Summary and Analysis
That same evening Carrie returns home from her first day of work. To Minnie and Sven's anxious questioning, she answers that she does not like her job because it is too hard. Minnie feels sympathetic toward Carrie but hides her feelings because she knows how much Sven is counting on the extra money Carrie could contribute to the household.
After supper Carrie changes her clothes and stands on the steps of the apartment building, half expecting to see Drouet. The life on the street interests Carrie. She never tires of wondering where its streetcars are going or how the people on them entertain themselves. Her imagination constantly takes her to places of delight, full of handsome, well-dressed, and wealthy people enjoying themselves.
The daily work at the factory continues in its hard, dull routine. At the end of a week Carrie hands over four dollars to Minnie, keeping fifty cents for herself. Like a flower that is transplanted, Carrie has trouble adjusting to the climate. Winter sweeps over the city before Carrie can save enough money to buy warm clothes. She is taken ill and must rest in bed for three days. Hanson wants Carrie to return to her family before she becomes a burden.
After she recovers from her cold, Carrie searches four full days for a new position until, quite by accident, she meets Drouet. Surprised to see her, he buys her a sumptuous steak in an expensive restaurant. To Carrie, Drouet seems the very picture of substantial living. Well-dressed and outspoken, he impresses Carrie with his knowledge of faraway places and with his easy manners. Carrie nevertheless refuses to join him at the theater because she cannot stay out late, but she does agree to meet him the next day.
Drouet forces upon Carrie a "loan" of twenty dollars for her to buy herself new shoes and a jacket. Carrie feels "as though a great arm had slipped out before her to draw off trouble." In Drouet's presence Carrie does not even think that Minnie will wonder where the new clothes came from, but as soon as she leaves Drouet she begins to worry.
The narrator begins Chapter 7 with one of his frequent discussions on the meaning of money. What Carrie does not understand, a fault she has in common with almost all of humanity, is that money should be paid out as "honestly stored energy," not as a "usurped privilege." Carrie's definition of money would be simple and straightforward "something everybody else has and I must get."
As she walks away from Drouet Carrie feels ashamed that she had been weak enough to take his money, but since her needs were so desperate, she is glad to have the power of privilege that "two soft, green, handsome ten-dollar bills" can bring. As usual, her visions of what she can purchase — a nice new jacket, a pair of button shoes, stockings, a skirt — far exceed the reality.
Carrie fully realizes that unlike the stranger who accosted her in the street some days before, Drouet is of good heart and intends no evil. There is nothing in his character to trigger her instinct to fly away from him. His overtures do not arouse her sense of self-preservation.
When she reaches home, Carrie's good feelings are somewhat dampened because she can imagine no way to explain her good fortune to Minnie. Ironically trapped, having money and not being able to spend it, Carrie resolves to return the money to Drouet the next day. The next morning she returns to the wholesale district and wanders about, trying only one place for work. Carrie enters a large department store, where she is torn between material desire and moral conscience. Indecision continues until it is time for her to meet Drouet. Drouet takes charge of things and causes Carrie to buy a new jacket, button shoes, and stockings, to which he adds a purse and gloves. Then he helps her find a furnished room where she can deposit the new finery and even move in herself if she desires.
In the evening Carrie returns to the flat for dinner with Minnie and Sven. After dinner she writes a note explaining that she is leaving them but she is not returning to Columbia City. She will remain in Chicago and look for work. She then announces that she will stand outside for the last time. Nearby Drouet is waiting for her; together the couple leave the neighborhood in a streetcar.
Carrie begins to realize that her ties with her sister and brother-in-law are merely economic. As a companion and confidante, Minnie is of no worth to Carrie. The struggle for survival in the big city has destroyed in her any of the soft qualities that bind sisters together. Carrie is not given to sentimental notions, however, and so the subversion of sisterly relations does not bother her. She would sooner realize her imaginary wealth and pleasure than find lasting human relationships.
By showing Carrie again and again moving through the same dull routine, day after day, Dreiser presents rather than describes the tedious nature of Carrie's life. It is obvious to the reader that Carrie's imagination will not allow her to continue on this treadmill very much longer. By dramatizing little incidents, such as her reaction to the passes made at her by the young men at work, Dreiser accomplishes far more than ordinary description could do. The continued repetition involves the reader in the mechanical round of activities. By sympathizing with Carrie, the reader is willing to overlook her minor indiscretions.
In the midst of these activities Dreiser makes an analogy between Carrie and a flower. Carrie is no part of this mechanical world; she is a growing organism which may blossom, but she requires richer soil and a better climate even to continue her natural growth. Abrupt transplantation is dangerous to the tender plant. The analogy becomes even more striking when one remembers that cruel winter is setting in, making it continually more difficult for plants to grow. Overall conditions, in fact — the urgent necessity for finding work, the nature of the work itself and situations in the factory, Carrie's lack of proper clothing or money to buy it, the attitudes of Minnie and Sven — combine to make Carrie physically ill.
Although a perceivable set of conditions causes Carrie to become ill and lose her job, it is fate or chance which causes Carrie and Drouet to meet once again on the downtown street. Dreiser frequently refers to Carrie as a "little soldier of fortune"; although she is not herself aware of it, Carrie is a follower of the fate of human existence.
In Drouet's presence, Carrie feels thoroughly at ease and sees the world clearly. Through Drouet the world reveals more of its possibilities. She becomes something of an insider of the world of wealth, fashion, and pleasure. She cannot think of the complications his "loan" will create, but when he is gone she is once again cast into a sea of doubt and indecision
The story of Carrie Meeber is at all times the story of a young and innocent girl who must suddenly find her way in an alien metropolis. Beyond that story is the tale of a young and naive America coming of age. In many respects Carrie is similar to Isabel Archer in Henry James' novel, The Portrait of a Lady. Carrie might easily be seen in retrospect as the backwoods, small-town American society emerging from innocence to the cosmopolitan standards of the end of the nineteenth century. By bringing to bear upon Carrie the economic and fateful determinism that so thoroughly pervaded the thought of his own day, Dreiser makes of her a symbolic figure who must sacrifice a certain amount of innocence in order to make progress of any kind. Thus Carrie's dream is the American Dream as well; it is a dream of rich finery, financial success, and power. Like America itself, Carrie must learn not only how to acquire her wealth and power, but must also learn the meaning and extent and correct use of these.
Drouet's character is one that requires careful analysis. He is a "nice, good-hearted man." There is nothing evil in Drouet, but he is an opportunist. Drouet is largely unreflective and unphilosophical. "In his good clothes and fine health, he was a merry, unthinking moth of the lamp." With only a sudden change in fortune for him, he, too, would become as helpless as Carrie.
Despite his continued success with women, Drouet is no man of the world. He would be as easily "hornswaggled" by a villain as an ordinary shop girl might be duped by him. Unlike Carrie, Drouet shows no potential for growth and change. His ambition is directed toward material success and display and affable company. He does not share Carrie's inner dissatisfaction with the world as it is. He lacks the imagination necessary to be prone to brooding and emotional decisions.
On the very first page of the novel Dreiser writes that when a young girl leaves home, she does one of two things. "Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility." The major portion of Sister Carrie is devoted to exploring the implications of that statement. Here in this chapter is found a variation on that theme. Although Drouet does put forth a hand to save Carrie, his gesture requires that she change her standards of virtue. The rapid change effected in Carrie's nature is given specific form in the department store. Deciding the night before to return Drouet's money intact, she avoids spending it, not because of her staunch virtue, but because of indecision. Carrie is apt to put off decisions until it becomes too late for her to do anything. Very often she is the bark that is swept along on the enormous sea with the tide. By avoiding decisions, Carrie entrusts herself to fate.
The question of Dreiser's writing style deserves special attention (see notes on Dreiser's Style), but, awkward as it is, it is still the product of conscious craft. In the following passage, Dreiser makes masterful use of rhythm, punctuation, strategic placing of adjectives, inflation, and deflation. The movement of the passage imitates the movement of Carrie's mind: "Now she would have a nice new jacket! Now she would buy a nice pair of pretty button shoes. She would get stockings, too, and a skirt, and, and until already, as in the matter of her prospective salary, she had got beyond, in her desires, twice the purchasing power of her bills." This is style at its best.