Even as her neighbor Mrs. Hale is spreading gossip about the rooming house, Carrie reflects on her situation with Drouet and begins to see hope of a way out, mistakenly perceiving in Hurstwood an advance toward honor and self-respect.
Hurstwood, however, thinks only of "pleasure without responsibility." He wishes to do nothing that would "complicate his life." During their next meeting Hurstwood realizes that Carrie takes their love "on a much higher basis" than he believed. She holds him off, granting only "tokens of affection." Hurstwood sees that Carrie will be no easy conquest and so resolves to control his ardor.
Hurstwood pretends to believe that Carrie is actually married to Drouet, and hopes that Drouet will not tell Carrie that he has a wife and family. When Drouet returns home from his business trip, Carrie once again poses the question of marriage. Of course Drouet does not plan to marry her, even in the distant future. Carrie therefore feels justified in her affair with Hurstwood, believing that it will lead to the secure and honorable state of matrimony.
Drouet and Carrie accept an invitation from Hurstwood to attend the theater. A secret letter to Carrie from Hurstwood asks her to meet him in the afternoon before the performance. At that time the lovers agree not to show any interest in each other when Drouet is present.
That evening, Hurstwood is particularly attentive to his old friend Drouet and strives to avoid "that subtle ridicule which a lover in favor may so secretly practice before the mistress of his heart." It is difficult, because in the play "The Covenant," a young wife listens willingly to her seductive lover while her husband is away. "Served him right," remarks Drouet, speaking of the husband, "I haven't any pity for a man who would be such a chump as that." Hurstwood answers gently that "you can never tell"; perhaps the man thought he was right.
Emerging from the theater Hurstwood is approached by a panhandler but, blinded by the presence of Carrie, he does not even see the fellow. The good-natured Drouet quickly responds to the man's plight "with an upwelling feeling of pity in his heart." The occurrence is scarcely noticed by the lovers.
At home, the details of Hurstwood's marriage show that it is going into a crisis. He is continually more put off by his wife's self-centered demands and his children's shallow behavior. Hurstwood begins writing daily letters to Carrie from his office. Each new sentence allows him to feel the subtleties that he tries to express. He loves Carrie for her youth, beauty, and her good nature. She is sympathetic and kind to him and full of pity for all who suffer. All these qualities make Carrie a "waxen lily" in Hurstwood's eyes. He begins to feel youthful himself.
The lovers meet in the park to discuss the future. Carrie says that she is willing to leave Drouet anytime if Hurstwood consents to marry her. Her refusal merely to become his mistress causes Hurstwood to be even more in love with her. To test her affection for him, Hurstwood asks with unconscious irony if she would leave Chicago with him without notice. Of course she will, if he will marry her, is the reply. Hurstwood did not mean the question to be taken so seriously. He replies jokingly, "I'll come and get you one of these evenings," and then laughs.
It is necessary to consider Carrie's motives in allowing herself to forsake Drouet for Hurstwood. She recognizes that Drouet is not interested in building any kind of sincere relationship. His interest in Carrie is kindled by his own desires for pleasure and his egotistical good nature. He has chosen to make of Carrie a kind of Pygmalion's Galatea. He delights in her growth of intellect, her growing charms, her newly acquired wit and blooming natural graces. Directing and watching her growth is a hobby for him; his primary interest is to be a successful businessman, well liked by all. Carrie is to him an object of pride or a project for satisfaction. Not once does he realize that she is far more spirited and sensitive and cleverer than he is.
Carrie knows full well that Drouet will not marry her. He is not a marrying man. Her conscience, as well as her growing self esteem, requires that she find a man who is willing to marry her. She has been led by Hurstwood to believe that he is free to marry; whereas in reality he merely wishes to set her up in a South Side apartment as his mistress. Ironically, she finds her own justification for leaving Drouet in her knowledge that she will never be more than his mistress.
In addition to the possibility of finding honor and self-respect with Hurstwood, there is yet another reason for her attraction to him. This is the matter of sympathy which he arouses in her. Hurstwood realizes that Carrie is of a sympathetic nature and so with her he capitalizes upon this quality which he has found lacking in other women. Also, in extending toward Hurstwood her own sympathies in recompense for the lack of understanding and the indifference he meets in other people, she begins to see that she herself suffers the same plight. Yet Carrie is still naive enough to believe that Hurstwood loves her in the same manner in which she loves him.
Carrie, furthermore, is flattered that Hurstwood, "a man of the world," should find her, a shop girl, so interesting and attractive. Hurstwood is an ideal figure to Carrie, a visitor from the "higher world" of wealth, power, and influence. She can hardly believe that Hurstwood is ready to invite her to join that higher world.
Irony, which might be defined as the difference perceived by the author and reader between the world of intention or desire and the real world, appears in various forms in these chapters. The point of Carrie's mistaken belief that Hurstwood is prepared to marry her has already been mentioned. There is an even deeper irony in Hurstwood's intended desire to keep his life uncomplicated and free of entanglements which would endanger his standing in the business and social community. When Carrie finally does "win" Hurstwood, it happens at the expense of his fine reputation and powerful influence.
There is dramatic irony in Drouet's unconscious commentary upon his own plight after the theater, when he says that a man should be more attentive to his wife if he wants to keep her. Finally, ironic detail is used in these chapters. In the presence of Drouet, who once made her feel she had found a calm spot in a "sea of trouble," Carrie feels "all at sea mentally" when discussing Hurstwood. It is with a further ironic twist, then, that Carrie is shown wearing a "sailor hat" when she meets her new lover in the park in Chapter 15.
Dreiser continues to dramatize the theme of the editorial intrusion of Chapter 12. He is careful to show how words are often irrelevant to human situations; but he also wishes to demonstrate the paradoxical opposite of the idea — that is when a character seeks to find words to express his imagined subtlety of feeling, he begins to feel what has never existed until he described it: "Hurstwood surprised himself with his fluency.... He began to feel those subtleties which he could find words to express. With every expression came increased conception."