When she first leaves Hurstwood, Carrie fears that he may wait around for her at the theater, but as the days pass she forgets him. "In a little while she was, except for occasional thoughts, wholly free of the gloom with which her life had been weighed in the flat." Now the "showy world" of the theater absorbs her interest.
As time passes, Carrie continues to receive larger and more attractive roles. Her photograph is published in a Sunday paper and she receives occasional notices.
Although her salary has been increased, Carrie finds that she is still as far removed as ever from the upper strata of society. Those who amiably approach her are interested only in their own pleasure; their advances lack any promise of genuine friendship.
Carrie's part as a pert, frowning Quakeress in a summer production at the Casino theater is the chief attraction of the play. One critic, musing about the unpredictability of public taste, writes, "The vagaries of fortune are indeed curious." Another coins the catch phrase, "If you wish to be merry, see Carrie frown." The manager of the theater and the author of the play send her congratulatory messages. Her salary is increased once again, this time to the incredible sum of one hundred and fifty dollars a week. Carrie finds that she has more money than she could possibly spend.
In a third-rate hotel downtown, Hurstwood reads of Carrie's successes and recognizes that she is now in "the walled city." She has become a celebrity of the sort he used to know so well. With a last gesture of pride, he resolves never to bother her.
The manager of a brand new hotel offers to Carrie a suite overlooking Broadway at a greatly reduced rate. The young star moves in with her friend Lola. The wealthy Mrs. Vance pays her a visit.
For a time Carrie enjoys the life of a popular young celebrity. She receives love letters and proposals from rich men, which she ignores. She is asked to perform at benefits. A young author seeks her out to show her his script. All the time, however, her understanding that she has not found "the door to life's perfect enjoyment" continues to grow. Carrie finds that there is nothing that she does which she really enjoys, and she begins to grow weary of such a life.
There are at least three different versions of the story of Carrie's sudden popularity. First, there is the public story blurted out in press releases and critical reviews. Next, there is Hurstwood's view that Carrie is selfish and has entered the "walled city" of wealth and influence, purposely leaving him outside the gate. Finally, there is Carrie's own ambivalent version. She is thrilled by her own talent and success and justifiably proud of the notice she receives. Yet, even as her income and popularity increase, she discovers more and more that the real world of eminence is an illusory place that is never "here," but always someplace above her or sometime in the future. She feels severely limited by her own judgment and intelligence, desiring to be serious like Bob Ames and wishing to be divorced from the heady world of theatrical comedy and pretense.
Carrie realizes that no one except Lola is actually interested in her. The world, she discovers, is very much like Drouet and Hurstwood. It merely wishes to amuse itself at her expense, regardless of the consequences. It is a world full of strangers out for all they can get.
Everything seems "rosy and bright" when Carrie receives her first large salary payment and she remembers how difficult it was when she worked in the miserable shoe factory in Chicago. Yet it is not long before the newly won money reveals its own "impotence," for Carrie's desires are now "in the realm of affection." At times it seems that not only Carrie but Dreiser as well is confused about what her desires really are: At one moment Carrie's foremost wish is for "affection," but a few sentences later it is revealed that Carrie must have more money. "If she wanted to do anything better or move higher she must have more — a great deal more."
It is a matter for speculation whether the Hotel Wellington, in which Carrie is installed, is the same hotel that Hurstwood spoke about in connection with a job. Whether it is, is actually unimportant, for the extravagance of the place is the important thing. The Wellington is the kind of hotel that Hurstwood used to lounge in while he pretended to seek work. Now Carrie resides in its opulent luxury and warmth, far removed from the struggles on the street below. Hurstwood has moved into a third-rate... moth-eaten hotel"; to him, any decent hotel seems a "walled city."