The remainder of the summer and the autumn pass. Carrie obtains another part at a higher salary when the opera in which she played a part goes on the road. Hurstwood continues to sit in the rocking chair, reading his newspaper, promising himself that things will go better for him. Of course, the hotel job he talked about never materializes.
One winter day, after Carrie complains to Hurstwood that she cannot possibly pay all their bills by herself, Hurstwood reads an advertisement in the newspaper announcing that because of a labor strike, a Brooklyn trolley line is seeking motormen and conductors. Although his sympathy lies with the strikers, he decides to go to Brooklyn to find work because Carrie seems to suspect him of stealing her money.
Making his way through the cold to the trolley yard, he offers his services. The manager of the line is so pressed for workers that he decides to hire and train Hurstwood as a motorman. After a day of instruction and a cold night in the loft of the car storage barn, Hurstwood begins his first day of work in many months. The hours are long and the weather is cold, but the hardest and most dangerous part of the job is facing the angry strikers. Although there are policemen aboard the car for protection, Hurstwood is attacked and dragged off in a skirmish. He is finally rescued by the policemen, but as he is climbing back aboard the car, he is struck by a bullet.
The violence and the misery are too much for Hurstwood and he leaves nervously. After a long walk in the snow, he arrives home, tends to the slight wound he has received in the arm, and settles down comfortably to read his paper with relief.
Even though the reader has had mixed feelings about Hurstwood up to this point, the events of the Brooklyn episode are enough to compel anyone to feel sympathy for the man. Hurstwood seems selfish and stuffy until he is shown trying to deal with the impossible situation he faces. His sympathy lies with the striking workmen, for he knows what it is never to have enough money to survive, yet the strike offers him an opportunity to prove to Carrie and himself that he is "not down yet," that there must be something he could do.
Furthermore, Hurstwood is no longer as robust and alert as he used to be, and the cold and danger would be sufficient to dissuade a much younger man from attempting to operate a streetcar under such conditions. As he sets out for the yard in Brooklyn, he gains for a while some of the dignity of the old Hurstwood. He seems to possess a "shrewd and pleasant strength." Those conditions do not prevail for long, however; for when the manager of the trolley line asks, "What are you — a motorman?" he is forced to answer, "No; I'm not anything." Hurstwood's reply is a response to much more than the simple question. In his own eyes he is nothing but the ghost of what he once had been.
A charge often laid against naturalistic authors is that they often present factual or social data to achieve the "reality" of actual life and conditions without properly integrating such material into the structure of the novel. Although Dreiser's theories frequently caused him to view life as a series of unexpected events, the charge does not apply in this case. Hurstwood has for some time been reading about the unemployment situation in the city. By his own standards he is unemployable. Nevertheless, in times of strife and strike a job-seeker and a labor-seeker must both alter their standards. It is only a combination of the prevalence of unemployment and the occurrence of a strike that will provide the situation in which Hurstwood is able to force himself to try anything.
Dreiser combines the naturalist's talent for rendering the social phenomenon known as the labor strike with the artist's conception of structural development and character portrayal. The strike episode, then, is not only an accurate rendering of a strike but also a very integral part of the story of Hurstwood and Carrie.
As Carrie actually entered the fantasy world of the stage, so does Hurstwood enter for a while his own fantasy world of newspaper headlines; but, unlike Carrie, he fails to make a place for himself in his own world. The indignity and fear he experiences are too harsh for the faltering Hurstwood. "The real thing was slightly worse than thoughts of it had been." As Carrie rises, Hurstwood descends, and together their individual stories comprise the plot of Sister Carrie.
In contrast to Carrie's new clothing, which makes her part of her new world, Hurstwood's clothing is now threadbare and worn. It is not sufficiently warm for him to weather the cold winter. The incongruity of a trolley motorman in worn gentleman's garb reveals Hurstwood's inability to cope with the world changing about him. Clothing reveals the complete inversion of the "marriage" of Carrie and Hurstwood. A few short years ago he was the struggling breadwinner who occasionally indulged himself in new clothing to meet the world, while Carrie remained home, running the household in her outdated garb. Now, however, Carrie is the hard-working breadwinner. She buys new dresses in order to be a more complete part of the world luck and fate have brought to her. It is Hurstwood who stays home now. It is he who dresses poorly, and when he is not immersed in his fantasies, he fetches the groceries and deals with the tradesmen. The original relationship between them has been totally inverted.