Study Guide

Sister Carrie Ambition

By Theodore Dreiser


[Sven Hanson] was of a clean, saving disposition, and had already paid a number of monthly installments on two lots far out on the West Side. His ambition was some day to build a house on them. (2.4)

No wonder Sven and Carrie don't mix.

With the wane of the afternoon went her hopes, her courage, and her strength. She had been astonishingly persistent. So earnest an effort was well deserving of a better reward. (3.76)

Carrie and we readers learn early on that, in this novel, effort and persistence don't necessarily lead to a sweet reward.

When these things would fall upon Drouet's ears, he would straighten himself a little more stiffly and eat with solid comfort. If he had any vanity, this augmented it, and if he had any ambition, this stirred it. He would be able to flash a roll of greenbacks too some day. As it was, he could eat where they did. (5.6)

Take that, rich people. What would Ames have to say about Drouet's ambition?

Now Carrie was affected by music. Her nervous composition responded to certain strains, much as certain strings of a harp vibrate when a corresponding key of a piano is struck […]. They awoke longings for those things which she did not have. (11.16)

Just listening to music stimulates Carrie's ambition to acquire more stuff. This is also true of her trips to the theater later in the novel, and makes us wonder what role culture has to play in stirring up people's ambitions to be materially successful.

[…] she could not help thinking what a delight this would be if it would endure; how perfect a state, if she could do well now, and then some time get a place as a real actress. The thought had taken a mighty hold upon her. It hummed in her ears as the melody of an old song. (18.15)

Imagining the prospect of how perfect her life will be in some future moment when her ambitions are realized is a frequent pastime of Carrie's. And it's epitomized perfectly by the comparison here to the melody of an old song stuck in one's head.

The result of this was that she secretly resolved to try. It didn't matter about him. She was not going to be dragged into poverty and something worse to suit him. She could act. She could get something and then work up. What would he say then? (37.36)

Sometimes haters can be great motivators (sorry for the corny rhyme). But when people do things to prove others wrong, ambition can become a bitter-filled enterprise.

On the morrow Carrie reported promptly and was given a place in the line […]. How hard she would try to be worthy of it. It was above the common mass, above idleness, above want, above insignificance. People came to it in finery and carriages to see. It was ever a centre of light and mirth. And here she was of it. (38.74)

Huh. It's curious that nowhere here is Carrie's love or passion for acting mentioned; all of the reasons she gives for being pleased at getting her part have to do with status.

She began to read the newspaper notices, not only of the opera in which she had so small a part, but of others. Gradually the desire for notice took hold of her. She longed to be renowned like others […]. (43.2)

Yeah, sure it would be cool to see yourself in all the newspapers, but this makes us wonder whether it's a passion for acting or the desire for attention that motivates Carrie's ambition.

In fine raiment and elegant surroundings, men seemed to be contented. Hence, she drew near these things. Chicago, New York; Drouet, Hurstwood; the world of fashion and the world of stage—these were but the incidents. Not them, but that which they represented, she longed for. Time proved the representation false. (47.119)

Does Carrie realize that what they represented was false, or is it just the narrator's revelation? How do we know?

Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! […]. It is when the feet weary and hope seems vain that the heartaches and the longings arise. Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. (47.125)

Okay—so longing seems to lead right to disappointment. But does that mean it's wrong or foolish to have any ambitions? Is it better just to sit around all day watching reruns of Seinfeld? Is ambition ever okay?