Sister Carrie is one of those novels that you frequently hear mentioned in nineteenth century literary criticism but probably isn't something you would go out of your way to pick up at the library -- one of the lesser "classics" that you might miss because there's so many others to read. If you're not a scholar you've probably never heard of it.
The novel follows the story of Carrie Meeber, a young woman who moves from a small town to Chicago in a naive quest for something better. After a falling out with the sister she is boarding with, Carrie becomes the kept woman of young man named Drouet. It is through Drouet that Carrie meets Hurstwood, a suave hotel manager that promises her more than her life with Drouet. Carrie runs off to New York City with Hurstwood, becomes a successful actress, and eventually drops Hurstwood as well when she is seduced by the sparkling wealthy elite of the city.
Carrie herself is not a completely bad person, but she isn't terribly likable either. She frequently feels an empathy for others that is washed quickly from her mind. Despite the novel being named after her character, Carrie ends up being rather a cipher, a symbol for the gnawing desire for luxury that even the most pious can feel. The reader isn't given nearly as much access into her thoughts as we are of Hurstwood. The latter's decent into depression and poverty after leaving his family for Carrie can feel a little too drawn out at times, but perhaps this is Theodore Dreiser's way of brutally exposing the reader to the man's circumstances without offering respite.
Dreiser was a newspaper man before the publication of Sister Carrie and it shows. We are treated to intricate descriptions of department stores, apartments, and various denizens of Chicago and New York. For some readers this language might be a bit chewy, but in certain moments such attention to detail really glows. There is section in particular about the "Captain" -- a poor man who stands on a street corner of New York to beg for beds for his brethren every evening -- that leaves the reader lost in thought long after the section concludes, something I particularly relish. In addition, small moments of charity in this novel about grasping desire stand out -- Drouet's affability and sympathetic nature, the above mentioned "Captain" and his good deeds, the striking workers who try to peacefully talk the trolley car scabs into leaving, the restaurant that offers free bread to anyone in need at midnight. Such instances betray an undercurrent of optimism in an otherwise cool and objective piece of literature.
Sister Carrie certainly isn't for everyone and not nearly as accessible as other realistic/naturalistic works of the nineteenth century, but it provides an interesting glimpse into a historical period long past with an uncomfortably still-relevant theme about the American desire for "more".