Study Guide

Sister Carrie Women and Femininity

By Theodore Dreiser

Women and Femininity

In late nineteenth-century America, women—generally speaking—held way less economic, social, and political power than men (remember that this was the era when women couldn't even cast a little old ballot). Yet in Sister Carrie, the main female character ends up becoming much more economically and socially successful than any of the male characters. This fact alone makes the novel deserving of a close look at the role of women. To top it off, Carrie's rise from small-town nobody to big star seems to have a lot to do with her ability to master certain codes of femininity and make herself look super girly. Who would've thought that learning to flip her hair in just the right way would change the whole direction of Carrie's life?

Questions About Women and Femininity

  1. Why does Carrie resist being the breadwinner in her relationship with Hurstwood after she becomes a success? 
  2. How do the minor female characters function in the novel? Are they well developed or not? And what is up with all the jealousy and competitiveness between Carrie and other women in the novel?
  3. Sister Carrie might be deemed a progressive or even feminist novel because of its successful female protagonist. But what about the narrator's sweeping generalizations about women? Are they simply old-fashioned and outdated hogwash, or do they provide any useful insights?
  4.  As critics like Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel  have pointed out, Carrie is sexually transgressive for her time (e.g. moving in with Drouet before marriage, starting up an affair with Hurstwood), but unlike some other nineteenth-century female characters, she doesn't suffer the ultimate punishment for her "sins" (i.e. she's not dead at the end of the novel). What does this suggest?

Chew on This

Sister Carrie's views of women and female identity are totally contradictory.

The fact that the leading female character is alive while the leading male character is not at the end of the novel is a really big deal.