53 pages 1 hour read

Theodore Dreiser

Sister Carrie

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1900

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Sister Carrie is a novel published in 1900 by the American author Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser uses the story of Caroline Meeber, a naïve young woman who gets caught up in the gaudy venality of the city, to explore the emptiness of materialism, the tension between flesh and spirit, the inevitability of loneliness, and the role of women in the emerging America of the new century. Now recognized as one of the defining expressions of American literary naturalism and ranked by Modern Library, the prestigious publishing house, among the 100 most important English-language works of the twentieth century, the book sold fewer than 400 copies in its first year. Contemporary critics lambasted Dreiser for his plodding style, ignoring the book’s groundbreaking approach to anatomizing the complex relationship between individuals and their socio-cultural environment.

The importance of the novel and of Dreiser would be confirmed nearly three decades later when Dreiser was shortlisted to become the first American writer awarded the Nobel Prize. Like Mark Twain before him and Kurt Vonnegut after him, Dreiser trained an uncompromising moral awareness on a culture and a nation that had fallen far short of its ideals by confusing opportunity with opportunism.

This study guide uses the 2018 Digireads paperback edition.

Plot Summary

It is late summer, 1889. 18-year-old Caroline Meeber—nicknamed “Sister Carrie”—leaves her family and her small-town home in Wisconsin and heads to Chicago to find success and happiness.

On the train ride, she meets a salesman named Charles Drouet who impresses her with his charm, his fashionable clothes, and his animated chatter. Before they part in the Chicago train station, they promise to meet again.

Carrie stays with her sister, Minnie, and Minnie’s husband and baby. The couple assume Carrie will pay rent once she finds work. The only work Carrie finds, however, is in a factory making shoes. The conditions are deplorable, the hours long, and the pay poor. With winter, conditions on the factory floor worsen, and within a few weeks Carrie comes down with pneumonia. The illness costs her the job.

Fearing she might have to go back home, Carrie happens to run into Charles Drouet again. Drouet treats her to a lavish lunch and convinces her to leave her sister’s by promising her a life of comfort. Within a few weeks, Carries moves in with Drouet. Drouet, though a tiresome egomaniac, supports Carrie and teaches her how to dress and act with refinement.

Drouet invites over a friend, George Hurstwood, a bartender at a high-class saloon. He and Carrie hit it off. Soon, Carrie and Hurstwood begin to see each other behind Drouet’s back. Hurstwood proclaims his love for Carrie. What Carrie does not know, however, is that Hurstwood is married with two teenaged children.

Drouet, in his efforts to mentor Carrie in the cultural ways of the city, volunteers her to perform in a theater production at his lodge. Carrie impresses Drouet and the critics with her acting. Then, both Drouet and Hurstwood’s wife find out about Carrie and Hurstwood’s clandestine affair. Drouet moves out, and Hurstwood’s wife files for divorce. Hurstwood fears he will be financially ruined. When Drouet tells a shocked Carrie that Hurstwood is married, Carrie writes a letter telling Hurstwood she wants nothing to do with him.

The next night, as an inebriated Hurstwood closes up the bar, he notices the safe has been left open by mistake. As he plays with the bundles of cash, the safe’s door shuts accidentally. Interpreting the incident as a sign, Hurstwood takes the money—nearly $10,000—and flees. He tricks Carrie into coming with him to Canada. When they arrive in Montreal, Carrie agrees to stay only when Hurstwood promises to marry her. A private detective shows up in Montreal, and Hurstwood returns the money in return for not being charged. Carrie and Hurstwood marry. Because Hurstwood is still not legally divorced, the marriage is a sham even though he uses a false name, George Wheeler.

The couple head to New York City where Hurstwood ekes out a living as a part owner of neighborhood bar. The couple seldom go out, and Carrie begins to feel dissatisfied with her life. She meets a neighbor, Mrs. Vance, whose wealthy husband provides her with the life Carrie dreams of having. Carrie meets Mrs. Vance’s cousin, Robert Ames, a struggling graduate student who argues tirelessly to Carrie that materialism deadens the soul and empties the heart.

When the bar is sold to new investors, Hurstwood lacks the energy or the will to find a new job. As he collapses into self-pity and depression, Carrie is forced to find work. She gets a job dancing and singing in a chorus line of a Broadway show.

Carrie’s new career begins to take off. Hurstwood takes a job as a streetcar conductor when the conductors go on strike. Now a scab, Hurstwood tries to deal with violent encounters with striking drivers but quits after just two days.

Carrie leaves a dispirited Hurstwood and moves in with a friend from the theater. Within two years, Carrie is a headliner in stage comedies, enjoying a life of wealth and celebrity. Hurstwood lives on the streets until, desperate and alone, he dies by suicide. Carrie continues to shine on Broadway but finds no happiness in her money or her fame.