Chapter One begins in August 1889 with Caroline Meeber (Sister Carrie) boarding the afternoon train for Chicago. She has her ticket, her sister’s address, four dollars and a small trunk. She is leaving home, which was in Columbia City, and is aged 18. The readers are told she is called Sister Carrie by her family and self interest is her ‘guiding characteristic’. She is described as a ‘fair example of the middle American class’, is two generations removed from the emigrant and books are ‘beyond her interest’.
A well-dressed young man engages her in conversation on the train and she is impressed by the way he looks and by his tales of travelling. She tells him her sister’s address and he gives her his business card. He, Chas A. Drouet, is a travelling salesman and he feels he has gained a victory when she gives him the address and she thinks she has yielded something. He arranges to meet her at this house on Monday. This chapter ends with Carrie being met at the train station by her sister, Minnie, who looks weighed down from hard work.
In Chapter Two, the narrative shifts to Minnie’s flat. She is married to Sven Hanson and they have a baby. Hanson is quiet and is indifferent to Carrie’s presence as long as she pays her board. He is employed in the stock yards and is also paying for two lots of land which he hopes to build on one day. Carrie sees they are only interested in ‘a conservative round of toil’ and it will not be possible for Drouet to visit her there. She sees she will have to establish herself first before inviting visitors home and writes to him to call off the meeting.
The narrative shifts to describe how Chicago is an ambitious and quickly expanding city at this time and timid Carrie wends her way through the commercial centre looking for work. She is overawed by ‘these mighty concerns’.
Her search for work continues in Chapter Three as she summons up the courage to ask for employment. She is directed to a department store (The Fair) and is envious of the wealth on display. Because of her lack of experience, she is turned away. She then enquires after a stitching job, but this only pays three and a half dollars a week. At a shoe factory, she is offered work for a dollar a week more and she accepts this. The chapter ends with Carrie happy at the thought of living and working in Chicago.
In Chapter Four, she is described as looking forward to spending her wages and is clearly unrealistic about her financial situation. After the evening with Hanson and Minnie, she says she would like to go to the theater, but is told Hanson will not be able to as he has to get up early for work. Minnie sees that although Carrie is timid, she will not be put off from seeking pleasure. Carrie goes for a walk instead and begins to wish Drouet would come to see her on Monday after all as the flat is so humdrum.
On Monday, she walks to the factory to save money and is taught to punch holes in shoes for the shoe laces to thread through. She learns how to do this and is extremely tired by the end of the day, and is also disconcerted by her fellow workers (in particular, the lewd comments from some of the men).
On Monday evening, in Chapter Five, the narrative focuses on Drouet. He does not come to see Carrie as he has received her note asking him not to. Instead, he dines at Rector’s and then visits the saloon, Fitzgerald and Moy’s. Drouet enjoys frequenting such places as they feed his vanity; they are well-thought of establishments. There is also mutual admiration between Drouet and Hurstwood (the manager of Fitzgerald and Moy’s). Drouet is impressed by Hurstwood’s success and Hurstwood likes the way Drouet dresses and his genial nature. The chapter ends with Hurstwood asking Drouet to come back later as he has something to show him. Drouet then boasts how he met a ‘little peach’ on the train into Chicago.
These first few chapters establish our main characters (Carrie, Hurstwood and Drouet) and the readers are exposed to their preference for appearance and social standing. Although Carrie attempts to find employment and begins work in the shoe factory, it is reiterated that she does not want the life of toil which her sister leads. Carrie prefers to be a consumer and this is glimpsed in her pleasure and envy in the department store. Drouet and Hurstwood are similarly impressed by signs of wealth as this is central to their mutual admiration.
Even in these early pages of the novel it is apparent that the narrative avoids condemning these characters for such material desires. They are written of as characteristics of the successful city dweller; the consumer drives the economy of the growing metropolis as may be seen in these new department stores, with which Carrie is enamoured.
Sister Carrie: Novel Summary