Sister Carrie | Study Guide

Theodore Dreiser

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Sister Carrie | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


As the novel opens, nervous but excited 18-year-old Caroline "Carrie" Meeber begins her journey toward a new life. She travels by train from Columbia City, Wisconsin, to the nearby city of Chicago with all of her worldly possessions in tow. She meets the charming young salesman Charles Drouet, who is struck by her innocent beauty and flirts with her. She, too, is taken with him and plans to see him in the big city. However, as Carrie soon judges the impoverished home where she will live as not the right environment for a gentleman caller, she loses touch with Drouet.

Carrie's sister Minnie and her husband Sven Hanson take Carrie in, but she must pay them for her room and board. The only work Carrie can find is as a machine girl in a shoe factory. The work is hard and the pay low. Carrie has almost no spending money, is uncomfortable with the somber mood of the Hanson household, and soon feels trapped by her new life. When she becomes ill and loses her job, it seems she must return to Columbia City, defeated. A chance encounter with Drouet changes her life.

Drouet is every bit as enchanted with Carrie as he was upon meeting her on the train. He offers her money, clothes, and an apartment—in essence, the opportunity to become his mistress. Carrie accepts, seeing it as a better option than returning to Wisconsin; before long, she moves from a boarding room to an apartment with Drouet. They set up house together, and she begins to move about in the glittering Chicago high society she had dreamed of. She feels some regret over the fact Drouet does not marry her, but she is not bothered enough by it to leave him and the fine things he provides her.

Drouet frequents a fancy saloon managed by George Hurstwood. After bragging about his new girl to Hurstwood, he suggests they should all get together soon. When Carrie and Drouet entertain Hurstwood in their apartment one night, attraction develops between Carrie and Hurstwood, whom she views as a step up from Drouet. Hurstwood is drawn to her beauty, despite the fact that he is married. When he sees her acting in an amateur play, as arranged by Drouet for his local Elks club, he becomes completely enamored by her. Not knowing Hurstwood is married, Carrie returns his affections.

Before long, their affair unravels. Hurstwood's jealous wife, Julia, discovers his indiscretions and immediately sues for divorce and all of their wealth, even as Drouet discovers how often Carrie has been seeing Hurstwood while Drouet is away on sales calls. He leaves the apartment in a rage after revealing Hurstwood's marital status to her. Shaken by the news Hurstwood is married and the idea she is on her own, Carrie tries unsuccessfully to find work as an actress.

On his end, Hurstwood is dealing with attorneys and the reality that a divorce will ruin his good name and his comfortable position and lifestyle. Yet, he still wants nothing more than Carrie, who refuses to have anything to do with him. One night, as he closes the saloon, it happens that the safe locks with $10,000 left sitting out. Hurstwood instinctively steals the money and decides to flee with it to Canada, taking Carrie with him. He tricks her into boarding a train in the middle of the night by claiming they must go see Drouet, who has had a terrible accident. By the time she learns of his lie, they are far from Chicago, and he has managed to convince her he has left everything behind for her and will immediately marry her.

Hurstwood and Carrie get married in Montreal, but, unknown to Carrie, the marriage is not legal because Hurstwood is already married. A detective sent by Hurtwood's employers shows up and threatens to charge Hurstwood for his monetary theft. Hurstwood returns nearly all of the money in exchange for not being prosecuted. Hurstwood and Carrie move to New York City. Hurstwood buys a share in a saloon much below his former position as a manager of a resort. He rents and furnishes a nice enough apartment to live in, and they settle into a rather mundane life. Before long, they are both unhappy, although neither admits it to the other. Hurstwood works hard to get enough clientele at the saloon to afford a comfortable way of life, and Carrie is an obedient housewife, managing the household on a tight budget and rarely venturing out to see the huge city.

But gradually Hurstwood's business begins to fail, even as Carrie makes friends with a wealthier neighbor, who introduces her to the city life and fine things she adores. As Hurstwood's fortunes decline, Carrie's love for him evaporates. They move to cheaper lodgings and trim more and more costs until eventually their money is nearly depleted; He has no work at all, nor does he make much effort to earn money. At this point, Carrie knows she must seek work herself. She decides to try to enter the glamorous world of the theater, basing her desire on her one success in the amateur Elks play back in Chicago. She manages to find work as a chorus girl.

As Carrie's beauty and unique stage presence allow her to rise quickly in the theatrical world, she decides she must shed Hurstwood, who now rarely bothers to dress or leave the apartment anymore. After he tries and fails to gain employment as a driver during a trolley strike, a thoroughly disgusted Carrie makes up her mind. She moves in with another actress, leaving Hurstwood to continue his lonely descent into poverty. Within a few years through a series of fortunate events, Carrie becomes a star of the theater, while Hurstwood becomes a homeless beggar. He eventually commits suicide. Carrie—successful, rich, and famous, surrounded by the beautiful things she loves—never thinks of either man again, yet she is not truly well off at all, as happiness and contentment continue to elude her.

Sister Carrie Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 18-year-old Carrie arrives in Chicago from Wisconsin.

Rising Action

2 Carrie finds a factory job but hates the drudgery of life.

3 Carrie gets ill, loses her job, and becomes Drouet's lover.

4 Carrie believes she is in love with rich, married Hurstwood.

5 Hurstwood steals $10,000 and flees to New York with Carrie.

6 After three years, Hurstwood loses his business.


7 Bound for stardom, Carrie abandons Hurstwood.

Falling Action

8 Without Carrie, Hurstwood descends into poverty.


9 Hurstwood commits suicide as Carrie seeks happiness.

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