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.
After Drouet leaves, Carrie, feeling alone and bereft in this big city, waits for her sister Minnie to meet her at the station. Carrie will stay with Minnie and her husband Sven Hanson, who live in a small, meagerly furnished apartment. They expect Carrie’s wages to help them make their rent payments. Carrie sits in their rocking chair sorting out her thoughts-a position of repose she will often repeat throughout the novel. Realizing how small the apartment is, Carrie then writes to Drouet telling him she cannot see him because there is no room for visitors.
Carrie finally finds a job but the wages are low and when she wants to go to the theater or enjoy life in the city, her sister disapproves. Carrie’s job on the assembly line is dreadful and nearly all her wages go to her sister at the end of each week. Without enough money to buy warm clothes, when the cold weather comes she turns ill and loses her job. When Carrie recovers from her illness she searches for a new job, but without much success. By accident, she bumps into Drouet on the street who gives her twenty dollars for new clothes and when she decides to leave her sister’s home, Drouet establishes her in a furnished room of her own in another part of the city. After several days of sightseeing and shopping, Carrie and Drouet begin living together.
Drouet invites his friend George Hurstwood, the manager of a prosperous saloon, to visit their home. The visit goes well for Hurstwood, who is unhappy with his home life, and Carrie. They seem attracted to each other and Drouet suffers by comparison with the older man. Carrie continues to interest Hurstwood and he decides to pursue her when he sees Drouet out with another woman. When he turns his full attention to courting Carrie he ignores his own wife and family.
Meanwhile, Drouet promises his lodge brothers that he will find an actress for their upcoming stage show. He convinces Carrie to take the part. Although the other actors are not good, Carrie herself rises to the occasion and turns in an excellent performance. This renews both Drouet’s and Hurstwood’s interest in her and Carrie agrees to leave Drouet if Hurstwood will marry her and he agrees.
Hurstwood’s wife, aware of the affair with Carrie, hounds him for money and begins divorce proceedings. At the time the novel is set, a man exposed as an adulterer would not only lose his marriage, he would also lose his job and social standing in the community. As Hurstwood ponders what his next step should be, he discovers a large sum of money in the saloon’s safe and steals it. He then goes to Carrie telling her that Drouet has been injured and persuades her to board a train that will supposedly take her to Drouet. However, once on board, Hurstwood reveals his true purpose.
B Part II
Carrie and Hurstwood marry illegally under the assumed name of Wheeler and move to New York City. Carrie soon comes to realize that she does not love Hurstwood, and has used him to escape her life in Chicago. Nonetheless, she stays and keeps house for Hurstwood who buys an interest in a New York saloon. As the years pass, their routine becomes predictable and monotonous, and Carrie grows increasingly discontented with her shabby clothes and frugal lifestyle.
Mrs. Vance, an elegant and wealthy woman who befriends Carrie, begins to take her to the theater and helps her pick out new clothes. Carrie then meets Mrs. Vance’s cousin, Bob Ames, who convinces her that wealth is not necessarily the means to all happiness. Carrie comes to see Ames as the ideal man.
Meanwhile, Hurstwood grows older and more depressed. He loses the lease on his business and spends his days in hotel lobbies, watching the rich and famous pass by him. This, and reading the morning and afternoon papers, comprise his entire routine. When money grows increasingly scarce the couple move into a cheaper apartment and Hurstwood gambles away the last of their cash.
Carrie then decides to find a job in the theater. Under the name Carrie Madenda, she takes a job in a chorus line at the Casino theater and is soon promoted and earning good money. Preferring to spend her time with theater friends Carrie increasingly stays away from the apartment and Hurstwood.
Hurstwood eventually finds work as a scab, working on a Brooklyn trolley line where workers are striking. Although he is not seriously wounded, he is shot and beaten but the experience causes him to sink ever deeper into depression. On the other hand, Carrie wins a speaking part in her show and earns more money. She is tired of supporting Hurstwood, and leaves him.
Carrie’s career continues to grow. She moves into a new hotel with her friend Lola Osborne and lives the life she has always dreamed yet still finds herself unhappy. Meanwhile, Hurstwood continues to sink. He works in a hotel as an errand boy where he catches pneumonia and takes many months in the hospital to recover.
Around this time, Drouet appears, hoping to win Carrie back but sees that she has changed and they are no longer on the same level. Following Drouet’s appearance, Hurstwood approaches Carrie after a performance asking for money. She gives him all that she has with her. Finally, when Ames comes to New York, telling her she ought to consider other roles, she becomes troubled. Carrie takes to her rocker, where she rocks and tries to sort through her life.
In the final chapter, Dreiser briefly revisits his characters. Hurstwood is now a homeless, itinerant man whose mind has gone. Carrie can be seen reading a serious novel-one that Ames recommends. And Drouet is in the lobby of a grand hotel. Dreiser also describes the Hurstwood family on their way to a vacation in Italy and then returns to Hurstwood himself and the final scene where he commits suicide in a Bowery flophouse by turning on the gas jet and going to sleep.