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Sister Carrie

Theodore Dreiser

Chapters 17-21

Chapters 13-16

Chapters 22-25

Summary

Carrie writes Hurstwood to tell him about her part in the play at Drouet's Elk lodge. Later, Drouet drops by Fitzgerald and Moy's and talks to Hurstwood, who mentions that he has heard that Drouet's lodge is putting on a play. Drouet tells him that Carrie is going to take a part in the play. Hurstwood replies that he would like see it, and he offers to get flowers for Carrie after her performance. Drouet thinks Hurstwood is a good-natured man to care so much for Carrie's happiness.

Carrie attends the first rehearsal. Most of the participants are poor actors, and the director harangues them to put some expression into their parts. Carrie suggests that they run through the play once to make sure everyone knows their lines. She impresses the director with her performance. Meanwhile, she and Hurstwood continue to meet periodically in a park.

Hurstwood, who is a member of another Elk lodge, has considerable influence among the Elks. He spreads the word among his own lodge and his friends, and he arranges to have a newspaper advertisement for the show. Partly due to his efforts, the tickets for the performance sell very well, and the show is filled to capacity. Carrie feels at home in theater and loves the entire affair. Hurstwood explains his wife's absence at the show by telling his friends that she is ill.

Despite Carrie's enthusiasm, she and the rest of the cast suffer severe stage fright. The first few scenes are absolutely awful. When Drouet goes backstage to give Carrie encouragement, Hurstwood becomes intensely jealous. Carrie and the rest of the cast improve somewhat in the following acts, and Carrie finishes with a brilliant performance. Her performance revives Drouet's affection and intensifies Hurstwood's desire. At the end of the show, Drouet cannot wait until he and Carrie return home together, and he resolves to marry her as he had promised. Drouet, Carrie, and Hurstwood dine together after the show, and Hurstwood returns home that evening full of jealousy and unrequited desire.

At breakfast the next morning, Julia irritates Hurstwood more than ever by asking when they are going to take their summer vacation. Hurstwood states that he is too busy to go for at least a month. Julia replies that she, Jessica, and George Hurstwood, Jr., will go without him. Hurstwood tells her that they will do no such thing.

Drouet tells Carrie that he will marry her soon, but she jests that he is not serious. Drouet perceives that Carrie is no longer helplessly dependent on him, but has begun to feel her first inklings of independence. When he leaves, Carrie hurries out to meet Hurstwood. Drouet, however, returns to get some bills he had forgotten and discovers that Carrie has gone out. The chambermaid is there cleaning, and he flirts with her. She asks him what has become of Hurstwood; she is surprised because he has not called once since Drouet returned to Chicago. Drouet asks what she means, and she replies that Hurstwood had called a half dozen times while Drouet was gone. He feels the first inklings of suspicion and resolves to confront Carrie.

Carrie meets Hurstwood, and he urges her to leave Drouet. Carrie hesitates. Hurstwood asks why, and she can only say that she does not know. She asks him when they are getting married. Hurstwood is privately shocked at the idea, but he tells her that they can marry anytime she wants. She agrees to leave Saturday on the condition that he marry her. Hurstwood promises, trusting fortune to save him.

Commentary

If we take Carrie to be a symbol of feminine identity, her acute pleasure in taking part in the theater is a metaphor dense with meaning. In the theater, Carrie feels most at home; she seems to find her identity in the very act of role-playing. Here, we again see traces of the theme that conventional social attitudes do not allow a woman to be "genuine" or to have an identity of her own.

Moreover, the role Carrie plays mirrors the conditions of her own life. In the theater, she plays the role of a woman who begins her life in poverty and rises to a higher social status. This is a strong reminder of Drouet's and Hurstwood's roles in elevating her from her initial lack of money and status. By bringing together the fictional play and Carrie's own life, the novel blurs the distinction between role-playing and reality and between imitation and the genuine.

Carrie's opportunity to succeed in the performance of her role in the play comes about through Drouet's urging and support. Her stage fright disappears only after she receives a man's encouragement. Moreover, when she begins to perform her role with skill, Drouet cannot wait to go home alone with her after the play, so he can satisfy his renewed sexual desire for her. Carrie's value increases when she is the object of competition between men: she becomes desirable when she performs her role well, and when her skillful role-playing is on public display--and thus an object of competition among men--she becomes more valuable still.

Carrie's first feelings of power and identity come as a praised performer. Hurstwood and Drouet shower her with gifts, flowers, and dinner after the play. She feels that her worth has risen, and after the play she feels freer to poke fun at Drouet's lies about marrying her. Drouet senses that he no longer has Carrie under control. Carrie's new position of power, however, is not entirely independent: she is able to manipulate Drouet through his increased desire for her, but without his desire she would be powerless.

Julia's threat to go on vacation without Hurstwood angers him. As her husband, Hurstwood feels as though he has the right to make all of the decisions regarding the family's finances and activities. Julia's demands represent a challenge to his masculine power. He views marriage as a contract that gives him the right to control Julia without question. Drouet, in contrast, feels insecure because he does not have the claims of ownership offered by marriage. While he trifles with the chambermaid, he learns that Carrie herself has a budding affair on the side. His reaction reflects the double standard for men and women. He feels no qualms at carrying on with other women while in a relationship with Carrie, but he feels that the financial benefits he confers on Carrie give him the right of exclusive sexual access to her.

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