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Sister Carrie

Theodore Dreiser

Chapters 43-47

Chapters 36-42

Questions for Study

Summary

Carrie becomes completely absorbed in the life of the theater. She longs to be a renowned actress. One newspaper runs a small notice announcing that she has taken a speaking part. It is the first time her name is published in a paper. Her new wage of $35 per week gives her ample spending money. New clothes, trinkets, and decorations accumulate in her room. Soon her picture is published in the paper.

When summer arrives, Carrie gets a silent part as a Quakeress. Carrie's photo is published with the announcements advertising the show in the papers. The manager instructs Carrie to frown and scowl throughout the play.

During the first performance, the audience does not notice Carrie during the first act. However, during the second act, they take notice. They find her scowl funny, and Carrie becomes an instant hit as well as the chief feature of the play. The reviews of the show make recurrent references to Carrie's name, and many critics praise her performance. Carrie receives a raise. She now earns $150 per week. Hurstwood reads of Carrie's success while staying in a dingy hotel.

A crowd of ardent male admirers sends Carrie gifts, flowers, and letters. A representative of a lavish hotel asks her to take a suite there for $3 per week because her presence there will draw business. Carrie accepts the offer and takes Lola with her. Mrs. Vance, having discovered Carrie's success from the papers, calls on Carrie at her new home. They make an appointment for dinner. Despite her sudden fame and wealth, Carrie feels lonely.

Hurstwood's small store of cash dwindles as he pays for lodging in the cheapest hotels. He follows Carrie's rising success closely, reading the newspaper reviews that praise her performance. For some weeks, he works at menial tasks in a hotel. His weary attitude and taciturn nature displease his co-workers, so they make work unpleasant for him. He catches pneumonia and spends three weeks in a hospital. He begins to beg for money.

There is a homeless man in New York known as "the captain." Every evening, other homeless men gather around him. At the appointed time, the captain calls out to passing pedestrians, asking them to give money to rent beds for each of the men. Hurstwood seeks out the captain's peculiar charity and manages to sleep indoors for a night.

Drouet, having read of Carrie's success in the papers, pays her a visit, hoping to take up where they left off. He informs Carrie of Hurstwood's theft the night he fled Chicago. Pity and sorrow for Hurstwood overwhelm her. She brushes Drouet off after dinner. Soon after, Hurstwood catches her on the street and asks for money. Filled with pity, she asks him what has happened to him and hands him nine dollars. Insulted by her pity, Hurstwood gives her vague answers and shuffles off.

Ames returns to New York. He tells Carrie that she should act in dramas rather than comedies. Carrie feels as if she has failed his expectations. They bond over music and her former fascination with him is revived. Hurstwood begins making regular rounds to various charities in order to survive. Drouet continues chasing after women, as always. Jessica marries a wealthy man, much to Julia's satisfaction. Hurstwood commits suicide by leaving the gas on in a cheap hotel room. Carrie's success grows, but she continues to suffer from an unsatisfied desire for something even she cannot name. Drouet gives up on trying to meet with her, and she never learns of Hurstwood's death.

Commentary

Carrie assumes her old stage name when she first starts working as a chorus girl. The publication of her name and her photo in the newspaper signals the success of her new identity. Note, though, that her break-through role is a silent part; she is a success not because of what she says but because of the way she looks. Her pretty, scowling face incites the desire of the men in the audience; her sex appeal sells tickets, and her pay is raised accordingly.

Carrie's success as an actress gives her an extremely marketable form of publicity. By offering Carrie a discounted weekly rate, the representative of the hotel is investing in a particular kind of advertisement. The hotel is banking on Carrie's consumer desires influencing the consumer desires of others.

Mrs. Vance deigns to re-assume her acquaintance with Carrie only after she becomes a high paid, famous actress. Carrie senses that she is now in the position of greater power; it is Mrs. Vance who seeks her company rather than the reverse. Whereas Mrs. Vance had avoided Carrie while she lived with Hurstwood for fear of being seen with members of the lower class, she now stands to gain status through her association with Carrie.

While Hurstwood is reduced to the position of having to worry about sums less than a quarter, Carrie enjoys a larger income than ever before. Despite hardly knowing what to do with all of her money, however, she still suffers from unsatisfied desires. She is aware that she is not a member of the luxuriously rich, even though extremely wealthy men offer her enormous fortunes in return for her love. Whereas she once sold herself to Drouet for twenty dollars, she now receives love letters from men worth a million. Unfortunately, she no longer takes as much pleasure in being desired by important, wealthy men as she once did.

Ames tells Carrie that she should act in dramas because her face seems to naturally express unsatisfied longing. His praise pleases Carrie because it is "keen and analytical." His comments are the only moment in Sister Carrie when a man remarks on her individual features. Her other male admirers see her not as an individual, but as a symbol and as a commodity. Her sudden fame and fortune have alienated her from herself. Although she has now gained an identity that is independent of Hurstwood's and Drouet's desire for her, she is still dependent on the desire of the public. She gains success by playing a role, but her success requires her to play another role: that of Carrie Madenda, the famous actress. Ames realizes that Carrie does not really have control over her own public identity, so he encourages her to take an active role in forming her public identity by deviating from her role as a comic actress.

Carrie's fame brings her a strange, impersonal isolation. Her theatrical success does not bring her any greater access to love, friendship, or satisfaction than she had had as a lonely housewife. She symbolizes the impersonalization of the rich and famous. The captain, in contrast, symbolizes the impersonalized, dehumanized situation of the desperately poor. The captain at first seems to represent the presence of human kindness in the midst of an impersonal metropolis, but it is important to note that his form of charity involves creating an entertaining spectacle of the misery of his fellow homeless men.

Pedestrians who would having ignored each of the individual beggars in the captain's crowd donate money to the captain's cause because he offers them an interesting performance. His act is eerily similar to an auction; in a way, he is auctioning off the misery of each individual beggar to the interested spectators. As one of these beggars, Hurstwood takes part in a spectacle in return for payment. Like Carrie, he is playing a role--but his "wage" is far lower.

Carrie's interest in Ames's opinion indicates her desire to gain artistic integrity; perhaps she wants to leave behind the cheap imitations of her shallow comedic roles and find a means to express genuine skill. However, in line with Ames's comment on her expression of unsatisfied longing, she remains unfulfilled at the end of the novel. She suffers from the chronic dissatisfaction that is the driving force behind consumerism; an economy based on consumption simply cannot function unless there is always something more to want. The meaning of Carrie's dissatisfaction at the end of the novel is not, however, entirely clear. It may represent her desire to be free of the constraints placed upon her by conventional social expectations. In the end, it is difficult to tell; not even Carrie herself knows what she wants.

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