Places: Sister Carrie

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1900

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: 1889

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Chicago

*Chicago. Sister CarrieGreat Midwestern American city for which Caroline Meeber, or Carrie, boards a train as the novel opens. When Carrie arrives in Chicago, she is both nervous and youthfully optimistic about her opportunities in this vibrant new place. In depicting this place, with which he was intimately familiar, Dreiser describes an energetic young city of over 500,000 people, full of opportunity for those lucky enough to find and take advantage of it. He depicts the bustling factory and wholesale districts in which Carrie seeks work, the crowded tenements where her sister lives with a husband and baby, and the lovely new mansions erected along Lake Shore Drive, the viewing of which contributes to Carrie’s restless discontent with her lack of money. In spite of the vast opportunities for the industrious, however, the fact that Carrie becomes a mistress to first one man and then another indicates that Dreiser also wished to portray the big city as a place offering moral temptations for young unmarried women, especially those without money. Many of the events that unfold in the first half of Sister Carrie could only happen in a big city, and some of them only in a young, growing city such as Chicago.

Interestingly, Dreiser also briefly depicts a sense of Chicago’s inadequacy and lack of sophistication when Carrie attempts to work as an actress and is told that New York City is the only place in which to begin a stage career. In addition, late in the novel, Carrie’s lover Hurstwood reflects upon the fact that his prior position of some influence in Chicago means nothing in the larger, more sophisticated East Coast city.

*New York City

*New York City. Great eastern city to which Hurstwood ultimately takes Carrie when he must flee Chicago after stealing money from his employer. To Hurstwood, New York at first represents anonymity and the opportunity to start anew, although he is soon discouraged to find that the social barriers between the rich and the poor are not as easy to navigate as those in Chicago. This less forgiving nature of New York City ultimately contributes to Hurstwood’s downfall.

Her Chicago dreams of the stage temporarily forgotten, Carrie initially does not care for New York. Ensconced in the small flat that is the best Hurstwood can afford, Carrie is simultaneously fascinated and desperately envious of the city’s opulence, far above that which she saw in Chicago. In particular, Dreiser describes the lavish fashion parade that regularly occurs along the famous Broadway in the theater district and serves to reawaken Carrie’s vague ambitions for money and social status.

As Hurstwood’s fortunes continue to decline, Carrie resolves once again to find work on the stage, and she achieves fairly quick success, leaving Hurstwood in the process. For Carrie, then, New York ultimately represents a place of unparalleled opportunity, where things can happen overnight; it is also the first place where she is able to support herself without a man’s help. To Hurstwood, on the other hand, New York is a city so unfeeling that he is forced to turn to panhandling and ultimately to suicide. The opulence and poverty that exist side by side in New York make Carrie and Hurstwood’s opposite destinies quite believable, yet Dreiser also makes apparent the role that luck plays in the big city, suggesting perhaps that Carrie’s and Hurstwood’s fates could perhaps just as easily have been reversed.


*Montreal. Canadian city to which Hurstwood initially flees with Carrie in order to escape arrest following his theft from his employer. At first Hurstwood intends to stay there to get his bearings; therefore, Montreal serves as a temporary sanctuary from the American authorities. However, when he immediately runs into a business acquaintance from Chicago, Hurstwood realizes that Montreal cannot offer him the fresh start he needs; he therefore returns most of the stolen money and leaves immediately for New York with Carrie.

Columbia City

Columbia City. Fictional Wisconsin town from which Carrie begins her journey to Chicago. To Carrie, Columbia City is a stifling place with no opportunities, and she believes that to return there would be an admission of defeat.

BibliographyGerber, Philip. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. A biographical and thematic analysis of Dreiser’s major works, which interprets Sister Carrie as a naturalistic novel in the tradition of Émile Zola in France and Stephen Crane and Frank Norris in the United States.Kaplan, Amy. “The Sentimental Revolt of Sister Carrie.” In The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Excellent discussion of the novel within the framework of American realism. Juxtaposes Dreiser’s power as a realist–challenging moral and literary conventions–with his simultaneous reliance on sentimental codes. A second chapter, “Theodore Dreiser’s Promotion of Authorship,” explores Dreiser’s conception of the realist within the literary marketplace.Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. A classic treatment of Dreiser’s novels by one of the most important Dreiser scholars. Discusses the composition history of Sister Carrie, its biographical and literary sources, and provides an excellent general introduction to the novel’s themes.Pizer, Donald. New Essays on “Sister Carrie.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Contains, in addition to Pizer’s thorough discussion of the novel’s historical and biographical background, four essays that explore in depth Dreiser’s naturalism, the novel’s narrative voice, and the relationship between the author and his heroine.Sloane, David E. E. “Sister Carrie”: Theodore Dreiser’s Sociological Tragedy. New York: Twayne, 1992. A book-length study of the novel that provides literary and historical context. Interprets the work as a sociological tragedy, focusing on plot, style, metaphor, symbol, and character. Also includes a selected annotated bibliography of criticism.
Categories: Places