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Sister Carrie

Theodore Dreiser

Chapters 5-8

Chapters 1-4

Chapters 9-12

Summary

After receiving Carrie's letter, Drouet puts thoughts of her aside. He goes to Fitzgerald and Moy's, an upscale saloon frequented by the Chicago's upper class, to pass the evening. Drouet is on friendly terms with George Hurstwood, the manager of the saloon, who rubs elbows with the important businessmen, politicians, and actors of Chicago. Drouet and Hurstwood chat about Drouet's employers and his latest trip. Drouet mentions that he "struck a little peach"--that is, met Carrie--"coming in on the train Friday."

Back at the apartment, Carrie irritates Hanson by informing him and Minnie that she hates her job. Carrie is disappointed that they offer no sympathy. Her board costs four dollars a week, and she has already seen enough to know that living with them will be gloomy and plodding. After dinner, she goes outside to stand on the stoop. This displeases Hanson, and he tells Minnie that her behavior looks bad. Carrie comes to realize that, after deducting the cost of living with Minnie and Hanson from her wage, she will not even be able to afford car fare.

Carrie's second day at work is just as bad as the first. She thinks the other women are too common in their dress and their use of slang. Moreover, she dislikes the fact that they act so freely with the men in the factory. It bothers her that the men think that she is just like the other women; men on the street seem to be just as free with her. During the weekend, Minnie and Hanson take her to Garfield park, but Carrie is unhappy because she does not "look well enough." On Monday, she listens to the other women talk about their happy weekends with young men who took them out on the town. Carrie despairs at ever having enough money to have the things she wants.

Winter arrives, and Carrie needs warmer clothing. Minnie allows her to keep some of her earnings for a hat. Carrie becomes too ill to work, so she loses her job. Hanson suggests that she go back home. During the fourth day of her unsuccessful search for another job, Carrie encounters Drouet on the street. He takes her to lunch. The high prices at the restaurant dismay Carrie, but Drouet orders a large meal for both of them. He learns that she has been ill and that she has been trying for several days to find another job. She states that she will probably have to leave Chicago and return home. She reluctantly accepts twenty dollars from Drouet to tide her over. He tells her to buy some new clothes and meet him for a matinee show the next day.

Walking home, Carrie realizes she cannot buy clothing because she will have to explain to Minnie and Hanson where she got the money to pay for it. She resolves to return the money to Drouet. However, when they meet the next day he takes her to buy the clothing despite her protests. He also offers to rent a room for her so she can leave Minnie and Hanson's flat. She returns to the apartment and leaves a note for Minnie stating that she is going to live elsewhere in the city. Afterward, she leaves to meet Drouet under the pretense of going downstairs to stand on the stoop as usual.

Carrie wonders anxiously whether she will be able to get a job. For several days, Drouet takes her out sight-seeing, to the theater, and out to eat. Her misgivings about leaving Minnie and Hanson are swept away. Minnie has a troubled dream that Carrie is slipping away from her toward some unknown danger. Drouet invites Hurstwood to his home one evening for a game of cards, wanting to introduce Hurstwood to Carrie because she has moved in with him.

Commentary

As a traveling salesman, Drouet is a symbol of the changing economic structure. He represents the mobility of the new worker. He also represents the commodification of the human being. He sells his goods with himself; it is his charming personality that makes his goods seem attractive to the consumer. Drouet is also an extremely conspicuous consumer, and he tries to appear wealthier than he really is by frequenting the restaurants and saloons favored by the rich. Here, the importance of image again comes into play: Drouet wishes to present his wealth as something greater than it really is.

Carrie quickly learns that men treat her as a commodity as well. As a young, single wage-earner, she is not respectable; since she already sells herself to her employer, many men fail to see why she should not be available to them for other purposes. Her status as a wage-earner marks her as available, illustrating that the position of poor, unmarried, female workers in the new world of consumerism is tenuous at best.

Despite her fascination with consumption, Carrie's concept of wealth is undeveloped. For her, there are "have's" and "have-not's," and nothing in-between. Hurstwood, long associated with the wealthy, is keenly attuned to the various degrees of wealth. He belongs to the upper middle class, not to the luxuriously wealthy, and his relationship with other people is governed by his relative wealth in comparison to theirs: people who have more money get more respect. As the manager of Fitzgerald and Moy's, a place where the wealthy citizens of Chicago go to show themselves in all their material glory, he has placed himself at a sort of nexus of conspicuous consumption.

The moment Carrie no longer represents an opportunity for profit, Minnie and Hanson want her to leave their flat. Carrie resents the fact that they benefit from her labor while she herself cannot. However, she is unwilling to leave Chicago and go home; to do so would would be to leave behind the consumer world she is so eager to join.

Carrie's impoverished situation incites genuine pity, but Drouet's offer of money is tinged with something other than simple compassion. Handing her the money gives him the opportunity to touch her hand, the first step in establishing physical intimacy with her. In essence, he is buying the opportunity for sex. The lunch and the loan are only the first step in getting it. Once he presses the twenty dollars into her hand, Carrie feels bound to him by a "strange tie of affection." Again, relations between individual people, especially between men and women, are shown to be governed by the consumer mentality. With his money, Drouet has purchased the right to initiate physical intimacy with Carrie.

In this instance, and at other points in the novel, an exact dollar amount is named. Regardless of whether she is at work, out shopping, at home or on the street, Carrie lives in a world of prices. Her labor costs exactly four dollars and fifty cents per week; board costs four dollars per week; car fare costs sixty cents per week; a cheap lunch costs ten cents; and so on. By taking Drouet's money, Carrie implicitly sets her cost to him at exactly twenty dollars. Carrie's desire to hide her new living arrangements from Minnie and Hanson show that she is at least partly aware that she is selling herself.

Drouet's follow-up installments seal the contract. He buys clothing for Carrie and takes her out for entertainment. In return, she moves in with him and becomes his mistress. Stripped of all the trappings, the relationship between Drouet and Carrie is one of prostitution. Note also that Carrie is paid far more for her body than she is for her labor; in this world, a woman's most marketable product is sex.

Carrie serves as a symbol of the social values of the burgeoning American consumer culture. To her, money represents raw power; one almost gets the sense that she would be happy to be stranded on a desert island if only she had a large bundle of money. She has not yet learned the lesson that money alone is worth nothing. Only in relation to consumer goods does it represent anything of value.

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