Sister Carrie Questions

  1. Sister Carrie: Waifs amid Forces

At the beginning of Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser states his creed:”Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman.” (Superhuman in this context doesn’t mean something like superheroes or gods, but rather forces beyond or extrinsic to a particular human: big societal, economic, or biological forces.) In the opening chapters of Sister Carrie, what are some of the “forces” — factors beyond the conscious control of the characters — affecting the lives of Carrie, Drouet, Hurstwood, and even Minnie and Hanson? Pick and discuss a passage that shows a large economic trend, power of nature, or biological drive or instinct that influences one of the characters without his or her conscious awareness of it. 

2) Sister Carrie: The Loosing of Stays

Why does Carrie go to live with Drouet? What “forces” impel her? Is she acting out of free will, instinct, economic pressure, or a combination of these factors? What do you think of her behavior? How is her situation similar to that of Rachel in Work and the narrator of Harper’s “A Double Standard,” and how is it different? Quote specific passages in Sister Carrie (speeches, descriptions, Dreiser’s comments as the narrator of Sister Carrie) and Work.

3) Sister Carrie: A Pilgrim, An Outlaw

Why does Hurstwood steal the money? What “forces” are driving him at this point in the novel? Do you think Chapter 27 emphasizes free will, or does it illustrate “determinism” – a term in philosophy and sociology referring to the belief that that much of what individualism do is determined by forces that individuals don’t control? Discuss specific details and phrases that support your interpretation.

4) Sister Carrie: A Harp in the Wind

Why does Hurstwood struggle after he has moved to New York? Choose and discuss one or more passages in which Dreiser explains the reasons for Hurstwood’s difficulties. Why does Carrie, in contrast, succeed in New York? Include specific phrases and details from Sister Carrie that support your answer.


  1. In Chapter 1, Dreiser writes, “A woman should some day write the complete philosophy of clothes.” Why is Carrie so impressed with Drouet’s clothes when she first meets him? Identify several more passages in Sister Carrie that illustrate the “philosophy of clothes” at play in the novel. (Any passages describing clothes are appropriate for this answer — and you can search the Gutenberg online text edition of Sister Carrie to find these passages:   . (Hint: in the 1890s, “waist” or “shirt waist” could mean a blouse or a dress with a blouse top, but “shirt” could mean a man’s shirt; those are good words to search for in the text!)


Now, because Carrie was pretty, the gentlemen who made up the advance illustrations of shows about to appear for the Sunday papers selected Carrie’s photo along with others to illustrate the announcement. Because she was very pretty, they gave it excellent space and drew scrolls about it. Carrie was delighted. Still, the management did not seem to have seen anything of it. At least, no more attention was paid to her than before. At the same time there seemed very little in her part. It consisted of standing around in all sorts of scenes, a silent little Quakeress. The author of the skit had fancied that a great deal could be made of such a part, given to the right actress, but now, since it had been doled out to Carrie, he would as leave have had it cut out.

“Don’t kick, old man,” remarked the manager. “If it don’t go the first week we will cut it out.”

Carrie had no warning of this halcyon intention. She practised her part ruefully, feeling that she was effectually shelved. At the dress rehearsal she was disconsolate.

“That isn’t so bad,” said the author, the manager noting the curious effect which Carrie’s blues had upon the part. “Tell her to frown a little more when Sparks dances.”

Carrie did not know it, but there was the least show of wrinkles between her eyes and her mouth was puckered quaintly.

“Frown a little more, Miss Madenda,” said the stage manager.

Carrie instantly brightened up, thinking he had meant it as a rebuke.

“No; frown,” he said. “Frown as you did before.”

What factors, in combination, “overdetermine” Carrie’s success when she is performing this role of the Quaker girl in the Casino show? (“Overdetermine,” in philosophy and in literary studies, means that many factors outside a person — that is, not controlled by the individual — combine to cause something to happen.) Which details in Dreiser’s narration of this episode illustrate his deterministic Naturalist beliefs? Choose some specific passages from Sister Carrie (other than this one) that also reinforce Dreiser’s Naturalist ideas. 


  1. Under the influence of the varied occurrences, the fine, invisible passion which was emanating from Drouet, the food, the still unusual luxury, she relaxed and  heard with open ears. She was again the victim of the city’s hypnotic influence.

What clues does Theodore Dreiser provide in the narration of Sister Carrie to explain why Carrie moves in with Drouet? Do NOT summarize plot events; quote several additional specific passages that reveal the influences on Carrie at that point. For this answer, you can pretty much copy and paste from Sister Carrie ( ) with just a few explanations of your own.


  1. After he had all the money in the hand bag, a revulsion of feeling seized him. He would not do it—no! Think of what a scandal it would make. The police! They would be after him. He would have to fly, and where? Oh, the terror of being a fugitive from justice! He took out the two boxes and put all the money back. In his excitement he forgot what he was doing, and put the sums in the wrong boxes. As he pushed the door to, he thought he remembered doing it wrong and opened the door again. There were the two boxes mixed.

Which character does this scene feature? In Dreiser’s detailed narration in Chapter 27 , what are some specific phrases and details that explain the character’s action, and that illustrate Dreiser’s deterministic Naturalist philosophy? 


  1.  Men and women hurried by in long, shifting lines. She felt the flow of the tide of effort and interest–felt her own helplessness without realizing the wisp on the tide that she was.

Along with several other writers of his era, Dreiser identified himself as a Naturalist. How does Sister Carrie illustrate the Naturalist philosophy? Identify a passage (other than this one or the ones in the other quiz questions) in Sister Carrie in which Dreiser points to a biological need, regional or national economic trend, or force of nature as a factor in Hurstwood’s or Carrie’s fate — a passage in which Hurstwood or Carrie is just “a wisp on the tide.”


 What is the occupation of Bob Ames? Why does Carrie feel that Ames is different from the other people she meets?

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