Of all the characters in Sister Carrie, Hurstwood probably undergoes the most dramatic change (including the ultimate change, as he goes from living to dead). That suave chick-magnet who we meet in the beginning of the novel is barely recognizable by the end when he's out on the streets of NYC begging for spare change from disgusted strangers.
Let's explore that radical change and what may account for it, shall we?
Lots of readers and literary critics have noticed that Hurstwood's story in Sister Carrie seems to be a story about the failure of the American Dream and thus a challenge to some of Americans' most dearly held beliefs about hard work and success. That's definitely a useful starting point for thinking about his character.
We're first introduced to Hurstwood when he's at the top of his game:
Hurstwood was an interesting character after his kind. He was shrewd and clever in many little things, and capable of creating a good impression. His managerial position was fairly important—a kind of stewardship which was imposing, but lacked financial control. He had risen by perseverance and industry, through long years of service, from the position of barkeeper in a commonplace saloon to his present altitude. (5.9)
Especially notable here is the information that Hurstwood's "perseverance and industry" are responsible for his rise to the top. The guy worked his way up from a gig in a lowly saloon to movin' and shakin' in the white-collar world, making him an emblem of that quintessentially American idea that hard work is the surefire route to success.
Not only is the guy rich and successful, but everyone wants to be around him, too. Well, at least other rich, successful people:
…he was a member of an eminent group—a rounded company of five or more whose stout figures, large white bosoms, and shining pins bespoke the character of their success. He was acknowledged, fawned upon, in a way lionized. (18.50)
Okay, sure, his wife and kids treat him like a bank, which makes him feel profoundly alienated and sends him rushing into an affair with an eighteen year old, but all that aside, it's good to be Hurstwood.
Until it's not.
We all know the rest of Hurstwood's tale: Fearing financial disaster from his impending divorce, Hurstwood steals money from his employer and tricks Carrie into leaving the country with him (we'll get back to examining these crazy criminal activities in detail a little later, we promise). Although he manages to dig himself out of the hole he's created with both his employers and Carrie, his life eventually falls completely apart.
When Hurstwood gets to New York, he tries to work his way up again, or as the narrator puts it "he faced the city, cut off from his friends, despoiled of his modest fortune, and even his name, and forced to begin the battle for place and comfort all over again" (30.3). But despite that American spirit of tenacity and industry that we've learned is central to his character, he never quite seems to get back on his feet. His business goes down. It also turns out that it's an awful time for him to be out of work, what with the whole economy falling apart due to the Financial Panic of 1893.
Hurstwood's attempts to find work are futile and he resigns himself to rocking in his chair at home and reading the paper. Does he try hard enough to find work? It's a valid question and one that Carrie certainly asks. Still, we're told that:
Sitting in his flat, and reading of the doings of other people, sometimes this independent, undefeated mood came upon him. Forgetting the weariness of the streets and the degradation of search, he would sometimes prick up his ears. It was as if he said: "I can do something. I'm not down yet. There's a lot of things coming to me if I want to go after them." (36.33-34)
And right before he takes the disastrous job at the trolley company, even Carrie notices a glimmer of the old Hurstwood: "He looked rather determined now, in a desolate sort of way, and Carrie felt very sorry. Something of the old Hurstwood was here—the least shadow of what was once shrewd and pleasant strength" (40.83).
But despite that independence, shrewdness, and strength, his job prospects fail to pan out and it's not long before we see him in line at the soup kitchen: "Slowly the line moved up and, one by one, passed in, until twenty-five were counted… Of these the ex-manager was one" (47.17).
The Hurstwood who had more admirers than Oprah is now a destitute social outcast, as "People turned to look after him, so uncouth was his shambling figure. Several officers followed him with their eyes, to see that he did not beg of anybody" (47.36). And before we know it, we're watching the guy in his final moments: "When the odour reached his nostrils, he quit his attitude and fumbled for the bed. 'What's the use?' he said, weakly, as he stretched himself to rest'"(47.113-114).
So despite having all of those qualities of character prized in American society—industriousness, perseverance, and determination—Hurstwood's life comes to a tragic end due to circumstances (mainly economic ones) way beyond his control. In this respect, his story is a pretty scary one for those people who believe that hard work and determination will inevitably lead to success.
Of course, we might also say that Hurstwood's troubles all begin with that little safe incident. You know, the one where he gets totally wasted, takes several thousand dollars from a safe at the hotel where he works, lies to Carrie to get her on the train, and then flees the country? That's right, the one where the respectable businessman becomes a thief/kidnapper/fugitive all in the course of a few chapters.
We could be tempted to conclude, then, that Hurstwood sets his own downfall in motion by his criminal activities and therefore has only himself to blame for his miserable fate. That might even make some readers feel better: as long as they don't embezzle money, they won't end up dead in a flophouse. Phew.
However, Dreiser doesn't make things quite so clear-cut.
For starters, we're told that Hurstwood probably wouldn't even consider stealing the money if he weren't roaring drunk:
The manager was no fool to be led blindly away by such an errant proposition as this, but his situation was peculiar. Wine was in his veins. It had crept up into his head and given him a warm view of the situation. It also coloured the possibilities of ten thousand for him. (27.63)
No doubt, we could also say that it was Hurstwood's decision to get roaring drunk in the first place and thus ultimately responsible for his actions. But the choice to make a drunk Hurstwood steal the money nevertheless muddies the water a bit on this point.
On top of that, Hurstwood is way indecisive about stealing the money. We're told:
Hurstwood could not bring himself to act definitely. He wanted to think about it—to ponder over it, to decide whether it were best. He was drawn by such a keen desire for Carrie, driven by such a state of turmoil in his own affairs that he thought constantly it would be best, and yet he wavered. (27.72)
So it isn't like the guy had been scheming for weeks about how to rip off his employers.
And it's not like he doesn't have a conscience. Recall his ambivalence during the safe incident: "Lord! What was that? For the first time he was tense, as if a stern hand had been laid upon his shoulder. He looked fearfully around. Not a soul was present. Not a sound" (27.65).
Not to mention that Hurstwood feels pretty regretful from just about the moment he completely sobers up, as we learn that "His condition was bitter in the extreme, for he did not want the miserable sum he had stolen. He did not want to be a thief. That sum or any other could never compensate for the state which he had thus foolishly doffed" (28.105).
Do these circumstances make a difference in how we view Hurstwood's responsibility for his fate? They might. At the very least, they complicate any attempts to dismiss Hurstwood as a purely evil person entirely deserving of his misfortune.