Sister Carrie By Theodore Dreiser Summary and Analysis Chapters 17-19

Summary

During her next visit with Hurstwood, Carrie tells him all about her role in the forthcoming melodrama. He is pleased to learn that Carrie has capabilities and ambition. Hurstwood assures Carrie that he will contrive to keep Drouet from knowing that she told him about the theatrical. When Drouet does stop by at Fitzgerald and Moy's, Hurstwood remarks that they must give Carrie "a nice little send-off' and insists that Carrie and Drouet take supper with him after the play.

At the rehearsal, Carrie's natural acting ability is noticed by the director, who is surprised to learn that she has no stage experience. While Carrie rehearses, Hurstwood does not sit idle. He becomes a behind-the-scenes public relations man, taking every opportunity to publicize the show among his friends in the order, in which both he and Drouet are members.

Carrie is very nervous about the forthcoming performance, imagining all manners of horror and embarrassment if she fails to do well. Once she arrives at the theater, however, all the "nameless paraphernalia of disguise" transport her into a new and friendly atmosphere. Here she is part of the world of beautiful clothes, flowers, and elegant carriages. "She had come upon it as one who stumbles upon a secret passage, and, behold, she was in the chamber of diamonds and delight!" The gaslights, the makeup, and the costume transform Carrie into "Laura, the Belle of Society." Hurstwood has enticed to the theater a host of gentlemen and their wives. Here, he is the star, the center of attraction: "It was greatness in a way, small as it was."

For a while, all of Carrie's earlier fears are realized; the performance of all the actors is terrible. As the female lead, Carrie seems the worst of all. As Drouet and Hurstwood sit nervously in their box, Hurstwood stares at Carrie onstage, "as if to hypnotize her into doing better." When Carrie exits, Drouet goes backstage to bolster her waning courage. Gradually she gains more confidence and moves onstage "with a steady grace, born of inspiration." Her performance moves the entire audience, but especially Drouet, who resolves to marry her, and Hurstwood, who becomes even more determined to take her from Drouet.

After the drama, Carrie is elated by her newfound powers. For once she looks down upon Hurstwood and not up at him. After the supper, she promises secretly to meet Hurstwood the next day and returns home with the enthusiastic Drouet.

Analysis

In striving to show the workings of fate, Dreiser found it necessary to draw heavily from the well of unforeseen coincidence. Therefore, he inserts this theatrical episode where it is not entirely dramatically feasible but still necessary to his philosophy. Dreiser's view of life saw coincidence and external and unforeseeable incidents or episodes as a very real part of man's existence. Thus, he felt it quite relevant to introduce the Elks' benefit melodrama at this point. Despite the many new resolutions made by Drouet and Hurstwood, then, it appears to be part of Carrie's fate to become an actress, even if through the most curious sequence of causes.

In her brief taste of theatrical life, Carrie finds a sure way of climbing into the world of her imagination. Carrie is never so introspective as to inquire why "An Hour in Elf Land" holds such great appeal for her. Nevertheless, in her performance it is impossible to ignore the great changes that have come over the young girl who climbed on the train from Columbia City. At that time "she could scarcely toss her head gracefully"; now waiting in the wings for her cue, she is encouraged by Drouet to "get that toss" of her head that is characteristic of the Belle of Society.

The very world over which she reigns onstage is a pack of "Siberian wolves," who move away from her scornfully as she enters. Not only in the speeches themselves which she delivers but also in their effect upon Drouet and Hurstwood there lies much irony. Many of her speeches bear direct relevance to Carrie's situation — it is a sad thing to want for happiness, but it is a terrible thing to see another groping about blindly for it, when it is almost within the grasp"; "my existence hidden from all save two in the wide world, and making my joy out of that innocent girl who will soon be his wife"; "her beauty, her wit, her accomplishments, she may sell to you; but her love is the treasure without money and without price."

In her role as Laura, Carrie is the woman damned by society, yet desired by all, she is incapable of giving love. Laura remains an outcast of the very society she rules. Surrounded by willing lovers, clothed in finery, Laura will never be able to find love or satisfaction. In the figure of Laura, there is the ironic foreshadowing of the popular famous actress, Miss Carrie Madenda.

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