Caroline Meeber, or Carrie, leaves her home in Columbia City to go live in Chicago. Only age eighteen, she takes very little with her in the way of belongings as she gets on the train. She further has a slip of paper with her sister's address in Chicago on it so she will have a place to stay.
Dreiser tells his reader that when a young girl leaves her home, one of two things can happen. Either the girl will be saved by someone and become "better", or the girl will fall into the "cosmopolitan virtues" (meaning vices) and become worse. Carrie is then described as being a "half-equipped little knight" (2) venturing out into the world.
The man sitting behind her soon leans over and tells her that the town the train just passed through is one of the prettiest resorts in the state. She starts to become interested in him when she sees that he is wearing a business suit and happens to be much better dressed than she is. They start to chat politely until the man asks her where she will be living in Chicago. Carrie decides to tell him, and they end up trading names and addresses. She learns that his name is Charles H. Drouet and he tells her he will visit her on Monday night.
The train arrives in Chicago and Drouet starts to point out the different parts of the city. Once the train stops, they get off together but Carrie refuses to allow him to carry her bags. She meets her sister Minnie at the station, looks back at Drouet one time, and then starts to feel alone in spite of the fact that her sister is now with her.
The first chapter sets up a great deal of the overall plot and theme of the novel. Sister Carrie leaves home, makes her first entrance into the world, and is forced to immediately start growing up. The train ride away from home, such a traditional image of departure, parallels Dreiser's own escape from home when he went to Chicago. Thus he is drawing on personal experience but also making a point about what can happen to someone when they are young.
One of the most famous comments that Dreiser makes is when he states, "When a girl leaves home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse" (1). This remark is almost immediately followed by Carrie's first test, i.e. her encounter with Drouet. Drouet approaches her from behind and talks into her ear. This is analogous to the devil, whispering from behind, but seducing nonetheless. Thus, Dreiser no sooner gets done describing what two paths a woman in Carrie's position can take than he immediately pushes her down the path of vices, or "cosmopolitan virtues".
In having Carrie trade addresses with Drouet, Dreiser takes advantage of the "fallen woman" genre of literature. However, even in this first chapter we can see him transform the traditional fallen woman into a much more powerful figure. Carrie's decision to trade addresses is not brought about because she likes Drouet, but rather because she is impressed by his clothes. Indeed, Sister Carrie is largely a novel about materialism and taking advantage of what is offered. This even emerges in Dreiser's description of Carrie's intellect, where he states that she has a rudimentary mind, but that her self-interest is her guiding characteristic. Carrie will not be a traditional fallen woman because she does not "fall" for passion or emotion. Instead, she "falls" due to her materialism and desire to advance herself.
This creates a paradox in the idealism behind the novel. Carrie is to be lauded for her desire to succeed, but mercilessly slandered for her amoral ways of going about it. Even in the first chapter, the reader is seduced by her innocence and proud of her courage in leaving home. Yet the reader is also aware, at the point that she exchanges addresses, that she is choosing Drouet as a means of succeeding. In many ways the novel can be construed as an attack on the materialism in society that causes a young girl to choose Drouet instead of hard work as a means of advancement. It should not be forgotten that Dreiser later became a communist, and Sister Carrie shows some of the ideological doubts that Dreiser had about American society at the turn of the century.
One of the things to notice is that Dreiser focuses heavily on beginnings and endings, but rarely on the middle sections. Thus Carrie is beginning her new life in Chicago in this chapter, ending her life at home. This focus is complimented by the fact that the past is immediately forgotten, there are no repercussions for what has come before. Thus Carrie will never write home, and she will never want to return there. The focus on beginnings and endings is known as an ellipse, whereby the middle scenes are conspicuously left out.
Carrie arrives at her sister's house where the sister's husband Mr. Hanson chooses to mostly ignore her. She quickly discovers that they expect her to be industrious and to pay them rent. Even her sister is far more concerned with what Carrie can do for them financially instead of being excited to have a member of her family live with her. Carrie realizes that Drouet cannot visit her at the Minnie's house, and so she writes him a letter telling him to wait for her to contact him.
The next morning Carrie gets up around eight in the morning, significantly later than both her sister and Mr. Hanson had gotten up. She goes into the main part of Chicago in the hopes of getting a job, and is able to see the powerful growth that the city is experiencing at that time. Slightly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of commerce going on around her, Carrie is frightened of going into one of the concerns and asking for a job.
There is a great deal of irony at the beginning of this chapter. Mr. Hanson only speaks briefly with Carrie before going to bed earlier than his wife, claiming that he has to get up early the next morning. Carrie learns that Minnie, who stays up with her, actually has to get up even earlier in order to make him breakfast and get him ready to go to work. This rather comical scene happens to be part of a larger, more serious problem. Carrie is unable and unwilling to live the kind of life that Minnie is satisfied with. Thus, Carrie gets up at eight in the morning, much later than her sister. Indeed, Minnie is in one of the rooms already sowing, thereby showing how industrious she is.
This chapter introduces a central theme of Dreiser's novel, namely the theme of hope. Chicago is essentially a society of promise, it is an immigrant town growing so fast that it has outgrown itself. Notice that Dreiser describes the city as growing without limits, spreading so fast that sewers have been built for areas where only one house is currently standing, or street lamps have been installed where nothing yet exists. This world of hope has attracted people like the Hansons, immigrants who represent the immigrant stereotype; they slowly accumulate wealth, they pay for two lots of land in installments, and they are skeptical of people who have made money too quickly.
However, most interesting is the fact that Dreiser quickly discards the Hansons approach to life. They are too dull, too dreary, and they lack the magic and fate that Carrie is searching for. Dreiser is writing a novel about unrestricted economic life, the hotbed of industrial growth. We are presented with the daunting spectacle of Chicago's rapid growth but also of the many workers that Carrie sees through the windows. Thus the chapter ends with Carrie feeling her spirit sink at the "thought of entering any of these mighty concerns" (14).
Carrie wanders around the streets of the commercial district looking for work. She is terrified to go into any of the companies and ask, but she finally gets enough courage and approaches an old man. He tells he that he does not need to hire anyone, but is kind enough to her that she becomes less afraid. Carrie then enters another building only to be harshly turned away.
It takes her a while to regain her confidence, but eventually she enters a clothing company. The manager is nice enough to tell her to look for a job with the department stores. She does, but is turned away when they realize she has no skills. Eventually Carrie wanders into a cap mill where the women are all stitching. The foreman offers her a job and tells her to come back on Monday if she wants it. However, the weekly salary turns out to be only three dollars and fifty cents.
Carrie, emboldened by having received an offer, continues applying for jobs at many different places around the town. However, she is turned away from all of the better looking jobs, either because they do not need anyone, or because she has no experience. Having given up, she starts to head back to Minnie's flat when she sees a shoe factory. Carrie goes in and is directed upstairs where she meets a Mr. Brown who offers her a job for four and a half dollars per week. To tired to protest the low wages, Carrie accepts and happily returns home, thinking about Drouet on the way.
Carrie's search for work provides a fascinating insight into the difficulties of getting started in a new place without any sort of references. She wanders around aimlessly, hoping someone will help her and give her a job. This serves to epitomize the sense of hope that pervades the novel. Yet at the same time that hope is being presented, Dreiser also gives us another image of Chicago, that of the hopeless. When Carrie enters the factories she is stunned by the mediocrity of the working conditions. Her first job offer represents substantially less financial security than she had hoped to find.
One of the greatest achievements of Dreiser was his pay of making stability seem ephemeral. He struggles throughout Sister Carrie to make his reader view "permanent" structures as only temporary. The example of the department store encapsulates this, "The nature of these vast retail combinations, should they ever permanently disappear, will form an interesting chapter in the commercial history of our nation" (17). Dreiser is writing about his time as if from the future, and he has realized the impermanence of what he is seeing being built. This is amazing given that the department store had only just recently come into existence, and here Dreiser is already predicting its demise!
For the overall structure of the novel, this impermanence means that people will rise and others will fall. This is exemplified later by Hurstwood's loss of his ability to generate income, an ability that is transferred to Carrie when she becomes a performer. This lack of a steady-state also gives rise to the has-beens and the will-bes. It is the only sort of environment in which hope can really thrive, and thus provides a very mobile background within which Carrie can advance herself.
Carrie is elated as she returns home having gotten her job. She first tells Minnie who is pleased for her. When Mr. Hanson arrives he is in a dour mood, but after listening to Carrie talk excitedly about her day he too cheers up. Minnie starts to even tell Carrie about the various places in the city, but both she and her husband fall silent when Carrie asks about a nearby theater. They both disapprove of shows that cost money.
Carrie, oblivious to their disapproval, asks her sister Minnie to go to the theater with her that night. Minnie struggles to figure out how to convince Carrie not to go, and finally agrees to ask her husband Sven if he wants to go. He immediately refuses and Carrie, upset by the response, leaves the room. The next day Carrie merely wanders around looking at the wealthier middle class houses in the area.
On Monday she gets up to go to work and heads to the shoe factory. The foreman puts her on an assembly line where she has to set leather so the machine can cut it. Carrie struggles to keep up the pace of her work so as not to slow down the entire line which depends on a constant supply of material. She soon gets tired and stiff from the work, but is relieved when the lunch bell sounds.
Carrie eats her lunch on her workbench, watching the other men and women interact. She realizes that she is not one of their kind, and feels herself to be above them in demeanor. After lunch she is relieved to return to the anonymity of her work, although she is now terrified of the men who keep making passes at her. At the end of the day, several try to accompany her home, but Carrie is frightened of them and rushes away.
The distinction between the Hansons and Carrie is drawn even wider at this point, and the issue that divides them is money. For Carrie, money represents possibilities. Thus in the department store in Chapter Three she contemplates the amount of things she can buy. Minnie and Sven prefer to focus on what money can provide in the future. They disapprove of theater because it uses up money with no possibility of future gain. Indeed, as Dreiser tells the reader more than once, their entire reason for accepting Carrie is because she can pay rent.
Minnie Hanson's disapproval of the theater is interesting at this point in light of the fact that Carrie will later become an actress. It is therefore worthwhile to note the differences between the two women as much as possible. The primary factor that distinguishes Carrie from Minnie happens to be the speed at which she hopes to achieve her goals. Whereas Minnie has accepted the slow-motion build-up of wealth that requires constant saving and long hours of toil, Carrie has not, and nor will she ever. Carrie instead discards this lifestyle as being too boring, it essentially misses out on the rapid growth that Chicago is undertaking by being far too slow. Thus for Carrie, the theater is the Hollywood of her day, the trains are a new and exciting means of travel, and the department store provides unlimited commercial possibilities. Carrie's choice is therefore one of technological advancements over staid, blue-collar work. However, it should not be forgotten that Dreiser has also remarked on the impermanence of the new advancements. He is rejecting the Hanson's way of making money as being too slow, but he is also indicating that it is a safe way as opposed to Carrie who will risk losing her wealth the way Hurstwood does.
The men in the factory present an interesting class group when compared to Drouet. Carrie has really only met three types of men thus far: the smooth, carefully Drouet, the hardworking but suspicious Sven Hanson, and the crass working men in the shoe factory. What is most interesting is that both the crass men and Drouet both "hit" on her, but in entirely different ways. She is clearly seduced by the manner in which Drouet approached her even as she is terrified by her co-workers. In her choice of men, Carrie can be seen choosing one lifestyle over another, the upscale, mobile lifestyle represented by Drouet over the seemingly solid, but boring lifestyle of the working classes.
A common theme in this novel is the use of newspapers to represent people who no longer are able to look forward. Hanson is the first person to read the newspaper, and he will be later followed by Hurstwood at the end of the novel. The newspaper represents old news, things that have already happened. People who rely on the newspaper therefore fall into the category of the has-beens, they are people who no longer look into the future and expect to rise to the top of society. This is more apparent with Hurstwood at the end.
Drouet has received the letter that Carrie wrote him and promptly forgotten about her. He spends his time at a fancy restaurant where many of the famous actors hang out, and goes to Fitzgerald and Moy's for drinks. Drouet has become friends with the manager of Fitzgerald and Moy's, a man named Hurstwood. Hurstwood is described as a dashing man who has worked his way up to his managerial position and whose job consists of primarily standing around and addressing the patrons.
Hurstwood heads over to where Drouet is standing and invites him to sit down and have a drink. Drouet accepts and the men discuss one of Drouet's bosses who is getting old and will likely pass away in the near future. Drouet then gets up to leave in order to go to the theater, but Hurstwood invites him to come back after the show in order to see something. Drouet accepts, and then informs Hurstwood that he met "a little peach" on the train ride back to the city, before walking out the door.
The use of material comforts here is quite fascinating since it powerfully represents the upward drive. Drouet is doing exactly what Carrie hoped to do; he is sharing in the rich lifestyle before he has even become rich. This again fits in with the idea of hope so pervasive in the novel. Drouet is spending time in the fancy places because he hopes to advance himself; note especially how the eldest boss at his firm happens to frequent the same establishment, Fitzgerald and Moy's .
This chapter also gives the reader the first real introduction to the future men in Carrie's life. Drouet does not come off well as regards his feelings for Carrie. Indeed, it is soon clear that he is shallow and insensitive as a character. He uses Carrie's name frivolously, only expressing his desire to show her off as a possession for Hurstwood to marvel at. Hurstwood, on the other hand, is to be marveled at. He is self-made, having worked his way up to a managerial position. He is also wealthy, but not exceedingly so. The dashingness of Hurstwood stands in marked contrast with Drouet.
Carrie returns home from her first day of work and informs the Hansons that she does not like the work. They are disappointed and feel that Carrie should be happy she even has a job. The next morning Carrie again rises early, but this time she walks to work because she has realized that her salary is too low for her to take the street car every day. That night she goes for a walk in order to think about things. A sinister man approaches her and starts to harass her, forcing Carrie to hurry home.
She is forced to pay four dollars in rent each week, leaving her with only fifty cents. Carrie soon learns that the other girls in the factory all have men whom they allow to support them, but she feels herself to far above such things. As winter approaches, however, Carrie needs to buy new clothes and is forced to beg Minnie for a reprieve on the rent. Minnie acquiesces, allowing Carrie to only pay two dollars for a week. This plan falls apart when Carrie falls ill and is unable to work for three days. After she gets better, the Hansons are sure she has lost her job and they make her go in search of new work.
After three days of searching and finding nothing, Carrie is almost at the point of giving up and heading home. On the fourth day she is dejected leaving a restaurant after having been turned down yet again when Drouet finds her. He immediately takes her out to lunch and orders her an expensive meal of sirloin steak. She is happy to join him and excited by his cleanliness and radiance. When she tells Drouet where she has been working, he tells her she can do better than that. After Drouet discovers that Carrie has been looking for a job for four days he offers he money. Seeing her refusal, he instead grabs her hand and tells her buy clothes while he slips greenbacks into her palm. Drouet makes her promise to meet him for a matinee at the theater the next day, and after he leaves she opens her fist and sees two ten dollar bills.
This chapter marks both the downfall and the subsequent rise of Sister Carrie. She not only loses her job, but she is reduced to borrowing money from Minnie and to walking the streets looking for work again. Perhaps the nadir of the novel is when Dreiser writes, "shortly she would have to give up and go home" (46). At this point she is then saved by the arrival of Drouet who happily informs her that he was going to her home to find her. He not only feeds her, but offers her money for new clothes as well as giving her the chance to go to the theater. For Carrie, this is such a large social advancement that she of course is overcome and acquiesces to his every demand.
There are several key themes that pervade this novel, two of which are strongly represented here. One of the major issues is that of clothing. Clothes are first introduced in the first chapter, where Carrie becomes conscious of her shabby dress in relation to Drouet's suit. As winter approaches, she needs winter clothes, and it is her lack of clothing that causes Carrie to fall ill and lose her job. This contrasts strongly with Drouet, who reappears and immediately notices that Carrie needs new clothes. Indeed, she is aware of what he is wearing as well, noticing the sharp creak of his new suit. Clothes thus represent one of the means whereby social status is attained. For Carrie, Drouet's offer to purchase her new clothes is akin to a social advancement.
The second major theme that needs to be focused on at this point is the nature of mobility. Mobility has many meanings, but is always directly correlated with social status. Thus, during Carrie's downward movement we see her go from trains to street cars to walking. At the point where she not only does not have a job, but cannot afford the street cars, Carrie reaches the bottom of the society. "As on the previous morning, Carrie walked down town, for she began to realize now that her four-fifty would not even allow her car fare after she paid her board" (42). This is again starkly contrasted with Drouet. In the restaurant, Carrie thinks about the fact that "he rode on trains" (48), thereby granting him a higher social distinction.
Notice the choice of Drouet to sit near the window with Carrie. This is intentional, it marks the desire to not only see the world but also to be seen. Being in the restaurant is socially beneficial, and thus having others notice raises one's status. However, the window is also a divide, a barrier between the character's world and the real world. Thus the workmen are seen by Carrie working behind the windows of the factories, but she herself is not working. Later, the store goods will be seen behind a window and Carrie will covet them, yet again she does not actually have them. Window thus are a way of having something without really having it, being somewhere without being there, and seeing something without being involved.
Carrie, having received the two ten dollar bills from Drouet, starts to think of all the nice things she can buy with them. Her esteem for Drouet has increased a great deal as a result of his gift, and Dreiser points out that Carrie has natural instincts regarding whether a man is to be trusted or not. While Drouet goes to Fitzgerald and Moy's for a cigar, Carrie heads home with the money.
Her arrival at home causes her to become depressed. She realizes that she cannot spend the money without making Minnie demand to know where she got it from. As a result, she lies to Minnie and tells her that she may have a job at the Boston Store, but that she needs to check back the next morning. Carrie remarks that she will plan on heading home if the job does not work out, and Minnie is quick to agree with that particular sentiment. Carrie realizes at this point that Minnie and Sven Hanson no longer want her around.
The next morning she gets up early and goes in search of a job again. However, Carrie soon ends up in the Fair department store and pretends to pick out a jacket for herself. She resolves instead to return the money to Drouet and goes to meet him. He immediately comments on the fact that she has not purchased anything and take her out to lunch. During the meal he convinces her to let him buy all of her clothes, which he soon does, purchasing a jacket, stockings, shoes, and a purse.
Drouet finally succeeds in convincing Carrie to let him support her in her own apartment. She reluctantly agrees when she realizes she must choose between going home or remaining in the city. She returns to the Hansons and eats a very quiet dinner with them, after which she writes a note to Minnie telling her that she is leaving but will be fine. She leaves the note under Minnie's hair-brush and leaves, telling Minnie that she is going to stand in the doorway again the way she does every night. She meets Drouet at the corner and he takes her away in a car.
The chapter opens with a brilliant observation on the meaning of money. "The true meaning of money yet remains to be popularly explained and comprehended" (51). Dreiser then proceeds to give a very good explanation of money. Central to his observation is that if a character has money, it must be spent. Both Carrie and Drouet fall into this category. Further, those that do not have money need to steal it or beg for it. Thus everyone in the novel depends on money to define who they are and what they can do.
Social status is contingent on money, but is also presented in the novel through two series. For example, Carrie initially rides in a train, then a street car, and finally she is forced to walk. This chain marks the gradual lowering of Carrie's status within the society until she reaches the nadir, a point where she not only has no job but is also forced to walk around the city. Carrie is cognizant of this decline, especially while in the restaurant with Drouet. She not only observes that he can afford to ride in trains, but when he mentions that she will have to return home if she declines his offer, she only notices a wealthy stagecoach passing by on the street. This serves as a visual reminder that only in Chicago can she hope to live that well, and is key to making her accept Drouet's proposal. Her choice immediately raises her, and by the end of the chapter she is already riding in a car.
Clothing forms another series that must be closely observed. When Carrie first meets Drouet, she observes his nice outfit as compared to her shabby dress. This is repeated in the restaurant scene in the previous chapter, where his suit is so new that it can be heard "creaking" (48). The money he gives her is also earmarked for a new jacket and shoes, a sign that Carrie's place in society is going to be determined largely by what she wears. Drouet, keenly attuned to this, purchases her an entire outfit, thereby gaining control over her outward effects in not yet her inner.
Looking in the mirror is often a form of narcissism. This is the case in the store when Carrie looks at herself with the new clothes on. Her sense of wellbeing is enhanced, to the point where she starts to feel "a warm glow" creep into her cheeks. This will again show up in Chapter Eight when she realizes that she is beautiful after looking in a mirror.
The next morning Minnie finds the note the Carrie left her and tells her husband that Carrie has left to live somewhere else. They are incredibly unemotional about it, saying things such as, "Now she has gone and done it" and "What can we do?" (61,62). Minnie finally realizes what must have happened, but all she can say is "Poor Sister Carrie!" (62).
Carrie has a troubled sleep during the night because she realizes that eventually Drouet is going to want to do something with her. Carrie is also worried that she will not have a job, and she tells Drouet when he arrives that she wishes to get something to do. He instead takes her out to see the city, even going with her to see the Mikado one evening after several days of sightseeing.
That night, after Drouet has walked Carrie home, Minnie has a dream that Carrie is descending into a coal mine. Hanson shakes her awake and tells her that she was talking in her sleep. About a week later Drouet goes into Fitzgerald and Moy's and starts talking to Hurstwood. He ends the conversation by inviting Hurstwood to his house, implying that Hurstwood should bring some alcohol with him. The intention is clearly to introduce him to Carrie.
What is quite striking about Carrie's departure is the flatness of with which the Hansons react. It is sadly pathetic to read their words, and the language they use is completely devoid of emotion. This fits in well with Dreiser's overall prose. He has often been accused of being a clumsy writer, but this is due to his writing in things rather than words. The avoidance of language comes through when letters are sent to other characters. Notice how Carrie's first letter to Drouet is difficult for her to construct. Even in the previous chapter, Carrie writes to Minnie:
"Good-bye, Minnie. I'm not going home. I'm going to stay in Chicago a little while and look for work. Don't worry. I'll be all right" (59).
Part of the construction of the novel is the way that Carrie is continuously distracted from becoming sad. After the theater, she sees dead branches that make her nostalgic for home. Drouet suggests she wear her boa, thereby distracting her attention away from home and back to the material possessions he can offer her. Soon thereafter she recognizes one of the girls from the shoe factory, but again her thoughts are quickly turned elsewhere, this time by the fancy coaches. Drouet lures her with the promise of getting her a coach, "You stick to me and we'll have a coach" (64).
A recurring theme is the theater as a release from the world. Dreiser remarks that the theater represents what Carrie longs for. Remember that this is pre-movies, and thus the theater is the highest form of entertainment. It is also going to be Carrie's future career, and thus each visit to the theater offers a unique steppingstone on her path to becoming an actress.
Of symbolic importance is the coal mine, shown in the dream that Minnie has. She sees Carrie falling into the mine, thereby representing Carrie's declining virtue. The mine is representative of hell, black and dark, a place that Carrie will not be able to get out of. However, it also has a second meaning, namely that of industry. Coal is one of the driving forces behind the industrialization, and as such the dream can also be interpreted to mean that Carrie has been seduced by the materialism that such industrialization offers her.