As in Chicago, the idea of working in the theater comes to Carrie as a last resource in distress. One morning over breakfast she announces her intention of finding a job. Hurstwood is secretly afraid that she will become successful and desert him. He does not understand Carrie's mental ability; he does not realize that a person can be "emotionally — instead of intellectually — great."
To prevent Carrie from making any definite plans, Hurstwood lies that he anticipates obtaining a hotel job through an old friend and that he is beginning to hear from his "contacts" once more. He reflects that Carrie might work for a while until the job materializes.
Searching for work one day, Carrie returns with a copy of the Clipper, wherein are listed the names and addresses of the New York theatrical agents. Hurstwood picks a few at random and Carrie visits them to no avail, for minimal experience and a cash deposit are required before an agent will consider managing a young actress. Carrie decides to see the theater managers directly.
As she stops at various theaters of the city, Carrie must deal with all sorts of self-important types, from pompous doormen and box-office clerks to the "lords" themselves of these little businesses. All expect her to be very humble, and they resent her small intrusion upon their precious time. Finally, the manager of the Casino tells Carrie to return the following week, at which time there may be an opening in the chorus line.
When the week of waiting is over, Carrie returns to the Casino theater, where she is told to report the next morning for rehearsal. As the girl walks homeward, her delight turns to dissatisfaction with Hurstwood, whose "handicap of age" she does not comprehend.
Once again taking the name Carrie Madenda, the young chorine works hard at rehearsal every day, "the sound of glory ringing in her ears." It seems to Carrie that Hurstwood has decided to sit about the house waiting for her to bring home her weekly twelve dollars. This annoys her, because she is anxious to buy new clothes with her salary.
Hurstwood stays home the night of the opening performance. The play is a hit and Carrie is assured of work for some time.
As Carrie works hard at the theater, Hurstwood sits home for a month reading the newspaper, his determination to seek work overclouded more and more by the conviction "that each particular day was not the day." Laying aside a few dollars for shaves and carfare, he announces to Carrie that he is finally out of money. Now the two are wholly dependent upon her for subsistence. When Hurstwood does "borrow" money for household expenses, he always returns the exact change to Carrie.
At the theater, Carrie makes friends with Lola Osborne, a "little gaslight soldier." The two spend much of their free time together looking for new work and shopping.
The theater manager and the ballet master agree that Carrie is a much better dancer than the average run of the girls and put her in charge of a "line," raising her salary to eighteen dollars. Nevertheless, after buying a few things for herself Carrie discovers again and again that she simply cannot support two people.
Carrie takes advantage of every opportunity to be out of the house away from Hurstwood, who makes mild and ineffectual protests against her absence. This only serves to widen the gap between them. While Carrie is visiting Lola one afternoon, two of the young lady's gentlemen admirers stop by to take her for a drive. Carrie is persuaded to join them and naturally forgets to return home in time to cook dinner for Hurstwood. As he sits home, grumbling to himself that Carrie is getting ahead now and he is "out of it," Carrie dines at the famed Delmonico's restaurant. The setting reminds her of the time she dined with the Vances and Bob Ames, whose ideals "burned in her heart." A sense of obligation forces her to go home directly after the performance, and so she must decline the offer of the youths to continue the day's festivities.
One of the major ironies, or reversals, of the novel arises from Carrie's desperate decision to become an actress. Up until now she had considered the theater only a part of her impossible fantasy world. The stage was "a door through she might enter that gilded state which she had so much craved."
As a "soldier of fortune," Carrie had always accepted the dictates of fate without question. She had been content to remain passive as Drouet or Hurstwood presided over her actions and provided financial security. Now that Hurstwood is unable to provide, he is also unable to direct Carrie's behavior. At this point, the brutal reality of starvation and the omnipresent fantasy of the theater converge to provide a course of action for the "little soldier."
The world in which she imagines herself is far less removed from the real world than are the realms of fantasy she has previously visited. Poverty and the fear of starvation make it a necessity for her to take a part in a Broadway show. She must go to the theater every evening to apply her makeup. After each performance she sees the elegant carriages waiting about with amorous youths in them seeking her attention. In just a short time, she will enjoy a generous income and will be able to buy the clothes she desires. As her mind wanders over these fantasies, Hurstwood's dreary state makes their beauty "more and more vivid." As the beauty of the fantasy become more vivid, it also becomes more and more realistic. For once, Carrie's fantasies do not fade; instead, the conditions of the world change, allowing them to become actual.
In Dreiser's world view such a drastic change in conditions is part of the ordinary flux of life. At one moment Carrie drifts along on a tempestuous sea; the next moment she finds herself on the crest of a wave riding toward success. Looking over her shoulder, she sees Hurstwood slipping beneath the stormy surface.
Dreiser never chose his details without great care. The publication Clipper, although it momentarily sets Carrie off on an uncertain course through the offices of Mrs. Bermudez and other theatrical agents, ultimately does provide her with the determination to stop at the port of the Casino theater.
Suggestions of the eternal sea of flux upon which the drama unfolds continue to appear in the minutest details. The very name "Carrie" suggests the girl's relation to the workings of fate. Similarly, "Madenda," coming from a Latin root meaning "wet" or "soaked," continues to enforce the imagery.
As Carrie's fortunes rise steadily, Hurstwood continues to become more defeated and bitter. Every minor advance for Carrie becomes a major setback for him, until finally he comes to blame Carrie for his own dissolution. He believes that Carrie is now satisfied and content with her lot and that her success will go to her head. Even as he sits brooding over this, however, Carrie sits with her friend Lola and two gallants, thinking not of her financial success or popularity, but of the emotional fulfillment that comes with being a good actress. The ideals of Bob Ames burn in her heart. It is not for Carrie to be content with the present; she forces herself always to look to the future for satisfaction.