Dreiser’s bulky naturalist novel follows Caroline Meeber, or “Sister Carrie,” from her smalltown home in Wisconsin to the metropolis of Chicago, and eventually to New York City as well. Dissatisfied with her life at home, Carrie travels to live with her sister and her brother-in-law, Sven Hansen, a working-class couple who are satisfied to labor incessantly to preserve their small way of life and to save for a meager house in the future. Though Carrie is originally employed at a shoe factory, she quits and runs away to live with Charles Drouet, a flashy traveling salesman she meets on the train from rural Wisconsin. Eventually Charles introduces her to George Hurstwood, manager of Fitzgerald and Roy resort, with whom Carrie takes up while Charles is out of town. George arranges for Carrie’s somewhat impressive debut as an actress, and soon after his wife Julia discovers his affair, as does Charles (who tells Carrie George is married). George takes her first to Montreal (by trickery), then to New York, where she becomes dissatisfied and is introduced to art over materialism by Robert Ames. As Hurstwood declines and falls, Carrie leaves him (with a note and twenty dollars) to ride the wave of her acting and chorus girl work. Hurstwood kills himself in a flophouse; Carrie meets with great material success but realizes she will always be unhappy, dreaming “of such happiness as [she] may never feel,” for “Not evil, but longing for that which is better, more often directs the steps of the erring.”
Originally titled The Flesh and the Spirit, Sister Carrie is a move away from the purely moralist Victorian novel towards a more realistic or ‘naturalistic’ depiction of human tendencies and desires. Carrie, who in a traditional moralist novel would likely receive punishment for her sinful lifestyle (as in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets) is instead here rewarded, and it is her lover who meets a tragic end.
Carrie is not a particularly fascinating or developed character at the outset, though the novel turns her status as cipher into her art when she becomes an actress. In making Carrie, an “average middle-class American girl,” a constantly changing reflection of different narrative possibilities, Dreiser enables any reader to project him- or herself into Carrie’s position.
The text is notable for its attention to surfaces and its exploration of female power through consumerism, though the narrator’s comical implications of female susceptibility to materialism are often jarring. Its contrasts between real poverty and wealth do not infantilize the poor by suggesting that their condition is acceptable; rather, the novel implies that there are very real benefits to the spirit of having access to more than rudimentary resources.
In 1930 Nobel Prize Lecture, Sinclair Lewis said, “Dreiser’s great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman.”