Sister Carrie tells the story of two characters: Carrie Meeber, an ordinary girl who rises from a low-paid wage earner to a high-paid actress, and George Hurstwood, a member of the upper middle class who falls from his comfortable lifestyle to a life on the streets. Neither Carrie nor Hurstwood earn their fates through virtue or vice, but rather through random circumstance. Their successes and failures have no moral value; this stance marks Sister Carrie as a departure from the conventional literature of the period.
Dreiser touches upon a wide range of themes and experiences in Sister Carrie, from grinding poverty to upper-middle class comfort. The novel dwells on the moment as it is experienced; the characters are plunged into the narrative without the reader being told much, if any, of their histories. Their identities are constantly subject to change, reflecting the modern American experience that had been ushered in by the developing capitalist economy. In the process of this development, thousands of rural Americans rushed to the cities to find jobs and to build themselves new lives and identities. Sister Carrie captures the excitement of that experience.