Sister Carrie

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Sister Carrie
Sister Carrie first edition 1900. The publishers kept the cover intentionally bland in order not to promote what was expected to be a controversial work.[1]
AuthorTheodore Dreiser
CountryUnited States
GenreLiterary realism
Set inChicago, New York City and Montreal, 1889–93
PublisherDoubleday, Page
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback)
LC ClassPS3507 .R55
Followed byJennie Gerhardt 
TextSister Carrie at Wikisource
A kinetoscope film of turn-of-the-century Chicago, the initial setting of Sister Carrie

Sister Carrie (1900) is a novel by Theodore Dreiser about a young country girl who moves to the big city where she starts realizing her own American Dream, first as a mistress to men that she perceives as superior, and later becoming a famous actress. It has been called the "greatest of all American urban novels".[2]

Plot summary[edit]

Late 1889. Dissatisfied with life in her rural Wisconsin home, 18-year-old Caroline "Sister Carrie" Meeber takes the train to Chicago, where her older sister Minnie, and Minnie's husband, Sven Hanson, have agreed to take her in. On the train, Carrie meets Charles Drouet, a traveling salesman, who is attracted to her because of her simple beauty and unspoiled manner. They exchange contact information, but upon discovering the "steady round of toil" and somber atmosphere at her sister's flat, she writes to Drouet and discourages him from calling on her there.

Carrie soon embarks on a quest for work to pay rent to her sister and her husband, and takes a job running a machine in a shoe factory. Before long, however, she is shocked by the coarse manners of both the male and female factory workers, and the physical demands of the job, as well as the squalid factory conditions, begin to take their toll. She also senses Minnie and Sven's disapproval of her interest in Chicago's recreational opportunities, particularly the theater. One day, after an illness that costs her her job, she encounters Drouet on a downtown street. Once again taken by her beauty, and moved by her poverty, he encourages her to dine with him, where, over sirloin and asparagus, he persuades her to leave her sister and move in with him. To press his case, he slips Carrie two ten dollar bills, opening a vista of material possibilities to her. The next day, he rebuffs her feeble attempts to return the money, taking her shopping at a Chicago department store and securing a jacket she covets and some shoes. That night, she writes a good-bye note to Minnie and moves in with Drouet.

Drouet installs her in a much larger apartment, and their relationship intensifies as Minnie dreams about her sister's fall from innocence. She acquires a sophisticated wardrobe and, through his offhand comments about attractive women, sheds her provincial mannerisms, even as she struggles with the moral implications of being a kept woman. By the time Drouet introduces Carrie to George Hurstwood, the manager of Fitzgerald and Moy's – a respectable bar that Drouet describes as a "way-up, swell place" – her material appearance has improved considerably. Hurstwood, unhappy with and distant from his social-climbing wife and children, instantly becomes infatuated with Carrie's youth and beauty, and before long they start an affair, communicating and meeting secretly in the expanding, anonymous city.

One night, Drouet casually agrees to find an actress to play a key role in an amateur theatrical presentation of Augustin Daly's melodrama Under the Gaslight for his local chapter of the Elks. Upon returning home to Carrie, he encourages her to take the part of the heroine. Unknown to Drouet, Carrie long has harbored theatrical ambitions and has a natural aptitude for imitation and expressing pathos. The night of the production – which Hurstwood attends at Drouet's invitation – both men are moved to even greater displays of affection by Carrie's stunning performance.

The next day, the affair is uncovered: Drouet discovers he has been cuckolded, Carrie learns that Hurstwood is married, and Hurstwood's wife Julia learns from acquaintances that Hurstwood has been out driving with another woman and deliberately excluded her from the Elks theatre night. After a night of drinking, and despairing at his wife's financial demands and Carrie's rejection, Hurstwood stumbles upon a large amount of cash in the unlocked safe in Fitzgerald and Moy's offices. In a moment of poor judgment, he succumbs to the temptation to embezzle a large sum of money. Inventing a false pretext of Drouet's sudden illness, he lures Carrie onto a train and escapes with her to Canada. Once they arrive in Montreal, Hurstwood's guilty conscience – and a private eye – induce him to return most of the stolen funds, but he realizes that he cannot return to Chicago. Hurstwood mollifies Carrie by agreeing to marry her, and the couple move to New York City.

In New York, Hurstwood and Carrie rent a flat where they live as George and Carrie Wheeler. Hurstwood buys a minority interest in a saloon and, at first, is able to provide Carrie with a satisfactory – if not lavish – standard of living. The couple grow distant, however, as Hurstwood abandons any pretense of fine manners toward Carrie, and she realizes that Hurstwood no longer is the suave, powerful manager of his Chicago days. Carrie's dissatisfaction only increases when she meets Robert Ames, a bright young scholar from Indiana and her neighbor's cousin, who introduces her to the idea that great art, rather than showy materialism, is worthy of admiration.

After only a few years, the saloon's landlord sells the property and Hurstwood's business partner expresses his intent to terminate the partnership. Too arrogant to accept most of the job opportunities available to him, Hurstwood soon discovers that his savings are running out and urges Carrie to economize, which she finds humiliating and distasteful. As Hurstwood lounges about, overwhelmed by apathy and foolishly gambling away most of his savings, Carrie turns to New York's theaters for employment and becomes a chorus girl. Once again, her aptitude for theatre serves her well, and, as the rapidly aging Hurstwood declines into obscurity, Carrie begins to rise from chorus girl to small speaking roles, and establishes a friendship with another chorus girl, Lola Osborne, who begins to urge Carrie to move in with her. In a final attempt to prove himself useful, Hurstwood becomes a scab, driving a Brooklyn streetcar during a streetcar operator's strike. His ill-fated venture, which lasts only two days, prompts Carrie to leave him; in her farewell note, she encloses twenty dollars.

Hurstwood ultimately joins the homeless of New York, taking odd jobs, falling ill with pneumonia, and finally becoming a beggar. Reduced to standing in line for bread and charity, he commits suicide in a flophouse. Meanwhile, Carrie achieves stardom, but finds that money and fame do not satisfy her longings or bring her happiness and that nothing will.


  • Caroline "Carrie" Meeber, a.k.a. Carrie Wheeler, Carrie Madenda; a young woman from rural Wisconsin; the protagonist.
  • Minnie Hanson, Carrie's dour elder sister who lives in Chicago and puts up Carrie on her arrival.
  • Sven Hanson, Minnie's husband, of Swedish extraction and taciturn temperament.
  • Charles H. Drouet /ˈdr.ɛ/, a buoyant traveling salesman Carrie meets on the train to Chicago.
  • George W. Hurstwood, a.k.a. George Wheeler, a well-to-do, sophisticated man who manages Fitzgerald and Moy's resort.
  • Julia Hurstwood, George's strong-willed, social-climbing wife.
  • Jessica Hurstwood, George and Julia's daughter, who shares her mother's aspirations to social status.
  • George Hurstwood, Jr, George and Julia's son.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Vance, a wealthy merchant and his wife, who live in the same building as Hurstwood and Carrie in New York City.
  • Robert Ames, Mrs. Vance's cousin from Indiana, a handsome young scholar whom Carrie regards as a male ideal.
  • Lola Osborne, a chorus girl Carrie meets during a theatre production in New York, who encourages Carrie to become her roommate.

Publication history and response[edit]

House of Four Pillars, Dreiser's home in Maumee, where the book was written[3]

At the urging of his journalist friend Arthur Henry, Dreiser began writing his manuscript in 1899. He frequently gave up on it but Henry urged him to continue. From the outset, his title was Sister Carrie, though he changed it to The Flesh and the Spirit while writing it; he restored the original name once complete.[4]

Dreiser had difficulty finding a publisher for Sister Carrie. Doubleday & McClure Company accepted the manuscript for publication but it was withdrawn after the publisher's wife declared it too sordid.[5] Dreiser insisted on publication and 1,008 copies were printed on November 8, 1900. The book was not advertised and only 456 copies sold.[6] However, Frank Norris, who was working as a reader at Doubleday, sent a few copies to literary reviewers.[7]

Between 1900 and 1980, all editions of the novel were of a second altered version. Not until 1981 did Dreiser's unaltered version appear when the University of Pennsylvania Press issued a scholarly edition based upon the original manuscript held by the New York Public Library. It is a reconstruction by a team of leading scholars to represent the novel before it was edited by hands other than Dreiser's.[8]

In his Nobel Prize Lecture of 1930, Sinclair Lewis said that "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."[9]

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Sister Carrie 33rd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

In 2013, Black Balloon Publishing released Clementine Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, a new version of Sister Carrie annotated by Tumblr literary critic Clementine the Hedgehog.[10]

Style and genre[edit]

Theodore Dreiser is considered one of America's greatest naturalists, significant because he wrote at the early stages of the naturalist movement. Sister Carrie was a movement away from the emphasis on morals of the Victorian era and focused more on realism and the base instincts of humans.[11]

Sister Carrie went against social and moral norms of the time, as Dreiser presented his characters without judging them. Dreiser fought against censorship of Sister Carrie, brought about because Carrie engaged in affairs and other "illicit sexual relationships" without suffering any consequences. This flouted prevailing norms, that a character who practiced such sinful behavior must be punished in the course of the plot in order to be taught a lesson.[11]

Dreiser has often been critiqued for his writing style. In 1930 Arnold Bennett said, "Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know." Other critics called his style "vulgar", "uneven", "clumsy", "awkward", and "careless". His plotlines were also decried as unimaginative, critics citing his lack of education and claiming that he lacked intellectualism.[12]

However, Alfred Kazin—while criticizing Dreiser's style—pointed out that Dreiser's novels had survived and remained influential works. Michael Lydon, in defense of Dreiser, claims that his patience and powers of observation created accurate depictions of the urban world and the desires and ambitions of the people of the time. Lydon said that Dreiser's intent was to focus on the message of Sister Carrie, not on its writing style.[12]

General reception[edit]

Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie was not widely accepted after it was published, although it was not completely withdrawn by its publishers, as some sources say it was. Neither was it received with the harshness that Dreiser reported. For example, the Toledo Blade reported that the book "is a faithful portraiture of the conditions it represents, showing how the tangle of human life is knotted thread by thread" but that it was "too realistic, too somber to be altogether pleasing".[13] There is also the receipt of sale which Doubleday sent to Dreiser showing that Sister Carrie was not withdrawn from the shelves, reporting that 456 copies of the 1,008 copies printed were sold.[13]

Sister Carrie evoked different responses from the critics, and although the book did not sell well among the general public, it often received positive reviews.[14] Some of the reason for lack of sales came from a conflict between Dreiser and his publishers, who did little to promote the book.[14] Despite this, critics did praise the book, and a large number of them seemed most affected by the character of Hurstwood, such as the critic writing for the New Haven Journal Courier, who proclaimed, "One of the most affecting passages is where Hurstwood falls, ruined, disgraced."[15] Edna Kenton in the Chicago Daily News said in 1900 that Sister Carrie is "well worth reading simply for this account of Hurstwood".[15]

Reviews mentioned the novel's realistic depiction of the human condition. A 1901 review in The Academy said that Sister Carrie was "absolutely free from the slightest trace of sentimentality or pettiness, and dominated everywhere by a serious and strenuous desire for truth."[15] The London Express claimed that realism made the book appealing: "It is a cruel, merciless story, intensely clever in its realism, and one that will remain impressed in the memory of the reader for many a long day."[15] The novel has also been praised for its accurate depiction of the protests in New York and the city life in Chicago.[15]

Negative response to the novel came largely from the book's sexual content, which made Sister Carrie, in the words of the Omaha Daily Bee in 1900, "not a book to be put into the hands of every reader indiscriminately."[15] Another review in Life criticized Carrie's success, and warned "Such girls, however, as imagine that they can follow in her footsteps will probably end their days on the Island or in the gutter."[15] The book was also criticized for never mentioning the name of God.[15]

Several critics complained the title made the book sound as if the main character is a nun.[15] The title of the book was considered by The Newark Sunday News to be the "weakest thing about the book" because it "does not bear the faintest relation to the story."[15] Similarly, Frederic Taber Cooper in The Bookman declared it to be a "colourless and misleading title". Other common complaints were about the length of the book and that it is so depressing that it is unpleasant to read.[15]

While some viewed his work as grammatically and syntactically inaccurate, others found his detailed storytelling intriguing.[16] An avid supporter and friend, H. L. Mencken referred to Dreiser as "a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage".[11] Mencken believed that Dreiser's raw, honest portrayal of Carrie's life should be seen as a courageous attempt to give the reader a realistic view of the life of women in the nineteenth century.[17]

In opposition, one critic, Karl F. Zender, argued that Dreiser's stress on circumstance over character was "adequate neither to the artistic power nor to the culture implications of Sister Carrie".[17] Many found Dreiser's work attractive due to his lenient "moralistic judgments" and the "spacious compassion" in which he viewed his character's actions.[16] This toleration of immorality was an entirely new idea for the readers of Dreiser's era. In fact, the novel and its modern ideas of morality helped to produce a movement in which the literary generation of its time was found "detaching itself from its predecessor".[18] Yet there still remained some who disapproved of Dreiser's immoral, atypical story line. David E. E. Sloan argued that Dreiser's novel undermined the general consensus that hard work and virtue bring success in life.[19]

Though Dreiser has been criticized for his writing style and lack of formal education, Sister Carrie remains an influential example of naturalism and realism. While it initially did not sell well (fewer than 500 copies) and encountered censorship, it is now considered one of the great American urban novels, which explores the gritty details of human nature, as well as how the process of industrialization affected the American people.[11]

On screen and stage[edit]

Sister Carrie by R. Pauls; 1979 LP

Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones starred in the 1952 film version, Carrie, directed by William Wyler.

The musical Sister Carrie (Māsa Kerija) by Raimonds Pauls (music) and Jānis Peters [lv] (lyrics) first performed in Riga State Operetta Theatre in 1978 with Mirdza Zīvere as Carrie.[20]

The Florentine Opera Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, produced the world premiere of Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein's operatic adaptation of the book in October 2016.


  1. ^ *Theodore Dreiser. Sister Carrie: Unexpurgated Edition. New York Public Library Collector's Edition. 1997 Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-48724-X – see "Introduction"
  2. ^ Donald L. Miller, City of the Century, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996) p. 263.
  3. ^ Marker #2-48 House of Four Pillars, Ohio Historical Society, 2007. Accessed 2013-03-26.
  4. ^ Madison, Charles A. Irving to Irving: Author-Publisher Relations 1800–1974. New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1974: 95. ISBN 0-8352-0772-2.
  5. ^ Books of the Century, Random House, 1998 New York Times Co., p. 6 ISBN 0-8129-2965-9
  6. ^ Madison, Charles A. Irving to Irving: Author-Publisher Relations 1800–1974. New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1974: 97. ISBN 0-8352-0772-2.
  7. ^ Theodore Dreiser in Breaking Into Print, ed. Elmer Adler, 2007, pp. 69–71
  8. ^ University of Pennsylvania Library
  9. ^ Nobel Prize for Literature
  10. ^ Clementine Classics
  11. ^ a b c d "Theodore Dreiser." Bookmarks Jan. – Feb. 2011: 13+. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. April 12, 2011.[full citation needed]
  12. ^ a b Lydon, Michael. "Justice to Theodore Dreiser: on the greatness of a writer whom critics have long treated with either scorn or condescension." The Atlantic, August 1993: 98+. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. April 12, 2011.
  13. ^ a b Salzman, Jack. "The Critical Recognition of Sister Carrie 1900–1907." Journal of American Studies. Vol. 3, No. 1 (1969). 123–133. Web.
  14. ^ a b West, James L. W. III, John C. Berkey, and Alice M. Winters. Historical Commentary. Sister Carrie: Manuscript to Print. By Theodore Dreiser. 1981. The Pennsylvania edition. PA: The University of Pennsylvania P, 1981. 503–541. Print.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Salzman, Jack. Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception. New York: Davis Lewis, Inc. 1972. Print.
  16. ^ a b Rovit, Earl. "Theodore Dreiser: Overview." Reference Guide to American Literature. Ed. Jim Kamp. 3rd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. April 13, 2011.
  17. ^ a b Henningfeld, Diane Andrews. "Overview of 'Sister Carrie'." Novels for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski and Deborah A. Stanley. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. April 12, 2011.
  18. ^ Sherman, Stuart P. "The Barbaric Naturalism of Theodore Dreiser." On Contemporary Literature. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1917. 85–101. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. April 12, 2011.
  19. ^ Rozga, Margaret. "Sisters in a Quest—Sister Carrie and A Thousand Acres: The Search for Identity in Gendered Territory." Midwestern Miscellany 22 (1994): 18–29. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 144. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. April 13, 2011.
  20. ^ Māsa Kerija / Сестра Керри (1979, Raimonds Pauls) (Russian)



  • Theodore Dreiser, Neda Westlake (ed.). Sister Carrie. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. A reconstruction by leading scholars to represent the novel before it was edited by hands other than Dreiser's. Including annotations and scholarly apparatus. Also available online, see External links below.
  • Theodore Dreiser. Sister Carrie: Unexpurgated Edition. New York Public Library Collector's Edition. 1997 Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-48724-X – text based on the 1981 University of Pennsylvania Press edition.
  • Theodore Dreiser, Donald Pizer (ed.). Sister Carrie. Norton Critical Edition, 1970. Authoritative edition of the censored version plus a lot of source and critical material.


  • Miriam Gogol, ed. Theodore Dreiser: Beyond Naturalism. New York University Press, 1995. The first major collection of scholarly articles on Dreiser to appear since 1971.
  • Donald Pizer, ed. New Essays on Sister Carrie. Cambridge University Press, 1991. A recent collection of articles about Sister Carrie.
  • James West. A Sister Carrie Portfolio. University Press of Virginia, 1985. A companion volume to the 1981 Pennsylvania edition. A pictorial history of Sister Carrie from 1900–1981.

External links[edit]


  • Sister Carrie, restored text, 1981 Pennsylvania Edition. A reconstruction by leading scholars to represent the novel before it was edited by hands other than Dreiser's. Online edition, for print edition see "Sources" in "Bibliography" above.