Caroline Meeber, an eighteen-year-old innocent, boards the train for her first trip to Chicago from her small home town in Wisconsin. Carrying all her worldly belongings, an imitation alligator satchel, a yellow purse, and four dollars in cash, she looks forward to Chicago with mixed timidity and hope, ignorance and youthful expectancy. As the train rushes out of town, all the bonds which tie her to childhood are irrevocably broken. Carrie is ignorant of the traps and disasters that lie in wait for her in the big city. It is certain that without someone to guide and counsel her she will fall prey to the cosmopolitan morality.
Aboard the train her prettiness and naiveté attract the attention of a bold and dapper traveling salesman named Charles Drouet. Although her maidenly reserve and sense of propriety forestall immediate familiarity with Drouet, she is gradually won over by the drummer's slangy charm. Because of the seeming shabbiness of her dress and her worn shoes, Carrie feels reticent and socially inferior to Drouet in his dashing attire. Soon, however, she becomes fascinated with Drouet's elegant appearance. In the lengthy conversation which ensues, Drouet flatters Carrie and finally obtains her Chicago address, making a tentative date to meet her again the following week.
As the train approaches the great city, Carrie sees the many telegraph poles set out in the still undeveloped prairie and solitary houses, "lone outposts of the approaching army of homes." Carrie is nearly transfixed by the sight of the city as they enter. When the train stops, she experiences a moment of terror and feels choked for breath so far away from Columbia City, her old home.
Once they are off the train, Drouet gallantly waits in the background for Carrie's sister Minnie to find her, and when she does, he departs with a smile that only Carrie sees. When Drouet disappears Carrie feels his absence greatly; she is "a lone figure in a tossing, thoughtless sea."
In any novel, and particularly in Sister Carrie, the first chapter is extremely important. In it the author introduces his theme and plot through foreshadowing, careful arrangement of details, and introductory characterization. He begins the careful work of describing the setting. He introduces himself as the narrator of the story. Dreiser's attention to details is everywhere evident, from the description of Drouet's attire to the depiction of the outskirts of Chicago. Dreiser begins his story in such a way that Carrie herself is as unfamiliar with each situation as the reader is. Next to nothing is told of her life before leaving Columbia City, except for a few details that reveal how pedestrian it must have been.
By shifting between exposition and dramatic techniques, Dreiser succeeds in providing the reader with full information about Carrie without sacrificing any of the immediacy of her new venture. By carefully describing Carrie externally and internally, he manages to make the reader sympathetic as well as intimate with her. Thus, in a single paragraph it is revealed that Carrie "was possessed of a mind rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis" and also that she "could scarcely toss her head gracefully."
In dramatizing much of the first meeting of Carrie and Drouet, that is, by presenting it largely in dialog, Dreiser permits the Carrie he has already described to show herself in action. In addition to expository and dramatic techniques, part of Dreiser's method consists in making direct addresses to the reader, thus providing a thematic account of the action. By interpreting explicitly some of the story, Dreiser prepares the reader for interpreting other parts for himself. "When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse." When Carrie therefore finally accepts Drouet's bold overtures, the reader realizes that she is rapidly assuming "the cosmopolitan standard" and that her virtue is likely to suffer.
Carrie's keen interest in attractive clothing and the deficiency of her own clothing is an integral part of the future outcome of the novel. Much of Carrie's story is presented in terms of the clothing she acquires.
Foreshadowing occurs throughout the chapter; the title of the chapter itself — "The Magnet Attracting: A Waif Amid Forces — is significant. The forceful Drouet flatters the impressionable Carrie by saying that she resembles a popular actress of the day. In a few short years Carrie will actually become a famous stage personality. Finally, the last image of Carrie adrift in the sea, bobbing endlessly, is one that will reappear in various forms throughout the novel.