Hurstwood spends his time wandering from one charity line to another. He often thinks of suicide, but usually does not have the fifteen cents required for a cell with a gas jet. Once he attempts to see Carrie backstage at the theater, but the doorman throws him out bodily. Hurstwood wanders off helplessly, crying, begging, "losing track of his thoughts, one after another, as a mind decayed is wont to do."
Carrie sits with Lola in their comfortable chambers in the Waldorf, reading Père Goriot, a novel about misery and suffering that Ames had prescribed for her. The night is cold and stormy, so Carrie decides to take a coach to the theater.
Drouet meets another bachelor in the lobby of another luxurious hotel. The two young men agree to invite two girls out for dinner.
Mrs. Hurstwood, her daughter Jessica, and Jessica's wealthy husband ride eastward in a Pullman somewhere between Chicago and New York. The three are headed for a holiday in Rome.
Hurstwood stands outside a Bowery flophouse waiting for the doors to open. When they do, he pays his fifteen cents, retires to his cell, locks the door, and seals the crack beneath it with his ragged overcoat. Sighing to himself, "What's the use?" he turns on the gas jet and settles down on the cot. In her rocking chair by the window Carrie sings and dreams of the "tangle of human life." Carrie is a "harp in the wind," one of the "emotionally great" "who respond to every breath of fancy, voicing in their moods all the ebb and flow of the ideal."
The panoramic technique of the final chapter is used to illustrate the ebb and flow of life. Some, like Hurstwood, fall along the way. He has become part of the "class which simply floats and drifts, every wave of people washing up one, as breakers do driftwood upon a stormy shore." Some, like Carrie, rise, always grasping for the next narrow ledge, but never know the happiness of which they dream. Others, like Drouet and Hurstwood's wife and daughter, simply continue along the same dead run, never knowing what the future may bring.
Sitting alone, [Carrie] was now an illustration of the devious ways by which one who feels, rather than reasons, may be led in the pursuit of beauty. Though often disillusioned, she was still waiting for that halcyon day when she should be led forth among dreams become real. Ames had pointed out a farther step, but on and on beyond that, if accomplished, would lie others for her. It was forever to be the pursuit of that radiance of delight which tints the distant hilltops of the world.
Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward, onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows.... In your rocking chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.
The famous closing passage reveals Dreiser's attempt to gather together the major themes of the novel. After rendering a final glimpse of all the important characters, he turns his attention to Carrie as a representative of the universal striving of humanity. Those who "reason" can ultimately find only the sordid and the ugly. The man of reason cannot answer his own question, "What's the use?" Those who live by emotion can at least dream of an answer to their question, "Where is beauty?"