Hurstwood spends the day thinking of his plight. Carrie no longer wants to see him. His wife is seeking to ruin him. What can he do?
Noticing that Drouet is now living at the Palmer House, Hurstwood rushes out to Carrie's apartment but finds she is not at home. He returns to the saloon and begins to imbibe more than is his custom. For a time he forgets his troubles and enjoys the society of wealthy friends and acquaintances. After the saloon closes, Hurstwood works in his office.
Checking the safe door, as is his nightly custom, Hurstwood is astonished to discover that it had not been locked and that about ten thousand dollars is in it. Before he shuts the safe he pauses to consider what it would be like to have so much ready cash. He could run off with Carrie and get rid of his wife. The liquor warms his imagination.
Hurstwood wavers back and forth for some time, removing the money, then replacing it, and removing it again and yet again. Suddenly, the lock snaps shut as he stands with the money in his hand. The indecision turns to action. Hurstwood stuffs the money into a satchel and rushes out. He takes a cab to Carrie's apartment and tells the servant girl to fetch Carrie because Drouet is in the hospital and wishes to see her. Carrie is so bewildered that she believes the story and the cab carries them off to the railroad terminal.
Hurstwood attempts to solve his predicament in an action of the most crucial relevance. In dramatizing man's complete helplessness against the forces which control him, Dreiser's handling of the theft ranks among the most revealing scenes of all his work. The incident was so integral to his philosophy of life that with variations it appeared again twenty-five years later in the center of An American Tragedy. The perfect balance of motive and accident leads Hurstwood into committing a crime that will result in his own destruction. "When Waters Engulf Us We Reach for a Star," the title Dreiser assigns to this episode, expresses epigrammatically the clouding of intelligent self-interest in moments of panic by any apparent solution that suggests itself. For a brief moment, illusion overwhelms reality. A man takes one false step and his life is forfeit.
Intensely motivated by anger and by the impending scandal which threatens to cost him his managerial position, Hurstwood's balance is lost. Whether it is true that Hurstwood dominates Sister Carrie, stealing all attention from the title character, is a matter of dispute that can be settled only by personal taste. Dreiser does document the man's decline and fall in long and minutely detailed sequence, yet it is precisely through such extended contrast that the reader sees both Carrie and Hurstwood in a clear light. Both walk a tightrope in the precarious material world. One looks down and loses his balance, the other keeps her eyes on the tether ahead.
The central image of insecurity-Hurstwood's wavering between theft and resisted temptation- symbolizes the whole society that Dreiser evokes. It is a society in which there are no real equals, and no equilibrium, but only people moving up and down. As they waver back and forth — Carrie in her rocking chair, Hurstwood in front of the safe — they search in near hysteria for a way to the top.