In 1889, eighteen-year-old Caroline Meeber boards a train headed for Chicago, leaving behind her small home town of Columbia City. She carries only four dollars, a few paltry belongings, and her sister's address in Chicago.
As the train pulls out of Waukesha, Wisconsin, she becomes aware that a man is observing her. Despite her reserve, she strikes up a conversation with him. The man's name is Charlie Drouet, a traveling salesman, and his flashy clothing and talkative ways make a positive impression on Carrie.
In the course of their conversation, Drouet guesses that she has never been to Chicago; he also learns that she is planning to stay with her sister. He offers to show her around the city. After some hesitation, she gives him her sister's address, and he gives her his card. They make a date for the following Monday. Drouet offers to carry her bags for her, but Carrie decides that she should be alone when she meets her sister. Drouet cheerfully acquiesces to her demands, offering to wait at a distance until he sees her meet her sister. Carrie agrees, surprised and grateful that someone would be so considerate of her safety. When the train arrives in Chicago, Carrie's sister Minnie is waiting for her at the station.
Minnie introduces Carrie to her taciturn husband, Hanson, when they reach her apartment. Hanson is mostly indifferent to Carrie's presence, but he remarks that she should find work easily in Chicago. Carrie studies the apartment and quickly determines that Minnie, Hanson, and their infant son live a narrow, lean existence. Hanson goes to bed early because he has to wake up for work before five in the morning. Carrie decides that it would be inappropriate for Drouet to visit her at the apartment, so she writes him a letter, instructing him to wait until he hears from her again.
The next day, Carrie walks to the wholesale district to look for work. Shy and fearful, she cannot bring herself to ask for a job at most of the places she passes. After a while, she works up the courage to inquire at a few stores. The owners are alternately kind and cold, but none of them offer her a job. One man suggests that she try to get a job as a shop girl in one of the department stores, but Carrie discovers that the stores are only looking for people with experience. Carrie feels ashamed when she compares her worn clothing to the sharp, neat apparel of the other applicants. Walking through the department store, she longs to buy the clothing and trinkets on display. Eventually, she finds a job in a shoe factory, where she earns four and a half dollars a week.
Hanson and Minnie are pleased that Carrie has found work so quickly, but Hanson interrupts Carrie's wild dreams of the buying power of her wage when he asks if she will have to spend any on car fare. They suggest a tour of the city over the weekend, and Carrie immediately recognizes their emphasis on free amusements. Carrie is eager to go to the theater, but she senses disapproval from Minnie and Hanson when she mentions the idea. They expect her to pay for the food she eats at their apartment, and her notions of spending money on entertainment run counter to their plans to profit from her stay in Chicago. Carrie goes downstairs to sit on the stoop.
On the following Monday, Carrie reports to her job, where she is made to sit at a stool and punch holes in pieces of show leather. She finds the work difficult and unpleasant, and her back and shoulders quickly begin to ache. Moreover, she dislikes the crude banter between the other men and women who work there, and she finds their drab clothing distasteful. At the end of the day, she hurries away from a young man who tries to make conversation.
Sister Carrie has been called the quintessential modern American novel. Through its characters and their story, it illustrates the effects of the changing economic structure on American culture. Carrie Meeber is one of thousands of wage seekers converging on Chicago during the economic boom that followed the Civil War. The novel introduces her in an unconventional manner for literature at the time: she arrives on the scene without a history. Except for a few sparse details, and a catalog of her belongings as she boards the train for Chicago, we know almost nothing about her.
One of the biggest changes that capitalism brought to American culture was an overwhelming emphasis on "conspicuous consumption," or the purchasing of goods and services in such a way that one's buying power becomes immediately evident. Dreiser carefully catalogues in specific detail everything Carrie owns: a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a yellow leather snap purse, and four dollars. Because Carrie cannot afford a real alligator skin satchel, but still wants the status that conspicuous consumption would give her, she owns the cheap imitation. In effect, conspicuous consumption of genuine luxuries produced a market for cheaper imitations.
Because we know so little about Carrie's identity, our first impression of her is formed not by her actions or her opinions but by her belongings. Dreiser's description of her ends with the exact amount of money she holds. This emphasis on money will be a primary theme throughout the rest of the novel.
In addition to representing consumerism, Carrie also serves as a symbol of the American middle class. Carrie is "ambitious to gain in material things." Her personality reflects the material desires of the growing American middle class. She wants to accumulate material possessions because she knows that it is the surest route to high status.
In 1889 the United States economy was expanding rapidly. Because large cities were centers of intense economic activity, people looking for work converged on them. The need for labor was so great that not only men, but also large numbers of young, unmarried women entered the work force. However, although single women were now freer to move around, they were still subject to the conventional rules that governed their relationships with men.
When Carrie notices Drouet's interest in her, she wavers between pleasure and reserve. Although she is no longer under the constant surveillance of her parents, her social conditioning still restrains her. She hesitates to give Drouet her address in Chicago, and she does not want Minnie to see her with Drouet at the station. Although she seems to want to pursue a relationship with Drouet, she feels compelled to hide her desire because such a relationship would be "improper" according to conventional values. Carrie's attraction for him lies largely in his buying power. His expensive, flashy clothing and adornments promise her the pleasures of material wealth. This is the first of many instances in Sister Carrie in which we see a consumer's mentality govern characters' interpersonal relationships.
Carrie's job search demonstrates the dehumanizing side of capitalist values. Employers eye her as they would any other sort of commodity, deciding whether or not she is worth her cost.
Carrie's visit to the department store shows her fascination with conspicuous consumption. All of the trinkets and fancy clothing seem to call out to her, even though she cannot afford any of them; thus a capitalist economy manipulates the desire of the consumer without ever completely satisfying it. The unsatisfied desire drives the consumer to continue buying more material goods, and the desire to buy drives the consumer to work long hours at unpleasant jobs. Carrie's dreams of satisfying her desire for material things are abruptly disappointed when she realizes that she only has fifty cents of her weekly wage at her disposal. Most of her time is spent in thinking about the things she cannot afford to buy, such as clothing and car fare. The greatest irony of her situation is that she cannot even afford to buy the shoes she produces at her job. The constant frustration of her consumer desires makes her miserable.
Sister Carrie also shows how money and earning power can come to govern the relationship between family members. Minnie and Hanson do not invite Carrie to live with them out of desire for the presence of a close family member; rather, they hope to profit from her labor by charging her for board. Here, Carrie becomes a customer, not a person. Hanson and Minnie's commodification of Carrie is, however, somewhat pathetic; they are not gaining enough money from her stay to make much of a difference in their bare-bones existence, and their frugal lifestyle marks them as members of the crowd of people who are too poor to be serious consumers.