We sure do meet a lot of Carries in this novel—the girl goes through three different names by the time we've closed the book (sheesh).
There's Carrie Meeber, the timid, naïve eighteen-year-old who steps off the train on her very first trip away from home. She's the Carrie we follow on that awful job search and the one we're anxious about as she moves in with a dude she barely knows. There's also Carrie Madenda, the one we watch in her smashing theatrical debut on a small Chicago stage. And who could forget Carrie Wheeler, the miserable housewife of Hurstwood trying to make her way in New York City? Then, it's finally back to Carrie Madenda, as she revives her stage name on her rise to super stardom.
One thing's for sure: as all these dizzying name changes suggest, this character seems to have a bunch of different sides. So let's jump in and take a closer look at some of them.
Oh—one quick thing before we get started. We might be tempted to see our friend Carrie as one little, insignificant speck in the vast pool of humanity (er, literary characterdom), but don't forget that right in the very beginning, the narrator calls her "a fair example of the American middle class" (1.4). That means we could say that any of the character weaknesses we point out here or any that you might think of might also be considered weaknesses of late nineteenth-century middle-class Americans (in Dreiser's oh-so-humble opinion, of course).
Little ol' Carrie Meeber sure seems a lot more important with that in mind, doesn't she?
Carrie passed along the busy aisles, much affected by the remarkable displays of trinkets, dress goods, stationery, and jewelry. Each separate counter was a show place of dazzling interest and attraction. (3.42)
It's pretty clear that Carrie loves stuff: clothes, shoes, jewelry, you name it. In fact, even before we see her browsing the racks of those fancy Chicago department stores, we're clued in to the high priority she places on acquiring stuff: " […] she was interested in her charms, quick to understand the keener pleasures of life, ambitious to gain in material things" (1.4). Given that this is one of the narrator's earliest descriptions of Carrie, it's probably something we'd better keep an eye on.
Indeed, as the novel progresses, Carrie's fondness for cashmere and diamonds becomes much more than a little personality quirk—her obsession with material goods gets her into major trouble time after time. Recall that afternoon she spends with Mrs. Hale gawking at rich people's houses, for example. More importantly, recall how crappy she felt upon returning to her apartment:
When she came to her own rooms, Carrie saw their comparative insignificance. She was not so dull but that she could perceive they were but three small rooms in a moderately well-furnished boarding-house. She was not contrasting it now with what she had had, but what she had so recently seen. (12.35)
She proceeds to stew over all this until "she was sad beyond measure" (12.35). Carrie's constant yearning for wealth and the unhappiness that it generates proves a major concern of the novel.
Besides becoming a recipe for personal misery, Carrie's craving for stuff clouds her judgment and negatively affects her interactions with others. Given that the breakdown of human relationships is also a central issue of the novel, this feature of her characterization is key. Let's take Carrie's relationship with Drouet, for instance. Carrie seems most attracted to his willingness to treat her to fancy meals and shopping sprees:
In the store they found that shine and rustle of new things which immediately laid hold of Carrie's heart. Under the influence of good dinner and Drouet's radiating presence, the scheme proposed seemed feasible. (7.68)
Captivated by Drouet's ability to indulge her material desires, Carrie goes along with his ultimate plan for them to move in together, despite her reservations. And whether it was right or not for her to move in with him is less our concern than the fact that her appetite for material things led her to do something she wasn't really sure about.
Plus we all know how it ends between them. Carrie's lack of true feeling for Drouet is eventually revealed, leaving him heartbroken, which is something she later regrets:
She had looked back at times upon her parting from Drouet and had regretted that she had served him so badly. She hoped she would never meet him again, but she was ashamed of her conduct. (42.84)
Their relationship provides just one example of many in which Carrie's obsession with stuff gets in the way of her ability to forge meaningful human connections, a key part of the crushing isolation she ends up feeling despite all of her "success" at the end of the novel.
But, wait a second—have we been too hard on Carrie? Is there more to her than a superficial, fashion-obsessed, girly girl?
Despite her penchant for material things, we're often reminded by the narrator that Carrie has a sensitive, empathetic side. In fact, we're told that she's especially attuned to the plight of the less fortunate:
On her spiritual side, also, she was rich in feeling, as such a nature well might be. Sorrow in her was aroused by many a spectacle—an uncritical upwelling of grief for the weak and the helpless. She was constantly pained by the sight of the white-faced, ragged men who slopped desperately by her in a sort of wretched mental stupor. The poorly clad girls who went blowing by her window evenings, hurrying home from some of the shops of the West Side, she pitied from the depths of her heart. (15.46)
Carrie's stint working under miserable conditions at the shoe factory is likely one prime source of her compassion for "ragged men" and "poorly clad girls," which may indeed lead us to chalk up Carrie's working experience as a "character-building" one. Her recognition of other people's deprivation is also displayed when Carrie scolds Lola at the end of the novel for being more concerned about whether she'll be able to go sledding than about "the people who haven't anything to-night" (47.61).
With all this feeling for the poor, we might expect Carrie to give up her acting career and head to the slums like Mother Theresa, right? Or at least volunteer in a soup kitchen? Uh, not exactly. In fact, despite all this talk about Carrie's sensitivity to the poor, she doesn't even acknowledge (let alone help) the homeless guy outside the theater who asks her for some change. What's the deal with that? And what's up with her lack of compassion for the poverty-stricken Hurstwood at the end of the novel? She doesn't go very far out of her way to help him (admittedly, their relationship is "complicated," but still… it's a question we've gotta ask).
Carrie may be full of sentiment, which shakes up our initial impressions of her as some purely materialistic gold digger, for sure. However, we can't help but notice and continue to wonder why very little of her sentiment translates into action.
If there's one thing that seems to define Carrie, it's gotta be that she's never, ever happy with what she has.
A lot of the time, what she's longing for is obviously wealth, as in the following passage:
The whole street bore the flavor of riches and show, and Carrie felt that she was not of it. She could not, for the life of her, assume the attitude and smartness of Mrs. Vance, who, in her beauty, was all assurance. She could only imagine that it must be evident to many that she was the less handsomely dressed of the two. It cut her to the quick, and she resolved that she would not come here again until she looked better. At the same time she longed to feel the delight of parading here as an equal. Ah, then she would be happy! (31.56)
But, of course, she's not happy at all. Even when Carrie becomes a big, rich star we're told, "Amid the tinsel and shine of her state walked Carrie, unhappy" (47.121). Elsewhere the narrator elaborates:
And now Carrie had attained that which in the beginning seemed life's object, or, at least, such fraction of it as human beings ever attain of their original desires. She could look about on her gowns and carriage, her furniture and bank account. Friends there were, as the world takes it—those who would bow and smile in acknowledgment of her success. For these she had once craved. Applause there was, and publicity—once far off, essential things, but now grown trivial and indifferent. (47.115)
Geez, Carrie, didn't you listen when Ames tried to tell you that throwing money around wasn't going to make you happy? And didn't you listen to the Beatles singing "Can't Buy Me Love" (uh, wait, that was way after your time, Carrie—you're excused on that one).
At the same time, could it be that Carrie is just one of those people who can never be happy? After all, she's never content for very long in her relationships with men (granted the men she gets involved with have their problems, but still). And she just knows that doing dramatic plays will be so much better than doing comedies. So is she just that type who's always dreaming about greener grass as they sit in rocking chairs staring out the window of their luxurious hotel room? Or is there something else going on?
Rather than viewing Carrie's character as simply confirmation of a bunch of clichés like "money can't buy happiness," it seems there's something more at stake in understanding her endless dissatisfaction. On that note, some smarty-pants literary critics have linked Carrie's dissatisfaction to her participation in consumer culture itself. One of the most compelling of these is Blanche Gelfant's essay, "What More Can Carrie Want? Naturalistic Ways of Consuming Women" which links Carrie's longing to the rise of advertising and consumerism at the turn of the century. (Source.)
Consumer culture (which was just starting to really take off when Sister Carrie was written, btw) encourages people to be in constant states of discontent in order to spur their desire to buy more stuff. In other words, if people are perfectly happy with the iPhone5, why would they buy the iPhone6? Desire constantly has to be stirred up so that consumers aren't ever completely content. From this perspective, Carrie's inability to find satisfaction isn't some inherent flaw of hers, but an almost inevitable consequence of living in a consumer-oriented culture.
All of this leads us to the question: Can Carrie ever be happy? Near the end of the novel, we get a cryptic observation from the narrator on this: "In her walks on Broadway, she no longer thought of the elegance of the creatures who passed her. Had they more of that peace and beauty which glimmered afar off, then were they to be envied" (47.121). While she seems to be making progress in not being so impressed by elegance, what is "that peace and beauty which glimmered afar off"? And is this a sign of some real change to come in her or just another instance of her detrimental insatiability?
We'll let you be the judge.