In August of 1889, Carrie Meeber leaves her small town to find employment in the city of Chicago. Theodore Dreiser, the author of Sister Carrie, informs the reader that, "Self-interest with her was high, but not strong. It was nevertheless her guiding characteristic.". With her youth and innocence she hopes to seek employment so that she can get and buy all the nice things that she wants. Carrie does not have any idea how hard this is going to be.
When she tries to find a job, she is scared. Carrie has no skills to offer an employer, no job experience, and her clothing was of poor quality. Chicago was a large city, but society at that time did not have many job opportunities for working women. The only jobs that Carrie could possibly get were in the factories that, paid low wages, had poor working conditions, and long hours. She knew that after she paid rent to her brother-in-law, she would have very little left to buy all the beautiful things that she longed for. When Carrie took the job at the shoe factory, she did not like the hard work and considered the other women who worked there to be common. When winter arrived, Carrie got sick and stayed home from work which caused her to lose her job.
On the train to Chicago, Carrie had met a traveling salesman, Charlie H. Drouet. She is impressed by the way he talks and dresses. When they meet again, Drouet is aware of her beauty and innocence and he hopes to charm and seduce her. He "lends" Carrie money to buy nice winter clothes, treats her to fine meals, takes her to the theater, and shows her the sights of Chicago. Because Carrie is young and inexperienced in the world of men, she is not wise enough to understand where all Drouet’s attention is leading toward. Although she senses that the money should be given back, her desire and longing for the good things in life are so powerful that she ignores her beliefs in what is right and wrong.
Unable to find another job, Carries is forced to make a decision, returning to Wisconsin or letting Drouet keep her as his mistress. Choosing to remain with Drouet was an extraordinary decision. This went against everything society taught. It was unthinkable for any decent woman to live with a man without marriage. Yet, Carrie ignored the rules. Drouet’s promise to eventually marry Carrie allowed her to ignore her conscience which told her that her behavior was wrong. The longer Drouet and Carrie lived together, she finally realizes that she is not deeply in love with him, she is smarter, and he is not as sophisticated as she had first thought.
When Drouet invites his friend, Hurstwood, to dinner, "She met a man who was more clever than Drouet in a hundred ways." Carrie had gone with Drouet because of financial need to avoid returning to her hometown. Carrie loves Hurstwood and agrees to leave with him believing that they will marry right away. Discovering that Hurstwood is married, Carrie decides to leave Drouet and tries to find an acting job. It’s ironic that she is now back in the same financial situation when she had made the decision to live with Drouet.
Once again, Carrie can’t find a job. Hurstwood forces her into leaving with him and, once again, because of financial reasons she remains with Hurstwood. Carrie thinks they are married in Canada and eventually they move to New York. Hurstwood is not able to find or keep a job. With no one left to support her, Carrie gets a job. As her theater career rises and her social status improves, Hurstwood becomes completely dependent on Carrie. He is no longer the intelligent, assured, and cultured man that she thought he was. With the ability to support herself, Carrie leaves Hurstwood. He becomes a street person and ends up killing himself.
Carrie had always thought that if she ever got wealth and position, which she now has, that she would be completely happy. A friend introduces her to Bob Ames, unlike any man that she met before. Ames notices that Carrie is sad. He tells her, "Your happiness is within yourself wholly if you will only believe it." Here was a man not offering her money, clothes, or applause, all the things that Drouet and Hurstwood had given her. The secret to her happiness was to give off herself to those less fortunate.
Carrie was young, innocent, and scared when she first arrived in Chicago. With no skills, she can’t find a job. Going against the social rules of her generation, she lives with two men as their mistress. They give her the material things she desires. Her judgement in selecting men is based on their appearance and not on their character. Finally, she is without support and forced to make it on her own. Becoming a success in the theater, she is able to get all the things she desires. Her wealth doesn’t give her the happiness and satisfaction she thought it would. With age and experience, Carrie comes to understand that contentment comes from giving to those less fortunate than herself, and that character is more important than how a person looks.