Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

A symbol is an object, action, or event that represents something or that creates a range of associations beyond itself. In literary works, a symbol can express an idea, clarify meaning, or enlarge literal meaning. Select a novel or play and focusing on one symbol, write an essay analyzing how that symbol functions in the wok and what it reveals about the characters or themes of the work as a whole.

A common symbol that is found throughout the novel, “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser is the newspaper which symbolizes in black and white, the old news of the world concerning what has already happened in the past and one’s inability to rise in the future. The newspaper is a significant symbol throughout Dreiser’s story in that it those who read the past events that are found in the paper are, like the news, has-beens who will never again be able to regain their high status in society. Dreiser implores upon this symbolization of the black and white text that is responsible for informing its readers of the past through many of the novel’s main characters who are avid readers of the newspaper, and are struggling to regain their previous social and financial status.

One of the most prominent characters whose story applies to this symbol within the novel is George Hurstwood, one of Carrie’s lovers. Hurstwood was once a very wealthy man who enjoyed all of the finer things in life, and threw around money as if it were nothing. However, the day soon came within the novel where he was at a loss for work, and was now dependent upon Carrie to go out into the workforce and find a job in order to further support them. While he is at home during his time of financial burden and unemployment, George decides to read the newspaper for the very first time. This is symbolic in that this is the first time that he has ever been without money, and now because of his lack of financial cushion, he decides to read the newspaper for the first time as well like others who are without money do. This action of reading the paper for the first time after becoming unemployed symbolizes Hurstwood’s inability to rise again, and become the wealthy socialite that he was prior to his job loss.

Another example in which the newspaper and its symbolization of the past and inability to regain success once again becomes evident once again when Hurstwood begins to read the newspaper on a daily basis, and soon becomes addicted as he spends all of his time at home with his nose stuck in the black and white of news past. It was said in chapter twenty, “Each day he read the evening paper…” (Dreiser, 261). This represents not only Hurstwood’s increase in financial failure as he buries himself even deeper, unable to shovel his way out of this poor state of being, but it also represents his addiction to the past and what his life was like before he lost his job when he was wealthy. Hurstwood finds it difficult to recognize the present state in which he is in, so in order to supplement for this, he continues to revert to the past in order to distract his thoughts and make himself feel better.

The symbolization of the newspaper reaches its climax within the novel Hurstwood begins to not only read the news found within the paper, but also obtain the weather from this source. This is representative of the fact that he has now reached an all-time low in his life, and is at his breaking point so to speak. In chapter thirty five it talks about Hurstwood reading in the weather section that a storm is soon approaching, then how it had finally arrived. This is symbolic of the “storm” of unemployment in which he experienced that led him to the downpour that is his life today as he has fallen to the most minuscule of those within society who possess little to no wealth and/or success.

Throughout the novel, “Sister Carrie”, the author Theodore Dreiser displays the downfall of those within society who are unable to let go of the past and/or rise to the top of the financial wealth again through the symbolization of the newspaper and its readings, as seen through the character, George Hurstwood. This symbol of declining fortune and failure goes along with the character’s struggle to once again regain the “American Dream” that is constantly being chased throughout the novel, and to further move on from their past life of lax and luxury.



“Sister Carrie” the movie was released on October, 31, 1952 by Paramount Pictures Productions. Directed by William Wyler, this 118 minute long film tells the story in black and white of the young Carrie Meeber who sets out on her own in the big city in search of the “American Dream” while enduring a rather promiscuous life-style and stirring up controversy with morality issues along the way. The film stars:

Jennifer Jones- Carrie Meeber

Lauren Oliver- George Hurstwood

Eddie Abert- Charles Drouet

Since its release, the film has been nominated for two Academy Awards as well as a slew of other film-related honors. Below is a clip from the movie in which you will see a scene involving Carrie and her former lover, Charles Drouet, where Carrie is in search of a job in order to support her and her new companion, George Hurstwood, after they both lost their jobs.

“She realized in a dim way how much the city held- wealth, fashion, ease- every adornment for women, and she longed for dress and beauty with a whole heart.”

A common theme that is found throughout the story of “Sister Carrie” is that of material envy, and one’s hunger for the elite-factor that so many within the city are able to experience, such as Carrie observed. Although Carrie was not originally a wealthy person, and she recognized that all walks of like existed within the city, she envied and wished to covet the extravagance and beauty that she saw the people with money had. Because she came from a background that was rather shabby, she felt as if money could possibly be the answer to all of her problems and happiness. Although it is said a lot of times that the rich are a lot of the times some of the most unhappy people, while those who have nothing are often the most happy; this wasn’t so for Carrie, and it was this drive and envy for money and wealth that kept her going and caused her to take the actions in which she took in order to obtain this high class life-style. Material envy is something within the book that I found to be one of the main driving factors for the story, and is what shaped the events within the plot, and remained a true part of Carrie’s overall characters.

“She looked into her glass and saws a prettier Carrie than she had seen before; she looked into her mind, a mirror prepared of her own and the world’s opinions, and saw a worse. Between these two images she wavered, hesitating which to believe.”

Morality is an issue that not only existed within the plot, but was also brought into the publishing and popularity of this story as well. During the time period in which “Sister Carrie” was written in, it was unheard of to sleep or live with a man out of wedlock such as Carrie did. It was because of this idea that existed within the book that controversy erupted not only in the story line over this issue, but to the book’s audience as well. In the story, the only way that Carried would be able to obtain the wealth that she had been longing for was to be with a man out of wedlock who happened to have the income status that she was searching for. Although she knew that this was unheard of, she followed through with it anyways because of her yearning for wealth and prosperity. In the quote above, Carrie is recognizing the fact that this wealth is making her “prettier” than she was before when she was poor, but at the same time, the reflection in which she viewed was ugly in that she knew to the rest of the world’s eyes that’s what she was seen as because she was sleeping with a man out of wedlock. Although this is definitely common among couples today, it was not during this time by any form or fashion, and because of this, the issue of a change of morality is one of the main points that lies within the overall story of “Sister Carrie.”

“We see man’s fortune or material progress is very much the same as his bodily growth. Either he is growing stronger, healthier, wiser, as the youth approaching manhood, or he is growing weaker, older, less incisive mentally, as the man approaching old age. There are no other states.”

As the majority of this novel is centered around that of money, it is no surprise that one of the major themes found within “Sister Carrie” has to do with the cost of living. When Carrie Meeber first starts out her new life at her sister’s apartment in Chicago, she is welcomed by the not so fabulous lifestyle in which her sibling dwells within. Her sister is poor, as is Carrie, and her sister is expectant of Carrie to find herself a job so that she can help with the finances. Although Carrie eventually finds one, she is paid next to nothing, showing her disillusionment towards the reality of life and what the cost of living truly is. Eventually, Carrie learns that she can also obtain wealth through sleeping her way to the top, so to speak, and lived with/had affairs with rich men in order to obtain her wealth. Even here, Carrie still does not understand the cost of living because she is not the one having to pay for everything yet because they are providing for her.  Money is a driving force in our world today, and if someone does not recognize this and sees money as only an object that can be thrown around, the reality behind cost of living will eventually hit them really hard, as seen in “Sister Carrie” and like Carrie found out, you will have work and sometimes go to great lengths in order to earn money and keep your head above the waters of poverty and maintain your wealth, whatever that wealth may be.

“Among the forces which sweep and play throughout the universe; untortured man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is not wholly guided by reason.”

An idea that is really emphasized within the story of “Sister Carrie” is that of the American Dream. The American Dream essentially is a national ethos that within the United States, there is a promise of freedom, prosperity, and well-being for all no matter what one’s background or social class may be. We see this is “Sister Carrie” through the fact that this is her main goal in life; to achieve the said “American Dream.” Carrie starts out as a small town farm girl who moves to the big city to live with her sister and obtain the wealth that she has always wanted. However, she learns that in order for her to fully chase this dream and be wealthy, she has to break a few rules along the way such as sleep with a man out of wedlock etc. Carrie is willing to go against the rest of society’s idea of morality however in order to achieve this American Dream, and stops at nothing in order to do so. After finding out that Drouet could no longer provide for her, she moved on because she wanted to continue on in her life-style of wealth rather than go down with him. Carrie is constantly chasing this dream or wealth and prosperity because she believes that it will lead to her happiness; however like many find out the “American Dream” isn’t always what it’s made out to be.

“Hurstwood saw her depart with some faint stirrings of shame, which were the expressions of a manhood rapidly becoming stultified.”

In this excerpt, we are able to view Hurstwood’s shame and resentment towards he and Carrie’s changing roles as she goes on to get a job and become the sole provider for their household. Although he agrees that it is necessary for Carrie to find work in order to fill these shoes, he is uncomfortable with the fact that she is now taking on jobs that the said “man of the house” would do, while he is at home such as women normally are. A lot of times, when people are experiencing financial conflicts because of job loss or poverty, it is necessary for this sort of change in roles to occur, and it is not an easy idea for men to wrap their heads around. I think that this idea of a change in roles also goes back towards the conflicts experienced with morality and a change in times. Used to, the men worked while the women stayed home. But now, this is beginning to change because people need some sort of way in order to adequately provide for their families, and women were beginning to take on more male-like roles so to speak in the job area. Although many might have resented it, men especially, it was necessary and something that some even find to be a hard thing to get used to today.


When “Sister Carrie” was published by Doubleday Page and Company in 1900, it definitely rocked the nation as far as the controversy that existed over the book; in fact, it was never supposed to be published in the first place because of this reason. Because of the sexual impropriety that existed within the book, many Americans did not acknowledge the book and felt that it should not be published because of such sexual content. However; unlike the Americans, the people of England appreciated Dreiser’s writing, and the English version was printed in 1901 by William Heinemann where the book was highly successful as far as sales. Although this book was not popular by any means in the United States, more publishing companies began to take to the book because of its success over seas and eventually, “Sister Carrie” became Theodore Dreiser’s most successful, bought out, novel.

The Author at a Glance

American novelist and journalist, Theodore Dreiser, was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on August 27, 1871 to Sarah and John Paul Dreiser. Theodore was the twelfth of thirteen children. In 1889, Dreiser left home to study at Indiana University where he soon dropped out two years after his enrollment. But he did not let this destroy his success. Within a few years of dropping out of the university, Theodore was writing for newspapers such as the Chicago Globe and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. On December 28, 1898, Dreiser married Sara White, but they soon split after she learned of his infatuation for another woman. Adding to his twisted love life, Dreiser soon went on to marry his cousin, Helen Richardson. During this time of marriage and affairs, Theodore Dreiser began to branch out of the newspaper world and started writing novels. His first novel was “Sister Carrie” which was written in 1900. Along with this well known story, came a wide collection of murder mysteries, short stories, and books including “The Genius” and “Trilogy of Desire.” Theodore Dreiser is known as one of America’s greatest naturalist writers, and although his writing was often censored and seen as uncouth because of his depiction upon some aspects of life and sexual promiscuity, he paved the way for naturalist writers today and will be forever remembered for this achievement. Theodore Dreiser died in December of 1945 at the age of 74.