The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie

Critics found the title of this novel perplexing. Why do you think Dreiser entitled it Sister Carrie?

An earlier tentative title was, “The Flesh and the Spirit.” Would this have been a suitable title?

 At the time of its appearance and for a generation afterwards, this novel was much criticized and praised. What do you think may have been the grounds on which it was attacked or defended?

Which of its features or concerns would have seemed new at the time of publication?

Would twenty-first century readers respond differently to the novel? What stylistic features would they be inclined to notice?

Chapters 1-22:

What do we learn about Carrie in the opening chapters? To what degree does the narrator criticize her? Exonerate and praise her? What are some of her limitations?

Do you find the narrator’s reactions to Carrie entirely consistent?

From Carrie’s experiences, what do we learn about working conditions for young women in Chicago in the late nineteenth-century?

What is the narrator’s opinion of Carrie’s work associates? Carrie’s opinion? What are some troubling aspects of her work situation?

What causes her to lose her job? Why isn’t she able to find another readily?

According to the narrator, who or what is responsible for Carrie’s life as a “kept woman”? Is she entirely responsible? Her seducers? The employment conditions of the time?

What purpose is served by the introduction of Minnie and Sven Hanson? Are they to some degree responsible for Carrie’s choices?

What are some implications of Carrie’s attraction toward city lights and desire to attend the theater?

What characterizes the lifestyles of Douet and Hurstwood? How is Douet represented? What does the narrator see as his limitations?

What motivates Carrie to live with Douet? What comes to be her opinion of him? In the narrator’s view, how does she change or develop over time?

What is symbolic about the scene in which Douet, Hurstwood and Carrie gamble?

What role is played by clothes and appearance in the novel? By the references to material goods and consumerism?

How would you describe the narrator’s view of most of the characters of the novel, and thus of human nature? What seems to motivate them, and are there exceptions?

Which seem to be the novel’s best characters, if any? Of whom does the narrative voice seem to most approve?

What view does the narrator take of Carrie’s relationship with Hurstwood? Are the latter’s motivations favorably presented?

What do we learn of his relationship with his wife? Does the narrator judge her actions unfavorably? How is his relationship to his children presented?

What events lead to Carrie’s debut as an actress? What talents does she display?

What seems important about the scene in which she performs as Douet and Hurstwood watch?

Does the novel's interest center on Sister Carrie, or on the male rivals for her attentions? To what extent is the focus of attention shared? Would this have added to its appeal?

To what does Dreiser ascribe women’s alleged fitness for the stage? What effect does her acting performance have on her?

How does Carrie react on learning of Hurstwood's marriage? Whom does she blame for her ignorance of his marital state?

Can this novel be described as feminist in modern terms? Anti-feminist? Neither or both?

Can you discern autobiographical elements to the novel? Would the author have identified with Carrie, with Douet, and/or with Hurstwood? With the problems of being poor in Chicago?

Can you identify two or three important instances of narrative intervention which you think important to the novel’s themes?

What values/ways of life are shared by Carrie, Drouet and Hurstwood? To what extent and where in the novel are these values critiqued?

Chapters 23-35:

What are Hurstwood’s motives for embezzlement? Does his theft seem consistent with what we have earlier known of him?

What are some features of the scene which describes his act? What causes the safe to close? Does he feel regret? Had the safe not closed, would he have completed the theft?

How do you think Dreiser expected readers supposed to judge him?

What causes Carrie to elope with Hurstwood? Of what aspects of his past is she ignorant? 

Why do you think Dreiser has presented her as an unwilling/unaware bigamist?

What are we expected to make of the fact that she doesn't leave the train when prompted to do so?

What meaning does marriage seem to hold in this novel? Are there any happy marriages? 

What is the significance, if any, of the narrator’s allusions to Darwin and scientific determinism? Are we intended to view the characters’ actions as fated?

Does it seem unrealistic that Carrie never desires to contact/regrets being unable to contact, her original family?

Is her marriage with Hurstwood in Montreal legitimate? What effect does it seem to have on Carrie and Hurstwood's behavior?

What is the effect of including in the novel details on modern inventions and styles, such as telephones, railroads, housing and apartment styles and interiors, food and fashions?

For example, what purpose is served by the scene in which Carrie accompanies the Vances to an expensive restaurant?

What role do newspapers play in the plot? Would their widespread availability have been a recent phenomenon?

How is the life of Carrie and Hurstwood in New York City contrasted with that their lives in Chicago?

What is the effect on the reader of following Carrie’s and Hurstwood’s initiation into New York City? Is Carrie a flaneuse?

What common interests cause a bond between Mrs. Vance and Carrie? Which of Mrs. Vance's qualities or interests does she share?

What desires eventually cause Carrie to become restless? And on the other hand, what reflections and changes disturb Hurstwood?

How does the lack of the birth of children affect the plot?

Does the narrative seem to hold Hurstwood accountable for his unemployment? What are some signs that he has given up?

To what degree is he responsible for the failure of his relationship with Carrie? What have been some of his faults?

What assumptions seem to be made about gender roles within a family? To what degree do these shift under the pressure of the couple's financial constraints?

Is there a correlation between Carrie’s increasing independence and the dissolution of her relationship with Hurstwood?

What is Ames’s importance in the novel? What does he represent to Carrie? Do his views and tastes resemble those of Dreiser?

What kind of friendships does Carrie seem to form with other women?

Chapters 36-end:

What forms of tension or suspense propel the final third of the plot? Would you say that the plot has a declining or rising action?

Which aspects of the narrative may reflect Dreiser’s experiences as a newspaper journalist? Do aspects of this novel seem to reflect the topics and scenes of newspaper reportage?

What do we learn from Carrie’s experiences in finding a job about the prospects for young actresses, and of conditions in the theater?

According to the novel, how does the salary for beginning chorus girls in NYC compare with that for women shoe factory workers in Chicago?

Why might the account of Carrie’s rise in the theater have interested the novel’s readers? Does it seem a convincing account of an actress’s life?

Do you think it would have been likely for an ingenue in the city to have ended up a well-paid actress? Would many prominent actresses have had origins such as that of Carrie Meeber?

Do you find the changes in Hurstwood’s  character and behavior from the earlier sections of the novel plausible? To what do you attribute his growing lassitude and sense of helplessness?

What motivates Hurstwood to seek work as a strikebreaker? What do we learn about labor conditions for tram drivers from the account given of Hurstwood’s attempts to become a scab motorman? How much would drivers have been paid?

What do his experiences indicate about the actual labor of a tram driver’s job? About the nature of strikes and strikebreaking in the 1880s and 1890s?

Do you think Dreiser represents the strike and its causes accurately? How are Hurstwood's fellow strikebreakers described?

What effect is created by presenting a strikebreaker who acts only from desperation? Is the reader expected to have sympathy for Hurstwood, for those who attack him, or for both?

Does Hurstwood tell Carrie of the reasons he can’t return to work? What causes him to conceal some aspects of his defeats?

What are some of Carrie’s motivations for leaving Hurstwood? What does she expect will happen to him?

What random theatrical incidents enable Carrie to rise in the theater? Do these seem surprising?

What female friendships does Carrie form during her period as an actress? What effect does Lola have on her life, and what values does the latter represent?

What contrasts are made between the two women?

How is Carrie's higher income reflected in changed life circumstances?

Why do you think hotels are so frequently mentioned or described in novel?

What attitude toward men, including her admirers, does Carrie now hold? Is this a change, and if so, why do you think this has occurred?

Do the novel’s characters plan ahead for their financial future? Is Carrie an exception? Why do you think the novel ends where it does, so that we don’t follow the rest of her life?

What are some changes in Hurstwood’s circumstances as he becomes more impoverished?

What transient jobs does he hold? Why is he unable to continue them? When unemployed, how does he find the means to eat?

Who is shown as trying to help homeless men find shelter in the cold? Why do you think Dreiser includes this incident?

What are we expected to think of the now-successful Carrie’s response to her former partners Drouet and Hurstwood? Is she fair? Generous?

Could she, for example, have prevented Hurstwood’s early death? Does the narrative suggest that she could have done more for him?

What attempts does Hurstwood make to seek her aid, and what prevents their success?

What is made of Carrie’s reintroduction to Ames at the Vances’ apartment? What aspects of his reflections on her appearance and prospects does she find flattering? Unflattering?

Does the narrator seem to affirm his views and her response? What does Ames urge her to do, and how does she respond?

What final events precipitate Hurstwood’s death? Is the reader surprised at his suicide?

What scenes are ironically juxtaposed to that of his last hours and death?

Are the time sequences of the novel plausible? How old is Carrie when she begins her successful career as an actress? How long do you think such a career would likely last?

Does the novel's interest center on Sister Carrie, or on the men in her life? To what extent is the focus of attention and sympathy shared?

Would this have added to the novel’s poignancy? Its sense of the justice/injustice of the fates it portrays?

How do you respond to the novel's ending? Might it have surprised readers in 1900?

In the final chapter, how does the narrator defend or explain his character’s (or at least Carrie’s) choices? 

What are Carrie's final regrets? Are these specific? Is there anything she wishes she had done differently? What are the implications of the conclusion, taken in its entirety?

May there be advantages to presenting a heroine with a somewhat passive temperament? On what elements does it permit the plot to focus? Can you think of well-known novels with a similarly laid-back and accepting hero?

How would you characterize the voice of the narrator? To what extent does it judge, and to what extent participate, in the desires and anxieties of the characters?

How is the theme of unfulfilled longing introduced? To what extent do the characters long for something specific, or seek more undefined satisfactions?

Are there melodramatic elements to the plot? Could it have been readily adapted as a play?

Are there moralistic elements to the ending? Would you say that the novel expresses an implied moral, at least in its second half?

What characterizes the narrator’s intervention in the final paragraph of the conclusion? Does this form a fitting ending to the novel?

What are some of this novel’s unusual qualities? Its strengths?  Its lapses? Did you find it interesting? Moving? Repellent?

Does Sister Carrie resemble earlier nineteenth-century novels, for example Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary or Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge or Tess of the D'Urbervilles? Could the novel have been readily adapted for the theater?

  Copyright © 2010 Florence S Boos, The University of Iowa. All rights reserved.
  Page updated: March 5, 2012 18:08