Sister Carrie is a rag-to-riches story of sorts, though it makes the keen observations that while one has made their riches, many more are still in rags. It opens in a train car, by which young ingenue Carrie Meeber is moving from her small Wisconsin hometown to the great metropolis of Chicago. She meets a man on the train named Charles Drouet, who reappears months later to rescue her from the mean, dismal existence of a factory girl. At first Drouet offers basic sustenance--he buys her a simple meal--but what girl could turn down his offer to buy her a new set of clothes, too?
She lives with Drouet for a time, pretending to be his wife for propriety's sake. (This was the scandal that caused the book to be so controversial.) But soon she falls for an older, wealthier friend of Drouet's, the restaurant manager George Hurstwood, who plans to steal her from Drouet. His own marriage, unknown to Carrie, presents only a nuisance.
When things threaten to fall apart for Hurstwood--Carrie and his wife almost simultaneously discover the existence of each other--he steals ten thousand dollars and effectively kidnaps Carrie, luring her on to a Canada-bound train by telling her it will take them to a hospitalized Drouet. Sister Carrie, while on the whole characterized by the tedium necessary to properly convey the sensation of poverty, is punctuated by moments of desperate wildness like this. Later on, when Hurstwood and Carrie settle in New York City, he's driven to destitution by his lack of connections, and takes a job as a scab train conductor during a strike, leading him into a riot:
A woman--a mere girl in appearance--was among these, bearing a rough stick. She was exceedingly wrathful and struck at Hurstwood, who dodged. Thereupon, her companions, duly encouraged, jumped on the car and pulled Hurstwood over. He hardly had time to speak or shout before he fell.
"Let go of me," he said, falling on his side.
"Ah, you sucker," he heard some one say. Kicks and blows rained on him. He seemed to be suffocating. Then two men seemed to be dragging him off and he wrestled for freedom... Something was wet on his chin. He put up his hand and felt, then looked. It was red.
Carrie, with both luck and pluck, finds a job as a chorus girl and becomes an acting sensation, ultimately leaving Hurstwood when her independence is established. Hurstwood becomes homeless, and in a penultimate scene, cannot manage to be admitted to Carrie's dressing room in order to beg of her enough money for a day's meal.
There is something ineffably bleak about Hurstwood's downfall--he's selfish and foolish, but not for money. He even gives back the lion's share of the ten thousand that he steals. There is no irony of the kind that might be produced by a greedy man becoming penniless. His fault is his childish notion that if he can only be with Carrie, everything will be okay, not unlike Carrie's wistful gazing as the homes on Lake Shore Drive, the kind that Hurstwood used to occupy:
She was perfectly certain that here was happiness. If she could but stroll up yon broad walk, cross that rich entrance-way, which to her was of the beauty of a jewel, and sweep in grace and luxury to possession and command--oh! how quickly would sadness flee; how, in an instant, would the heartache end. She gazed and gazed, wondering, delighting, longing, and all the while the siren voice of the unrestful was whispering in her ear.
"If we could have such a home as that," said Mrs. Hale sadly, "how delightful it would be."
"And yet they do say," said Carrie, "that no one is ever happy."
"She had heard so much of the canting philosophy of the grapeless fox.
"I notice," said Mrs. Hale, "that they all try mighty hard, though, to take their misery in a mansion."
Later Carrie will come to know, as all the characters learn, the kindergartner's lesson that money isn't everything, but they will also learn that it is a useless observation. Money imposes itself upon innocent motives, and excessive need of it can be as damaging as excessive love of it.
Sister Carrie, I learned after reading it, has the reputation as being a poorly-written masterpiece. That's probably true, though it succeeds a great deal in depicting the psychology of its characters. Five years later Edith Wharton would write House of Mirth, which covers much of the same ground, I think, with more grace. But to those critics I also offer this, the book's last paragraph:
Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.