Eighteen-year-old Carrie Meeber is leaving her parents and her small Midwestern town behind. She's on a train headed for Chicago where she's got plans to move in with her big sister Minnie. What's she planning to do there? Well, we don't exactly know that yet… but she'll figure it out.
Her adventure is off to a great start already: Charles Drouet, a traveling salesman with impeccable taste in clothing, flirts with her the whole train ride to Chicago. And once they get to Chi-Town, he makes it clear that he wants to hang out again. Ooh la la.
After getting settled in at Minnie's pad, Carrie begins job hunting. It's a pretty miserable experience, but she eventually manages to find a position punching holes in pieces of leather at a shoe factory. When she catches a nasty cold and has to stay home from work for a few days though, she's canned, and without a paycheck, she quickly finds that she's no longer welcome at Minnie's. So much for sisters sticking together…
Drouet (with whom she's been on a few dates) offers to pay for Carrie to get her own apartment. Hmmm, she's not sure about this—what exactly is this dude going to expect from her in return? But she doesn't feel like she has too many other options, so she starts packing.
Before long, Drouet and Carrie are living together. He's promised to marry her just as soon as he gets some property deal wrapped up (he swears).
Drouet introduces Carrie to his friend, George Hurstwood, manager of a swank Chicago hotel. Bad move—Carrie is instantly smitten with the wealthy and charming Hurstwood and he thinks Carrie is pretty cool, too. They promptly start up an affair; unbeknownst to Carrie, Hurstwood is married with two kids. Classy.
When she's not busy sneaking off to see Hurstwood, Carrie spends her time rehearsing for a local theater production that Drouet encouraged her to take part in. Her debut is a wild success and she catches the acting bug.
Hurstwood and Carrie start making plans to run away together, but then Drouet discovers the affair and spills the beans to Carrie about Hurstwood being married. An irate Carrie vows she wants nothing to do with Hurstwood anymore, and she writes him a letter to let him know that they are never, ever, ever getting back together.
Carrie and Drouet break up and Drouet moves out. Hurstwood's wife also finds out about the affair and heads straight to her lawyers' to see about divorcing her cheating jerk of a husband. Hurstwood fears she's about to take him for every penny he's worth, and during a night of heavy drinking with his pals, he steals a bunch of cash from a safe at the hotel.
Hurstwood is now on the run, but realizes that before he sets out for the Canadian border, he'd better stop and pick up the love of his life. She's probably not going to go with him willingly, considering she now hates his guts, so he figures he'd better think of some way to trick Carrie into getting on a train with him. Ew, right? Ew.
He shows up at Carrie's place and tells her a whopping lie: Drouet's been in an accident, and she needs to come with him right away so they can go see the poor guy. They head for the train station.
After a pretty long train ride, Carrie starts to get suspicious. Hurstwood eventually confesses that he made up the whole Drouet story and that he really just wanted to get her away so he could marry her.
Aw, how sweet, she thinks… not. She's furious and she tells him she's getting off the train at the next stop. But, lo and behold, Hurstwood actually manages to talk her into staying with him.
When they get to Montreal, Hurstwood assumes a new identity by changing his last name to Wheeler, and they get married.
But the honeymoon is short-lived. Hurstwood finds out he's being followed by a detective, so he ends up sending most of the money back to his employers along with an apology note. They accept it, but he still worries about being arrested at any minute.
Montreal isn't a happenin' enough place for Carrie, so Hurstwood suggests they go to New York City instead. Off to the Big Apple they go, where Hurstwood finds work running a saloon and Carrie is content in her role as Susie Homemaker.
But before long, Hurstwood's business is forced to close and, because of a bad economy, Hurstwood isn't able to find another job. The two start living on Hurstwood's modest savings. Fed up with rejections, Hurstwood pretty much gives up on looking for work and spends most of his time hanging out at home and reading newspapers.
This is seriously bad news for Carrie, who's developed quite a taste for the finer things in life after hanging out with her wealthy neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Vance. She becomes disgusted with what she views as Hurstwood's lack of ambition, and they fight constantly.
During one of their arguments, Carrie asks him why he married her if he couldn't take care of her, which Hurstwood decides is a good moment to let her know that their marriage wasn't actually legal. Ugh.
With Hurstwood's savings dwindling, Carrie decides to try to find an acting job. Unlike her lying pseudo-hubby, she's successful and manages to work her way all the way up from chorus girl to speaking roles.
Carrie begins resenting the fact that Hurstwood seems content to lie around while she goes off to be the breadwinner, which makes things even tenser between them. After reading about a strike at an NYC trolley company, Hurstwood resorts to becoming a scab—a worker who takes the job of a striking worker, thereby undermining a strike—but the whole experience is so harrowing that he eventually quits.
As Carrie's paycheck grows, she thinks how great it would be if she could take the money she's currently using to support Hurstwood and spend it on clothes and stuff for herself instead, so she moves out of their apartment and into a fancy place with another actress. Hurstwood is pretty bummed when he comes home to an empty apartment and a goodbye note from Carrie. Still unable to find work, he goes downhill fast, eventually ending up homeless.
Carrie, by contrast, becomes a huge Broadway star. She's in all the celebrity papers and even on a billboard. Sweet victory, right?
Wrong. In the end, things get so bad for Hurstwood that he kills himself, and though Carrie's ascent to stardom continues, she finds herself awfully lonely at the top.