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Sister Carrie | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Sister Carrie how does Hurstwood's response to events after he leaves Julia and while out of contact with Carrie foreshadow how he will respond to trouble in New York?

In the days that follow the explosion with Julia, Hurstwood hears nothing from Carrie. He gets demands and letters from Julia and her attorneys. To these he is very slow to respond. He seems nearly paralyzed as he suffers "great mental perturbation." After he finally sends Julia the money she demands, he fantasizes that "nothing would be done for a week or two" and "he would have time to think." This is the pattern he falls into. He thinks, takes some small action, and then contemplates more. He is similarly very slow to take any action toward finding out what is going on with Carrie. Hurstwood's inactivity and inertia during these troubled days is a pattern he will fall into again years later when he loses the Warren Street saloon in New York City. At that time he similarly prefers to sit in his rocking chair and think about the situation rather than take action. He is a much different man by then, having lost all of the status and need for discretion he had in Chicago and which might have accounted in part for his slow, cautious moves there. Nevertheless, there is a marked similarity in how he responds to tough situations.

How does class structure at the time of Sister Carrie influence the chambermaid's interactions with Carrie, Drouet, and Hurstwood?

The chambermaid is of the working class, forced to serve those "above" her and so inclined to view them with a negative attitude born of oppression. However, her response to Drouet is positive because he actually sees her and takes note of her, just as he sees the man begging at the theater door and gives him a dime when Hurstwood and Carrie are blind to it. His flirtation with the maid does not lessen her opinion of him because his attentiveness seems genuine. In contrast the maid finds Carrie "cold and disagreeable." She has a similar distaste for Hurstwood and "wish[es] to cause him trouble" by withholding information when he is looking for Carrie. This is in direct opposition to her willingness to answer every question Drouet asks when he seeks information about the frequency of Hurstwood's visits in his absence.

In Sister Carrie what is significant about the title of Chapter 27, "When Waters Engulf Us We Reach for a Star"?

Throughout the novel Dreiser uses imagery of water when situations are difficult for the characters. For example, Carrie feels alone in a "tossing sea" when she reaches Chicago. When she seeks work she feels like "a wisp on the tide" of the mighty industrial city. Minnie's nightmare about Carrie involves water sweeping her sister away. Hurstwood, too, feels like he is "floundering without sail" when his difficulties with Julia become extreme. He is deeply mired in a bad situation with his wife as Chapter 27 begins, engulfed by the forces that might take everything he has worked for from him without yielding Carrie as a prize. This is the chapter in which he makes the fateful decision to take the money from Fitzgerald and Moy and run away with Carrie. The star he thinks will lead him from the roiling waters is Carrie: "He was drawn by such a keen desire for Carrie, driven by such a state of turmoil in his own affairs that he thought constantly it would be best."

In Sister Carrie how does Hurstwood's question in Chapter 28—"Still ... what could I have done?"—reflect the naturalists' viewpoint?

One of the tenets of naturalism is that humans are somewhat the victims of their circumstances. Much of what happens in the universe is not preventable, as they thought was proven by science. So when humans are in the path of forces outside their control, they are likewise the victims of what happens. When the safe clicks shut Hurstwood believes he is in the pull of one of these forces. He did make the choice to take the money, but then he makes the choice to put it back. In his wavering the universe seems to have answered by forcing the safe to close and lock. This is why he feels certain elements behind his actions were outside of his control and now he must move forward with what has happened.

In Chapter 28 of Sister Carrie what do Hurstwood's many changing emotions as he and Carrie flee to Montreal portend about their future as a couple?

Although Hurstwood is remarkably attentive and solicitous toward Carrie at the beginning of their journey, once he sees she is not going to immediately flee from him, his thoughts return to himself and his own predicament. Used to getting what he wants, he must first secure that. Then his mood shifts: "Now that her opposition was out of the way, he had all of his time to devote to the consideration of his own error." It is immediately apparent he is already unhappy with his new circumstances, finding them "unbearable." As the train rolls into Detroit Hurstwood's stress nearly takes him down, but by pretending to care about Carrie, he holds himself together. As they board the train to Montreal, he barely notices Carrie because he is so wrapped up in his own sense of loss and fear. Once he is safe, however, he recovers himself and even feels hungry. Hurstwood's self-absorption does not bode well for the couple's future when he will again be under a great deal of stress. As he does on the train, he will forget to put Carrie first. At that time, however, she will notice it and be offended by it. When that occurs, he casts a shadow on his future with her.

How is it possible Hurstwood does not think of himself as a thief in Sister Carrie?

Hurstwood believes what happened on the night he took the money from Fitzgerald and Moy was a convergence of unusual circumstances over which he had virtually no control. That the money was there at all was strange, and that the safe clicked shut was not of his doing. The worst he can think of himself is he has made a mistake. He sees his choice to take the money as "a single point in a long tragedy" that he should be able to explain away, or as something not explained so easily. In both instances Hurstwood sees the explanation for his action requires understanding of his whole life—his marriage, the nature of his children, and his whole character. He feels it is unjust to be "accused without being understood." When Hurstwood writes to his employers the letter is full of excuses. He was "light-headed." He "accidentally closed" the safe. He does say he regrets what has happened but he seems to think it is okay to keep some of the money with the promise "he would pay up as soon as he could." He even holds hope they might take him back, so obviously he does not see the action as thievery—just as a lapse in judgment based on complicating factors. In modern terms, he may be in a sort of denial.

In Sister Carrie of all the things Hurstwood loses in leaving his life in Chicago behind, what does he miss most, and why?

Hurstwood misses most the status he had in his social circle in Chicago. Because he managed such a respectable saloon there, he was always rubbing elbows with people of the upper echelons of society, and they trusted him and viewed him as respectable. As made most evident on the night of the Elks Club play, Hurstwood was very much the "big frog in a small pond" or, as Dreiser describes it: "He was acknowledged, fawned upon, in a way lionised. Through it all one could see the standing of the man. It was greatness in a way, small as it was." In his position in New York City Hurstwood is dealing with a much lower class of people, "nothing like the class of patronage which he had enjoyed in Chicago." Instead of greeting celebrities on a nightly basis, he is reduced to reading about them in the papers—and avoiding them because of his shame over his reduced circumstances. When he does run into someone from his Chicago days, he knows they no longer move in the same circle and his old friends "wouldn't think of coming" to the bar he now runs.

In Sister Carrie in what ways is the narrator's statement that Carrie is "of a passive and receptive rather than an active and aggressive nature" true or untrue?

Carrie is complex. She does seem to go with the unfolding of events in a rather passive way, but readers should remember she came to Chicago seeking a better life. This was an active choice, especially for such a young woman during that era. Also, when Carrie has to find work, she goes about it very actively. She does not wait for things to come to her. As Hurstwood declines, he is the one who is passive, making her approach to survival seem even more action-oriented. However, the times when Carrie moves—from Minnie's apartment to what Drouet offers, from Drouet to Hurstwood, from Hurstwood to becoming Lola Osborne's roommate—these can be viewed as passive and receptive. In each case Carrie is in a difficult situation and is rescued, in a sense, by the insistence of another person. She may seem to be going to a better situation each time, but she goes along on a tide of events generated by someone else.

What role do Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Vance share in Sister Carrie?

Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Vance are both friends of Carrie, Mrs. Hale in Chicago and Mrs. Vance in New York City. However, their role extends beyond friendship to a type of mentorship. Carrie finds in both women a level of sophistication exceeding her own. She learns from them how to dress and how to assume a public persona focused on how others view you. Carrie is also exposed to wealthier people and fancier places when she is with these women than she would be on her own. Her relationship with each woman leads her to desire a better lifestyle, always focused on upward mobility and the outward signs of prosperity she links to happiness. Both women play a similar role of bringing Carrie to a different point of view.

In Chapter 31 of Sister Carrie when Carrie first experiences Broadway with Mrs. Vance, what are the negative aspects of the fashion parade she encounters, and why are they significant?

Although the glitter of Broadway is alluring and represents the best that money can buy, Carrie notices a certain tawdriness beneath the surface. Men ogle the women, and in the women Carrie notices a "heavy percentage of vice." They wear too much makeup and dress with the purpose of making men notice them and want them. The street is obviously not much more than a well planned show, complete with "pompous doormen" and "obsequiously" waiting coachmen. The sad thing is Carrie realizes this about what she sees and yet longs to be a part of the scene. She knows only that she does not fit in and wants to, and she believes her feeling of not fitting in will change when she can dress and carry herself with assurance like the women parading around her. In this way the parade lures her into a life that will ultimately never make her happy.

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