The naturalistic writer presents his theme through symbolic detail. In this way the symbolic level of the narrative is laid directly over the events and occurrences of the simple story itself. Dreiser's use of symbolic detail permeates the novel, ranging from careful descriptions of dress and adornment to descriptions of great American cities and their surroundings.
The author must make the reader aware that the details are important to the meaning. Dreiser generally accomplishes this end through a kind of "incremental repetition" of important details. Occasionally, however, he shows a lack of subtlety when he addresses his reader directly to reveal his intention.
By registering carefully Carrie's reaction to specific details, Dreiser shows her moving from her early naive optimism to her final disillusionment and despair. Carrie's sensitivity to details provides the emotional center of the novel. The most important patterns of details, in addition to clothing and money, are the theater, hotels, and restaurants. These comprise the walled and gilded city to which Carrie seeks entrance. Perhaps the most important single group of objects is the various rocking chairs upon which Carrie rides to dreamland, beginning in her sister's flat, continuing through the several rooms and apartments where she lives, and culminating in her vast suite in the Waldorf.
Dreiser's symbolism reveals the separate and distinct worlds of Sister Carrie. There is the realistic world of the "reasonable" mind and the imagined world of the "emotional" world, a world described in the novel as "Elf-land," "Dream Land," or "The Kingdom of Greatness." This is the world from which Hurstwood emerges as an "ambassador" to bring Carrie back with him. It is this world in which Carrie ironically becomes a citizen — ironically" because it never seems to yield the rewards and beauty it promises. Life is a constant battle fought between the giant armies of frustration and desire.