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Sister Carrie

Sister Carrie (1900) is a novel by Theodore Dreiser about a young country girl who moves to the big city where she starts realizing her own American Dream by embarking on a life of sin rather than by hard work and perseverance. At the time of its first publication the novel caused a minor scandal, and Dreiser had difficulty finding a publisher for it. This was due to the blurred division line between good and bad in the plot and the fact that at the end Carrie is rewarded rather than punished for her immoral life. Although Dreiser's moralising narrator does assert that, despite the fame and the money she has amassed, Carrie will not be able to achieve peace of mind in her life, the apparent lack of poetic justice -- the notion that immorality should pay in the end, even if only up to a point -- was a concept the reading public were altogether unused to at the time.

Outline of the plot

Leaving her rural Wisconsin home, 18 year-old Caroline Meeber heads for Chicago, where she wants to live with her older sister's family. Soon, however, Carrie finds out that working in a sweatshop and living in a squalid and overcrowded apartment is not what she wants. When she meets Drouet again, a travelling salesman whose acquaintance she already made on the train to Chicago, she readily leaves behind her family -- they never see "Sister Carrie" again -- when he offers to look after her. Drouet installs her in a much larger apartment in return for her favours. Through Drouet, Carrie meets Hurstwood, the manager of a respectable bar. From the moment he sets eyes on her, Hurstwood is infatuated with the young girl, whereas for Carrie Hurstwood is just a wealthy man past the prime of life. Before long they start an affair, communicating and meeting secretly in the expanding, anonymous city. Although Hurstwood has a family and Carrie might conclude that he does, the lovers never talk about it, and it never seems to occur to Carry to ask.

One night, at his job, Hurstwood is presented with the opportunity to embezzle a large sum of money. He succumbs to the temptation, and decides on the spur of the moment to leave everything behind and start a new life with Carrie. Under a pretext he lures Carrie onto a northbound train and escapes with her to Canada. After a while his guilty conscience makes him pay back most of the money, but there is no way he could return to his former life, so the couple eventually decide to move to the East coast.

The second part of the book is set in New York. Hurstwood and Carrie rent a flat where they live as man and wife under an assumed name. Gradually, Hurstwood realizes that finding a new job is not easy at all. As his money is slowly running out, the couple have to start economizing, which Carrie does not like at all. She starts looking for a job herself and finds employment at one of the many theatres. Her rise to stardom is sharply contrasted with Hurstwood's downfall: She leaves him, and the rapidly ageing Hurstwood, overwhelmed by apathy, is left all alone, without a job and without any money. At one point, during a strike, he even works as a scab driving a Brooklyn streetcar. He joins the homeless of New York and finally, in some cheap hotel, puts an end to his life.

Sister Carrie was filmed in 1952 as Carrie by William Wyler starring Jennifer Jones in the title role and Laurence Olivier as Hurstwood. The movie must of course not be confused with Stephen King's novel and Brian De Palma's 1976 film version Carrie, which is not a remake of Wyler's movie.