In his novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser demonstrates the futility of seeking atonement. The conscience-stricken main character, George Hurstwood, experiences a spiraling descent after seeking forgiveness. Conversely, the characters who refuse to repent of their moral crimes, such as Carrie, Drouet, and Mrs. Hurstwood, are rewarded with opulence.
Hurstwood’s crime has legal implications, as he unwittingly embezzled ten thousand dollars from his employers. He was putting the money away while contemplating the idea of leaving his icy wife for the young and vibrant Carrie. Before he could place the cash safely away, the drawer shut and locked. Having no means of opening the drawer, Hurstwood finally decides to keep the money and flee with Carrie.
One week later, Hurstwood shows repentance. He writes a letter of apology to his employers, accompanied by the money he had taken. Though his conscience is relieved, his life becomes intensely harsh immediately after his repentance. He is denied even menial employment, scorned by Carrie, and forced to succumb to begging on the street.
While the repentant man trudges the streets, the conscience-less criminals of moral law continue to prosper around him. Carrie, who has engaged in affairs with two men in the span of one year, gains wealth and fame as an actress. Even after breaking off with first Drouet and then Hurstwood, Carrie at the end of the novel becomes involved with a third, a young and wealthy man named Ames.
Drouet, a salesman who seduces Carrie when she first arrives in Chicago, is little better than a sexual predator. Several references are made about his trysts with young women, yet despite such moral misconduct he has by the end prospered enough to establish his own business and a luxurious home.
Mrs. Hurstwood, portrayed throughout the novel as an icy matron with little regard for her husband, enjoys a lifestyle of opulence. While her ex-husband has to resort to beggary in order to survive, Mrs. Hurstwood resides in a mansion and sees her children ascend to even higher spheres of success. Her daughter, who has completely dismissed any thought of her desolate father, marries the heir of a millionaire. Her son, who has also dismissed any sympathy for his father’s plight, becomes a prominent banker.
The theme of forgiveness is evident in Sister Carrie, though not in a positive light. Dreiser here insists that moral crimes not only lack punitive consequences, but they actually lead to increased prosperity. Trouble only comes to the character, in this case Hurstwood, who tries to atone for his transgressions.