Carrie is the central character of the novel, but in many ways she is no ordinary protagonist. She is not notably courageous, honest, intelligent, or unselfish. She is the result of Dreiser's desire to portray "life as it is," sympathetically showing imperfect humanity in an uncertain world. Carrie has little influence over the events of the novel, and her actions and decisions are for the most part "passive." She is sent to Chicago by her parents, seduced by Drouet, and abducted by Hurstwood. She does make a crucial break from Hurstwood in New York, but by that time her fate has been decided.
Throughout the novel, Carrie is presented as "a lone figure in a tossing, thoughtless sea," and the repeated appearance of related metaphors shows Carrie to be almost without blame for her compromising morality, her adultery, and her lack of natural feeling.
Because of the conflicts within her — between "the flesh" and "the spirit," or the pursuit of pleasure and her inherited morality — Carrie is never able to make decisions and thus finds herself continually exploited by others. Although the mainstay of her character is her "desire for pleasure," Carrie possesses a deep moral sense which prevents her from acting spontaneously. This moral sense abates, however, and eventually she allows herself to ride the waves of fortune, on the lookout always for wealth and attention.
In her fantastic dreams of desire, Carrie mistakes success for happiness. The novel ends with Carrie still ignorant of her terrible mistake. A large part of Carrie's tragedy is that she is unable to feel in real life the emotions she feels onstage. Like Madame Bovary, she is unable to reconcile the world of fancy with the world of reality, and thus she is destined to remain alone, rocking in the darkness.
Carrie is, finally, a sentimental character, not a passionate one. In the melodrama of the novel, Carrie begins as the heroine of a popular romance, the naive, dreamy-eyed, ambitious but virtuous youngest sister; she emerges as a sort of nun, a "sister of the poor," dedicated to charity, lonely and celibate. Even though she undergoes very obvious outward changes and even though her life style is drastically altered, Carrie never achieves any significant insights about herself or the world at large. In this respect she remains static in a world of flux and constant change.