Caroline Meeber, known as Carrie, leaves her home at age eighteen and takes the train to Chicago. The man sitting behind her on the train, named Drouet, starts talking to her. Carrie soon becomes interested in him due to his fine clothing and manners. Upon arriving in Chicago she says goodbye to him, but not before she has given him her address.
Carrie meets her sister Minnie Hanson and moves into one of the rooms in Minnie's apartment. Mr. Hanson arrives home that night but does not pay too much attention to her. Carrie soon realizes that the Hansons expect her to find a job and pay them rent. As far as they are concerned, she is supplemental income. After the weekend she enters the commercial part of the city and starts looking for a job. Being naturally timid, Carrie is frightened of entering the factories and shops and asking for a job, the result being that she is not hired that day. After several days of searching she finds employment in a shoe factory.
Carrie works hard at her job, but discovers that the salary is too low for her to pay rent and purchase clothes for the winter. She soon falls ill from the cold and takes several days to recover. Assuming that she has lost her new job, Carrie returns to the streets in the desperate hopes of finding new employment, but becomes frustrated when nothing is available.
Almost ready to head home, Carrie accidentally meets Drouet on the street. He kindly offers her a meal and takes her to a fine restaurant. After much insisting he convinces her to meet him again the next day and presses twenty dollars into her hand. Carrie is loath to take the money and afraid that Minnie will find out where she got it, so instead of spending the money she decides to return it to Drouet. She meets him again the next day and he takes her out shopping, buying her an entire wardrobe in the process.
Carrie is so elated by the way he treats her that she agrees to allow him to rent an apartment for her. She sneaks her things out of Minnie's house, leaving only a short note behind, and takes off. Things go well with Drouet for a while.
Drouet then introduces Carrie to his friend Hurstwood, the manager of one of the top bars in the city. Hurstwood is far more refined and elegant than Drouet, and soon he comes over to play cards with Carrie and Drouet. He next offers to take them to the theater. When Drouet is away, Hurstwood begins to stop by the apartment and woo Carrie, finally getting her to kiss him while on a buggy ride. He falls madly in love with her and starts to think of getting her to run away with him.
Drouet, unaware of what is going on between Carrie and Hurstwood, returns to Chicago for several weeks. He is asked to find a girl to perform in his Mason's lodge play and asks Carrie if she would do it. She agrees, and Hurstwood get together all the top people in the city to watch her perform. Carrie puts on a stunning performance as a result of Drouet's support for her, but Hurstwood starts to become insanely jealous when he sees them together.
Hurstwood's family life falls apart rapidly as he has been neglecting his wife in order to see Carrie. She finally realizes what is going on and demands that he give her money. Meanwhile, Drouet has also discovered that Carrie has been spending far more time with Hurstwood then he ever thought. Drouet angrily walks out on Carrie, and Hurstwood foolishly fights with his wife, not realizing that his wife has the entire property in her name. She then files for divorce, hires a detective, and locks him out of the house.
Hurstwood goes to his workplace and spends his nights at a local hotel. One evening he is locking up the bar and discovers that the safe is unlocked. He pulls out over ten thousand dollars in cash and accidentally locks the safe before he can put the money back. Without thinking he takes the cash and rushes to Carrie's apartment. He tells her that Drouet has had an accident and that they need to go to the hospital. With that lie he gets her onto a train heading to Detroit and from there to Montreal. Carrie is upset and furious with him, but passively does nothing to resist.
From Montreal they head to New York City where Hurstwood rents an apartment for them. He has sent back most of the money he stole while in Montreal in order to avoid prosecution, keeping only thirteen hundred in order to establish his own business. He soon finds a bar looking for a business partner and buys a one-third stake for one thousand. Things are fine until the owner of the land that the bar is on decides to kick them out and build an office building. Hurstwood only has seven hundred dollars and struggles to find new employment.
He and Carrie are soon forced to move into a smaller apartment. Failing to find work, Hurstwood slowly degenerates into idleness. He takes up some gambling and loses over a hundred dollars in one night. Carrie loses interest in him as a person and starts considering her other alternatives. Things get progressively worse until Hurstwood does not even leave the apartment anymore, preferring to sit around in his old clothes.
When Hurstwood is almost out of money, Carrie decides that she will have to get a job to support them. After a few days she is given a spot in the chorus line of a Broadway show. Her salary is barely enough for them to live on, but Hurstwood scrapes by. She is soon promoted to lead the chorus line and later to an even better paying dancing position. Carrie refuses to tell Hurstwood about her success because she need the extra money to purchase clothes for herself.
Hurstwood takes one last job when the trolley car workers go on strike. He applies for a position and becomes a scab, a man who works when everyone else is striking. However, an angry mob soon manages to stop his car and after being shot at he decides to give up and head home. Carrie luckily is given a speaking part one day and at that point decides to leave Hurstwood in order to live with an actress friend of hers. She moves out while he is taking a walk.
The rest of the novel traces Carrie's rise and Hurstwood's fall. He soon loses the apartment and is forced to become a homeless beggar who stays in cheap hotels in the Bowery part of town. Carrie meanwhile is given a silent role, but plays it so well that she becomes an overnight star and signs a contract paying her a hundred and fifty dollars a week, an exorbitant sum for her.
Drouet moves to New York and tries to reestablish his relationship with Carrie, but she brushes him off. Hurstwood, in despair, commits suicide by gassing himself with methane in his hotel room one night. His wife and daughter take a voyage to Rome with a wealthy young man that his daughter has married while his dead body is carted away on a ship. Carrie meanwhile has become unhappy with her state in the world, wishing that she could perform drama rather than comedy.