Hurstwood is an "ambassador" sent from the world of wealth and fashion and fine manners to Carrie's pedestrian world. Dreiser uses the character of Hurstwood to show the workings of uncertainty; for as Carrie unexpectedly rises to wealth and fame, Hurstwood loses his ability to maintain his status and gradually sinks into the depths of poverty and despair.
Because of his selfish desire to recapture his youth and find excitement at Carrie's expense, Hurstwood evokes little sympathy until the final stages of his ruination. Nevertheless, he is not willfully cruel. His fine manners and wealthy appearance show him to be very much a man of his time. He knows that his place in a carefully ordered society is well near the top, and he behaves accordingly. He believes that his attraction to Carrie will result only in a harmless flirtation that would benefit Carrie as well as himself.
Never really questioning the security of his position, he simply chooses to take the precautions necessary to guard his fine reputation. He does not wish to alter his relationship with his family or cause unfavorable publicity for his employers. He simply wants to have Carrie to himself. A complex set of circumstances and events causes him, however, to operate completely on impulse and he becomes a "man of action" for a time.
In New York, Hurstwood begins to lose the confidence and self-assurance that made him seem so hardy, dignified, and decisive. As his meager resources dwindle Hurstwood finds it impossible to obtain employment suitable to a man of his former means and position. He finds that with increasing age he is losing his vitality and drive. He bitterly resigns himself to failure, for he cannot understand the mechanics of a world that flings a man down from success to beggary. Only part of the blame rests on Hurstwood; the rest comes from the society itself, with its oppressive morality and barbaric economy.
Shortly before the final stages of his dissolution, Hurstwood evokes sympathy as never before. He is then the shadow of the man he once had been. Time and again he gathers the vestiges of his dignity and pride to search for any kind of work. His ruin is total and complete when he throws aside all his pride to work as a streetcar motorman, only to discover that even at that he is a failure.