In August, 1889, Caroline Meeber boards the train at her family home in Columbia City and travels to Chicago. Filled with fears, tears, and regrets, she is nonetheless determined to make her way in the big city.
On the long train ride she meets a handsome young traveling salesman named Charles Drouet. Shy at first, she is warmed and made confident by Drouet's easy manner and flashy clothes. He seems to her the epitome of wealth and influence. When the train arrives in Chicago, she and Drouet make plans to meet again the following week so that he can show her the sights of the city.
Carrie is met at the station by her sister Minnie Hanson. The two girls travel to the flat where Minnie lives with her husband Sven and their baby. The couple plan to have Carrie live with them while she works in the city. It is thought that Carrie will pay for her room and board in order to help the Hansons reduce expenses.
Carrie is thrilled by the prospect of finding work in Chicago. She imagines herself part of the great swirl of activity in the city. Her hopes are somewhat dampened when she finally obtains a job in a shoe factory at four and a half dollars a week.
Carrie realizes that she must abandon some of her more ambitious and fantastic plans. The Hansons disapprove of her wish to go to the theater. Minnie points out to Carrie that after paying four dollars for room and board, she will hardly have enough money left for carfare. Because the flat is so small, Carrie is unable to invite Drouet to visit.
As the cold winter sets in, Carrie finds that it is impossible to keep up the hard work at the factory. Finally, the combination of long hours, hard work, and inadequate clothing causes Carrie to become ill and she loses her job. The Hansons talk of sending her back to Columbia City, but she is determined to remain in Chicago.
One day as she wanders about downtown looking for a new job, she meets Drouet on the street. He buys her a splendid meal and "lends" her twenty dollars to buy decent clothes. Eventually he persuades Carrie to leave the Hansons and take a room of her own, offering to support her until she is settled. Soon Carrie and Drouet are living together in a cozy apartment. As time passes, Carrie perceives that Drouet is not nearly such an ideal figure as she had first imagined. He is egotistical and insensitive, but he is also kind and generous, and so she accepts her lot graciously. Drouet takes it upon himself to "educate" the untutored girl in the ways of society, teaching her to Aress and behave according to fashion.
One evening the young couple are visited by George Hurstwood, a friend of Drouet's, the manager of a "way up, truly swell saloon." He is mature and attractive; he finds Carrie naive and pretty. The two are struck by an instantaneous fascination for each other and meet together frequently whenever the salesman is out of town.
Without Carrie's knowledge, Drouet enlists her talents as an actress in an amateur performance. To the surprise of Carrie, as well as her two admirers, the girl is a brilliant success. The next day Hurstwood confesses his love to Carrie and she responds favorably.
Eventually Drouet discovers that Carrie and Hurstwood have been seeing a great deal of each other and he moves out of the flat in order to frighten her. Hurstwood's wife, meanwhile, a shrewd and selfish woman, accuses Hurstwood of having an affair and initiates a divorce action against him.
One night when he stays late in his office to finish some paperwork, Hurstwood discovers that the safe has been left unlocked with over ten thousand dollars in it. While he is debating with himself whether to take the money, the door of the safe slams shut as he holds the entire amount in his hands. He is frightened and decides to flee. He rushes to Carrie's flat, tells her that Drouet has been injured and wishes to see her and whisks her away with him on a train to Canada.
Carrie is repelled by Hurstwood now, for she has learned from Drouet that he is married. Hurstwood argues that he has left his wife in order to be with Carrie. She believes him and agrees to remain with him if he will marry her.
In Canada, Hurstwood is tracked down by a private detective and returns most of the stolen money on the promise that his employers will not prosecute. The couple are married in a hasty ceremony, although the marriage is not valid.
The couple continue on to New York, where they find a comfortable apartment. Hurstwood is forced to invest the little money he has retained in a second-rate saloon. He and Carrie settle down to a routine existence in New York, never going out or meeting anyone.
Carrie strikes up a friendship with her neighbor, Mrs. Vance, a young lady of fine manners and expensive taste. Through the influence of Mrs. Vance and her cousin Bob Ames, Carrie begins to feel dissatisfied with being an ordinary housewife.
Hurstwood's business venture terminates and he finds himself unable to find employment. After a while he gives up searching and simply settles back to watch his meager savings dwindle. He loses his pride and dignity. He hardly ever leaves the house. Conditions become so difficult that Carrie decides to find work. She eventually finds a part as a chorus girl in a Broadway opera. Her fortunes rise steadily after that. Carrie decides to leave Hurstwood on his own, for he has become a deadweight to her.
In a few years Carrie gains fame and fortune as a stage comedienne. Hurstwood continues to decline until he becomes a Bowery tramp and finally commits suicide.
At the time of Hurstwood's suicide, Carrie has gained all that she had originally hoped for: wealth, finery, and prestige. Nevertheless she remains unsatisfied, always pondering the vagaries of fortune that make her desire something new and indefinable. It is clear that she will never gain the happiness she dreams of.