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Introduction

Sister Carrie shocked the public when Doubleday, Page and Company published it in 1900. In fact, it was so controversial, it almost missed being printed at all. Harpers refused the first copy, and the book went to Frank Doubleday. After the Doubleday printers typeset the book one of the partners’ wives read it and so strongly opposed its sexual nature, the publisher produced only a few editions. In addition to the book’s theme of sexual impropriety, the public disliked the fact that Theodore Dreiser presented a side of life that proper Americans did not care to acknowledge. Even worse, Dreiser made no moral judgments on his characters’ actions. He wrote about infidelity and prostitution as natural occurrences in the course of human relationships. Dreiser wrote about his characters with pity, compassion, and a sense of awe.

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Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871. Dreiser’s father, John Paul, fled to America from Germany to avoid the draft. Although the elder Dreiser had mastered weaving in Germany, he found that employers in his new country did not appreciate his skill. He tried to earn a living in Terre Haute while his wife and children moved from place to place looking for other work and more affordable living. Mr. Dreiser and his wife of Moravian descent raised their family on very little money, with the stringent morals and rules of the old country. They communicated with each other in German and followed strict Catholic practices.

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Plot Summary

A Part I

Sister Carrie opens in 1889 with eighteen-year-old Caroline Meeber on her way from her small hometown to the big city of Chicago. She is frightened to leave home, but determined to make her way in the city. An attractive, yet naive young woman, Carrie finds herself in the company of Charles Drouet, a “drummer,” or traveling salesman. Drouet, well dressed and flashy, engages Carrie in a long conversation. When they part at the train station, they agree to meet the following week in Chicago.

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Characters

A Bob Ames

Carrie meets Bob Ames at Mrs. Vance’s. Ames has a high forehead and a rather large nose, but Carrie finds him handsome. She likes even more his boyish nature and nice smile. Mr. and Mrs. Vance and Carrie and Ames have dinner together, and Carrie enjoys Ames’s scholarly manner. He discusses topics that seem of great importance to Carrie, and admits to her that money possesses little value to him. Carrie is intrigued by this unusual person and views her own life as insignificant in comparison.

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Themes

A American Dream

Each of Dreiser’s characters in Sister Carrie search for their own “American Dreams”-the ones offered by a growing and prosperous democratic country. Carrie, a poor country girl, arrives in Chicago, filled with the expectations of acquiring the finer things in life. She imagines the elegant clothes she will wear, the exciting places to which she will go, and the fashionable people with whom she will associate, thinking that everyone who lives beyond the boundaries of her Midwestern state has achieved that higher status. Drouet seeks his own version of the American Dream. He has achieved a certain station in life and wears the clothes to prove it. He frequents the important establishments in town and has befriended many of the right people. Yet, he pursues the other appointments that represent his dream, such as a beautiful woman to adorn his arm and his own home. Hurstwood has the woman, the established home and family, and a good position. He, though, wants more. He knows that his employers leave him out of important decision making, and he knows his friends like him for his position. He seeks love, appreciation, and more prestige.

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Construction

A Point of View

Dreiser uses a third person omniscient point of view to tell the story of his heroine, Carrie. Through this point of view, Dreiser provides readers with insight into not only Carrie’s thoughts but also those of all his characters. One of example of this is found Chapter 27, when Hurstwood discovers a note from Carrie and later steals money from his employer’s safe. Dreiser portrays Hurstwood’s distorted thinking as well as Carrie’s confusion over Hurstwood’s actions.

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Historical Perspective

A Late-Nineteenth-Century Industrialism

The United States experienced a huge growth in manufacturing in the late 1800s that resulted in prosperity for many but virtual poverty for others. As a result of improved technology and an increase in the number of people in the workforce, including experienced businessmen, factories could produce more goods at a faster rate than ever before. In addition, changes in government policy and the availability of resources contributed to the expansion of manufacturing. Factory jobs were plentiful, but the wages were not always sufficient. Many workers enjoyed a better standard of living, while others struggled to make ends meet.

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Questions

Andrew Delbanco notes in his introduction to the 1999 Modern Library Edition of Sister Carrie that “Carrie’s fate … has been set in motion … by her failure to understand … that a woman does not look a strange man steadily in the eye without signaling to him that she is ready to be included in the system of exchange.” Psychologists today would call Carrie’s eye contact a form of nonverbal communication. Research the forms of nonverbal communication psychologists have identified. Give examples of the types of messages psychologists believe people are sending when they use different nonverbal clues. What kind of nonverbal clue could Carrie have sent if she did not want to interact with Drouet?

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Compare and Contrast

Late 1800s: Women’s fashions favor Victorian styles. Dress indicates a woman’s status. Upper- and middle-class women wear constrictive underclothing (corsets), high-heeled shoes, and elaborate, vividly colored dresses made of luxurious fabrics. Early 1900s: As women become more involved in leisure activities, such as sports, and take on new roles in society, such as office workers and students, their fashions evolve to freer, less structured styles. The styles include loose bloomers instead of corsets, less bulky skirts, and shirtwaist blouses. Shoes are flatter and more feminine. Late 1900s: Women become more health conscious and involved in professional careers; they begin to define their own unique styles of fashion. Clothing varies from jeans to pants to short and full-length skirts. Form-fitting clothes that show off a woman’s figure are popular.

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