The book uses fictional documents, such as book excerpts, news reports, and hearing transcripts, to frame the story of Carietta "Carrie" White, a 17-year-old girl from Chamberlain, Maine. Carrie's mother, Margaret, a fanatical Christian fundamentalist, has a vindictive and unstable personality, and over the years has ruled Carrie with an iron rod and repeated threats of damnation, as well as occasional physical abuse. Carrie does not fare much better at her school where her frumpy looks, lack of friends and lack of popularity with boys make her the butt of ridicule, embarrassment, and public humiliation by her fellow teenage peers.
At the beginning of the novel, Carrie has her first period while showering after a physical education class. Carrie, terrified, has no understanding of menstruation as her mother never told her about it. Her classmates use the event as an opportunity to humiliate her. Led by Chris Hargensen, they throw tampons and sanitary napkins at her. When gym teacher Miss Desjardin happens upon the scene, she at first berates Carrie for her stupidity but is horrified when she realizes that Carrie has no idea what has happened to her. She helps her clean up and tries to explain. Carrie's mother shows no sympathy for her first encounter with what she calls "the woman's curse."
Miss Desjardin, still incensed over the locker room incident and ashamed at her initial disgust with Carrie, wants all the girls who made fun of Carrie suspended and banned from attending the school prom, but the principal instead punishes the girls by giving them several detentions. When Chris, after an altercation with Miss Desjardin, refuses to appear for the detention, she is suspended and barred from the prom and tries to get her father, a prominent local lawyer, to intimidate the school principal into reinstating her privileges.
Carrie gradually discovers her telekinetic powers, which she has apparently possessed since birth, but had not had conscious control over after her infancy, though she remembers several incidents from throughout her life. Carrie practices her powers in secret, developing strength, and also finds that she is somewhat telepathic.
Meanwhile, Sue Snell, another popular girl who had earlier laughed at Carrie, begins to feel remorseful about her participation in the locker room antics. With the prom fast approaching, Sue convinces her boyfriend, Tommy Ross, one of the most popular boys in the school, to ask Carrie to the prom. Carrie is suspicious but accepts, and makes a red velvet gown. Carrie's mother won't hear of her daughter doing anything so "carnal" as attending a school dance, as she believes that sex in any form is sinful, even after marriage. She also reveals...