister Carrie?

Carrie feels the atmosphere in her dressing room is "more friendly" than the other places that have lured her in the city. When she has seen the mansions in Chicago and longed to live in them, for example, she has known they are not accessible to her. She has similarly loved the lushness of theaters when she has gone to plays but has felt that world, too, is out of her reach. Now she feels there is "an open door to see all of that." She has a sense of belonging. The problem is the world of theater is not the real world. The fact that this is the world where Carrie feels most comfortable is telling. She seems to live in a fantasy. She is drawn to the illusion of happiness presented in shows of outward finery, in roles assigned by society.

Hurstwood and Drouet both regularly think of Carrie as a flower in Sister Carrie, but what is different about their characterizations of her as such?

From the first time he meets Carrie, Drouet views her as fresh and pretty. He calls her "a little dandy" and a "peach" when first telling Hurstwood about her. When he encounters her again on the streets of Chicago, he tells her she is "a daisy." He repeats this endearment when he is most struck by his desire for her, after her acting display. Looking at her gives him a simple feeling of pleasure, nothing much deeper than that. He likes to exuberantly tell her how pretty she is without feeling too touched by it. Hurstwood's thoughts of Carrie go deeper and represent "a flowering out of feelings which had been withering in dry and almost barren soil for many years." Like Drouet, he finds her beauty refreshing, but it makes him want to pluck her like "the fresh fruit of a tree." In describing how Hurstwood is drawn to Carrie, Dreiser describes her as a lily, "which had sucked its waxen beauty and perfume from below a depth of waters which he had never penetrated." She is not just a pretty "daisy" to Hurstwood; she is much more mysterious and exotic.

In Sister Carrie in what ways is the breakup of the Hurstwood marriage abrupt or expected?

Although the end of the marriage does seem quite abrupt, occurring after a single argument in which Julia accuses Hurstwood of cheating on her, Dreiser tries to indicate the roots of the split have been several years in the making. Julia is suspicious of Hurstwood's dalliances before Carrie comes along. Her jealousy stems from her knowledge her husband no longer takes delight in her. Hurstwood has long since acknowledged to himself the passion is gone from their relationship, but he has not taken action to find it elsewhere. Although he still finds his home life comfortable, he also feels he is being marginalized by his wife and children and viewed as nothing more than a source of funding for their desired lifestyle. These factors all merge when Hurstwood does become distracted from his normal rounds of life by Carrie. He loses his caution, playing into Julia's jealous hands. As Dreiser's chapter titles indicate, the "tinder-box" of jealousy is quick to ignite into a blaze with the least provocation. All the makings of a breakup have been there for some time; only the final realization of it is abrupt.

How does the description of how Fitzgerald and Moy regard Hurstwood's role influence his fears in Chapter 24 of Sister Carrie?

In Chapter 5 Hurstwood's position at the saloon is described as "a kind of stewardship." The owners seem to depend on him to draw people there with his impeccable reputation and manners. He knows when to "pal around" with people and when to defer to those with a slightly elevated status. He knows how to dress and act to reflect his success and ease in the high class world of his patrons. In Chapter 9 Dreiser reveals more of Fitzgerald and Moy's expectations; "They wanted no scandals. A man, to hold his position, must have a clean record, a respectable home anchorage." So it is no wonder in Chapter 24, having left Julia and expecting her vengeance to be public, Hurstwood worries about his ability to keep his job at Fitzgerald and Moy's. He is sure "There would be the devil to pay" for the loss of his image.

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