Study Guide

Sister Carrie Marriage

By Theodore Dreiser


There was no love lost between [Hurstwood and his wife]. There was no great feeling of dissatisfaction. Her opinion on any subject was not startling. They did not talk enough together to come to the argument of any one point. In the accepted and popular phrase, she had her ideas and he had his. (9.47)

Uh, hello? Is it not weird that there's "no love lost" between these two and they don't seem to communicate at all yet "there was no great feeling of dissatisfaction?" On what planet is this a satisfying marriage?

Such an atmosphere could hardly come under the category of home life. It ran along by force of habit, by force of conventional opinion. With the lapse of time it must necessarily become dryer and dryer—must eventually be tinder, easily lighted and destroyed. (9.67)

The metaphor here likening Hurstwood's marriage to tinder creates a truly vivid image of how time acts upon the flimsy foundations of their relationship to eventually result in utter destruction and devastation. (Hey, Dreiser—not bad for a hippopotamus.)

"[Mrs. Hurstwood] was too calculating to jeopardise any advantage she might gain in the way of information by fruitless clamour. Her wrath would never wreak itself in one fell blow […] She still took a faint pride in [Hurstwood], which was augmented by her desire to have her social integrity maintained. (12.1-2)

We've got to wonder whether train wreck marriages like the Hurstwoods's were, in part, products of an era in which women's access to social, economic, and political power was limited. For instance, Mrs. Hurstwood is so calculating and manipulative that she might have actually had a decent career in the business world. With no such professional outlet for her skills, she exercises them in her marriage instead, with disastrous results.

When in the flush of such feelings he heard his wife's voice, when the insistent demands of matrimony recalled him from dreams to a stale practice, how it grated. He then knew that this was a chain which bound his feet. (15.3)

Matrimony as bondage… how romantic.

Jessica was beginning to feel that her affairs were her own… To darken it all, he saw the same indifference and independence growing in his wife, while he looked on and paid the bills. (15.40)

Aw, poor Hurstwood. His wife treats him like her personal ATM. So why does he put up with it?

Now, it so happened that from his observations of Carrie he began to imagine that she was of the thoroughly domestic type of mind. He really thought, after a year, that her chief expression in life was finding its natural channel in household duties […] With it came a feeling of satisfaction in having a wife who could thus be content, and this satisfaction worked its natural result […] That is, since he imagined he saw her satisfied, he felt called upon to give only that which contributed to such satisfaction. (31.15)

Oh, Hurstwood—this one's going to come back to bite you. While there's nothing wrong with enjoying domestic tasks or expressing oneself through household duties, it's probably a bad idea to just go ahead and assume that about someone. Especially if that assumption is based on the fact that said person has the anatomical parts of a female. Just sayin'.

She began to look upon Hurstwood wholly as a man, and not as a lover or husband. She felt thoroughly bound to him as a wife, and that her lot was cast with his, whatever it might be; but she began to see that he was gloomy and taciturn, not a young, strong, and buoyant man. He looked a little bit old to her about the eyes and mouth now, and there were other things which placed him in his true rank, so far as her estimation was concerned. She began to feel that she had made a mistake. (33.31)

So we've all heard of husbands trading in their aging wives for younger models (such a gross turn of phrase), but here Carrie expresses her discontent that Hurstwood is looking more and more like a senior citizen. We might say that the novel in this way dispels the myth that it's only superficial men who allow the fading appearances of their partners to negatively affect their marital satisfaction.

"You haven't done a thing for three months except sit around and interfere here. I'd like to know what you married me for?"

"I didn't marry you," he said, in a snarling tone. (36.95-96)

Bombshell. How does this information affect our views of Carrie's subsequent interactions with Hurstwood? Do you think Carrie has less of an obligation to help Hurstwood out later on in the novel given that they're not legally married? Why or why not?

Curiously this idea soon took hold of Hurstwood. His vanishing sum suggested that he would need sustenance. Why could not Carrie assist him a little until he could get something? (37.37)

Okay—so they're not technically married. But Hurstwood seems to have no trouble assuming the role of house husband and having Carrie support him. Does this make him progressive?

At home was Hurstwood, daily giving her cause for thought. He seemed to get nothing to do, and yet he made bold to inquire how she was getting along. The regularity with which he did this smacked of someone who was waiting to live upon her labour. Now that she had a visible means of support, this irritated her. He seemed to be depending upon her little twelve dollars. (38.120)

Hurstwood is sponging off Carrie and it's really grossing her out. Hey, wait a minute, though—didn't he support her financially earlier in the novel? What's the deal with her outrage over supporting him?