Sister Carrie By Theodore Dreiser Summary and Analysis Chapters 2-4

Summary

Minnie takes her sister Carrie to the flat where she lives with her husband and baby. The flat is small and poorly furnished. Sven Hanson, Minnie's husband, works long hours in the stockyards while Minnie remains at home occupied with the steady toil of caring for the child and keeping house. The whole workaday atmosphere of the flat contrasts with the bustle of activity of the city itself and with Carrie's expectations.

Carrie writes to Drouet that she cannot see him again because the flat is much too small for visitors. Then she sits quietly in a rocking chair before going to bed. In the morning she takes a trip to the manufacturing area of the city, where she can think only of people counting money, dressing magnificently, and riding in carriages. The enormous cluster of warehouses and factories strikes her with awe, and she shrinks away from the notion of asking any of these mighty men for a chance to earn a day's pay.

Finally, she meekly asks for employment at several places but is turned away. Carrie finds herself adrift in the afternoon rush of the city, but finally a job offer at four and a half dollars per week raises her spirits. The foreman who hires Carrie looks her over as if she were a package, for this is a world where individuals are of no real importance. Once again, she looks forward to the pleasure and amusement of the city and the company of Drouet.

For the next two days Carrie speculates concerning the amusements and privileges that will fall her way. Minnie wonders if her sister will make enough money to pay for carfare after paying her four dollars room and board. Carrie arouses a shade of disapproval when she suggests that Minnie and Sven go with her to the theater, where a popular melodrama is playing. Minnie and Sven are rather disappointed with Carrie's strong craving for pleasure, the "one stay of her nature." Unless Carrie submits to a solemn round of industry and realizes the necessity of hard and steady work, her presence will afford the Hansons no economic advantages.

Carrie does not go to the theater. Friday night is spent loitering on the front stairs of the apartment building. On Saturday Carrie walks through a more fashionable part of the city and wonders whether Drouet will call on Monday after all. Arising at six o'clock on Monday morning, Carrie eats her breakfast in silence, wondering about her new job. She has a vague feeling that she will come in contact with the "great owners" and that she will be performing her work in a place where well-dressed men will look upon her with interest. Her first day of work is a nightmare. She is a link in a chain; she must at once keep up with the average speed of the assembly line or all those beyond her station will be delayed.

Carrie works incessantly for a time, finding relief for her fears in the dull, mechanical operation of the machinery. As the morning wears on slowly, the room becomes hotter and the work becomes even more tedious. She sits on a backless stool working without fresh air or water. When she stands up to work, cramps develop in her neck and shoulders.

Besides the tedious nature of the work, there is the unending and inane chatter of the other girls and the brazen advances of the young men for her to contend with. The work becomes nearly unbearable; Carrie's body is wracked with aches and pains; her eyes are strained. Then the dull bell clangs for lunch.

Her co-workers fill her with such disgust with their catty badinage and useless conversation that Carrie is glad when the half-hour lunch period is over and the work begins again. Wondering if the dull routine will ever stop, she continues the monotonous operation until six o'clock. As she walks home Carrie thinks that she deserves something more than a lifetime of such work and her spirit protests.

Analysis

The main point of these three chapters is to suggest Carrie's inability to understand either the mechanical lives of the Hansons or the superhuman activity of the rapidly growing city. Neither the Hanson household nor the city takes time to slacken the daily pace to admit her gradually. It is revealed that the Hansons are counting upon Carrie to help them reduce household expenses. The city offers no interesting employment to someone as inexperienced as Carrie.

In the department store Carrie realizes how far removed she is from its glamour and attraction. Although she desires for herself the frilly dresses, the jewelry and trinkets heaped upon the counters, she keenly feels how none of these are in the range of her purchase. "An outcast without employment," a mere job-seeker, even the shop girls could see she was poor and in need of a paying job.

Nevertheless, observing the attire and manner of both the shop girls and the patrons, Carrie sees how much the city holds in the way of wealth, fashion, and ease, and she longs for luxury with her whole heart. Then, filled with optimism, she begins to think of the city once more as a "great, pleasing metropolis," a place where she will live and be happy. Dreiser's belief that a person's financial condition determines the manner in which he perceives the world is evident throughout these chapters: in Carrie's materialistic response to the wealth of the city lies a great deal of the plot of the novel.

When Carrie begins to work, her naive expectations are quickly driven underground by the dull, hard routine of the assembly line. Not only does she suffer physically, but she is insulted and abused by the young men who work in the factory. The detailed description of the work which Carrie must perform and her revulsion to it contrast sharply with her vague and extravagant desires and speculations about the future. Instead of well-dressed and gracious owners Carrie finds a gruff foreman who seems a very ogre. Instead of finding exciting work that would be a challenge to her intellect and imagination, she finds herself chained to a machine in a room full of nearly mechanical people.

In his effort to leave a well-documented record of a time that has passed, Dreiser departs from the story line to describe how inferior working conditions were even when compared with those of twenty years later. Carrie and the others perform the same laborious task all day without benefit of a change in routine or a brief rest. The hours are long, the factory is without proper lighting or ventilation. No effort is made for the employees' comfort, in the belief that hard conditions are advantageous.

Nor does Dreiser overlook the symbolic import of the assembly line and the workhouse. Work in a factory is very similar to the grand scale of life as he saw it. Each individual becomes a cog in a wheel; each is a package of energy. The poor and weak are exploited by the strong and wealthy. Such conditions make dull animals of all they encompass. The weaker of the species must be sacrificed to the stronger; this is the ethos of cut-throat capitalism.

The poor working conditions, the uncouth boys, the long hours, and the tedium all serve to make Drouet stand out in Carrie's mind as the epitome of the good life. Carrie constantly compares her experiences with her memory of Drouet, who gains much by the contrast. Carrie is learning the hard lesson that drives its wedge between expectation and reality. Knowing as much as he does about Carrie's character and her strivings for pleasure, the reader wonders what will become of Carrie in the grotesque world she has fallen into. Carrie had hoped to visit the theater and wear fine clothes, but already she is trapped by economic conditions. Although her spirit rebels, she seems resigned to her fate.

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