Hurstwood lives in a fashionable three-story home with his family. Hurstwood's wife, Julia, hopes that her daughter, Jessica, will marry rich and that her son, George Hurstwood, Jr., will prosper even more than Hurstwood has. She is not exactly dissatisfied with Hurstwood's success, but she still longs for something more. Hurstwood's life is his job, and he spends most of his time there.
Hurstwood knows that an indiscreet affair would endanger his comfortable social position. He often goes out with his family in public to keep up appearances and to satisfy Julia. Hurstwood announces that he is going to Philadelphia on business and that he cannot take Julia along as he usually does. His real plan is to go with his male friends and "have a good time" where no one will recognize them. He dismisses the trip as insignificant, but Julia mulls over his failure to invite her.
Drouet informs Carrie that he has invited Hurstwood to spend the evening with them. Drouet says that he has told Hurstwood they are married. Carrie asks why they cannot get married in reality as well, but Drouet puts her off, saying that he needs to wrap up a real estate deal first. Since Carrie does not really love Drouet, she accepts his vague promise without further questions.
Hurstwood's elegant clothing and manners catch Carries attention. She compares him to Drouet and notices small deficiencies in her lover's personality and demeanor. Hurstwood entertains Carrie with a skilled flair, allowing her to win the card game. Although he is aware that Drouet and Carrie are not actually married, he is careful not to endanger the charade.
Carrie takes care to imitate all the graceful motions Drouet notes in other women, and in the process she becomes a girl with "considerable taste." She befriends the wife of a neighbor, Mr. Hale, who is a theater manager. In her conversations with Carrie, Mrs. Hale imparts detailed gossip about the social world of the rich and famous. The music of a skilled piano player who lives across the hall awakens in Carrie a longing for something undefined. One evening Drouet finds Carrie in the dark with tears on her face. When he suggests they waltz to the music, Carrie realizes he cannot sympathize with her feelings.
Hurstwood wonders how Drouet came to win Carrie. He feels a strong attraction for her, and he knows that Drouet, whatever he may say, has no plans to marry her. Hurstwood invites the two of them out to the theater. The atmosphere of the theater enthralls Carrie. Hurstwood is in fine form, entertaining both of them; Drouet seems dull in comparison.
Hurstwood, however, is unaware that his son is at the theater that very same night. At breakfast the next day, his son mentions that he saw him there. Hurstwood replies that he went with Charlie Drouet and his wife, friends of Moy's who are visiting Chicago. Julia understands that Hurstwood's job sometimes requires him to engage in social outings without her. However, he has several times declined to take her out because of work--including the previous night. Julia continues to pester Hurstwood to go on social outings with her, and Hurstwood who in reality finds his wife's company extremely dull, declines because he is "too busy." Julia becomes angry and notes that he has time for other people. Their mutual antagonism grows.
Meanwhile, through Mrs. Hale, Carrie learns "to distinguish between degrees of wealth." She gazes longingly at stately mansions in Chicago, believing that certain happiness must reside therein. Hurstwood visits her while Drouet is away, and she notes that he does not patronize her like Drouet. Hurstwood tells her that he knows she is not happy, and she asks him not to stare at her so intently. He touches her hand, startling her. After agreeing not to talk about their new intimacy, Hurstwood departs in high spirits. Carrie wonders if she has done something wrong.
Hurstwood represents the modern, capitalist man. His identity is largely derived from his role as manager of Fitzgerald and Moy's. His private, married life is subordinated to his public identity, not the other way around; he thinks of an indiscreet affair as a threat to his job, not his home life. Julia and Jessica serve to point out Carrie's naivete. They live a far more comfortable lifestyle than she does, but they are still not satisfied. Once again, we see the driving force behind consumer society: unsatisfied desire. Regardless of how much money one has, there are always more things to buy. While Carrie is unhappy because she cannot afford nice clothing, Julia and Jessica are unhappy because they cannot afford summer vacations in Europe. And while Carrie wants to belong to their social world, Julia and Jessica want to belong to the social world of the people who are even wealthier.
Julia's unhappy marriage illustrates the position of married women. Hurstwood regards his wife largely as one of his possessions, an ornament that he can show off as proof of his success. Because he believes that she is susceptible to flattery, and because he has little faith in her, he knows "something might happen" if he does not keep close watch over her. Although it is not stated directly, it is clear that that "something" that Hurstwood fears is an extramarital affair.
For Julia and George Hurstwood, the marriage contract serves as a different form of the transaction of sex for money. Julia receives a secure, comfortable upper middle class lifestyle in return for agreeing to give her husband the right of exclusive sexual access.
Sister Carrie exposes the hypocrisy of the moral values of the middle class. For instance, Hurstwood does not disapprove of men's extramarital affairs in themselves; he only disapproves if they are carried out indiscreetly. Hurstwood and his friends travel to Philadelphia to engage in forbidden pleasures because no one knows them there. Should any of Hurstwood's friends get caught engaging in such pleasures in Chicago, the system of middle class morals would obligate him to either distance himself or lose respectability. The crime is thus, at least in Hurstwood's eyes and the eyes of his friends, getting caught in the act--not the act itself.
This disjunction between people's behavior and the image they present is supported by a web of lies. Hurstwood lies to his wife, and Drouet lies to Carrie about his intent to marry her; Hurstwood in turn pretends that he does not know that Carrie and Drouet are unmarried. The more each character pretends to play his or her role, the harder it is to determine who or what is really genuine.
Carrie's relation with Mrs. Hale is rife with symbolic meaning. As we have noted, playing various roles is an essential element of social relations. Through Mrs. Hale, Carrie gains an astute education in social relations. It is important to note that Carrie obtains this education through Mrs. Hale's gossip about the theater, a world in which role-playing assumes supreme importance. The theater will be a recurrent symbol for social relations throughout the novel.
Carrie's exposure to Mrs. Hale and Hurstwood provides her with a more sophisticated relationship toward wealth. Before, she had thought of money in terms of extremes: either people have it or they don't. Now, she is able and eager to distinguish between people who have money and people who have more money. Because of her new ability to distinguish between the well-off and the truly wealthy, Hurstwood appeals to her more than Drouet does. Again, it is his clothing that catches her attention: although his manner and his dress are far more subtle than Drouet's, they unquestionably mark him as a wealthy, high status individual. The key difference between Hurstwood and Drouet is in the way they play their roles. While Hurstwood's performance is so good that it appears natural, Drouet fairly shouts that he is playing a role. His manner and dress are so flashy as to be almost obnoxious. Because Hurstwood consumes just as conspicuously, but with a good deal more taste, he enjoys higher social status. In short, Hurstwood looks like the genuine article and Drouet looks like an imitation.
Carrie takes special care to imitate the mannerisms that Drouet compliments in other women, demonstrating the difficulty that Carrie has in establishing an identity of her own. By imitating whatever Drouet desires in a women, she becomes merely a reflection of masculine desire. Moreover, by playing her role so thoroughly, Carrie seems to support the conventional social belief that women are nothing but artifice and performance. Sister Carrie presents women's identity as virtually non-existent: men can be genuine, but women can only try to imitate.