Study Guide

Main Street

by Sinclair Lewis

Main Street Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott is a satiric attack on small-town life. In the 1920’s, a large component of America’s middle class sought a more liberal identity. The novel depicts the young, romantic Carol Kennicott’s progressive disillusionment with life in a typical, old-fashioned American small town. Readers first see the bright, idealistic Carol alone on a hilltop, dreaming of the great things she will do in the future, feeling that she can conquer the world. She has an opportunity to realize one dream—to transform an ugly village into a thing of beauty— when she marries Dr. Will Kennicott and moves with him to the town of Gopher Prairie. Her attempts to bring liberal ideas to this philistine backwater prove futile; Gopher Prairie is not only resistant to her reforms but also suspicious of the reformer. She becomes a member of a group of socially prominent wives who call themselves the Jolly Seventeen, but they take umbrage at her sympathy for what was at that time a largely German and Scandinavian working class, instead defending their social and economic system against any thoughts of reform. Similarly, the literary Thanatopsis club rejects any efforts to improve their aesthetic sensibilities. Everywhere she sees a deep-rooted aversion to change. Carol’s dreams are shattered by the dull reality of a narrow, petty, homogenous, white middle class bent on its own security and on the preservation of the status quo. When one of her...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Main Street Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When Carol Milford graduates from Blodgett College in Minnesota, she thinks she can conquer the world. Interested in sociology, and village improvement in particular, she often longs to set out on her own crusade to transform dingy prairie towns into thriving, beautiful communities. When she meets Will Kennicott, a doctor from Gopher Prairie, and listens to his praise of his hometown, she agrees to marry him. He convinces Carol that Gopher Prairie needs her.

Carol is an idealist. On the train, going to her new home, she deplores the rundown condition of the countryside and wonders whether the northern Midwest has a future. Will tells her that the people are happy. As they travel through town after town, Carol notices with a sinking heart the shapeless mass of hideous buildings, the dirty depots, the flat wastes of prairie surrounding everything. She knows that Gopher Prairie will be no different from the rest, and she is right. The people are as drab as their houses and as flat as their fields. A welcoming committee meets the newlyweds at the train. To Carol, all the men are alike in their colorless clothes and in their overfriendly, overenthusiastic manner. The Kennicott house is a Victorian horror, but Will says he likes it.

At a party held in her honor, Carol hears the men talk of motorcars, train schedules, and “furriners” while they praise Gopher Prairie as God’s own country. The women are interested in gossip, sewing, and cooking, and most of them belong to the two women’s clubs, the Jolly Seventeen and the Thanatopsis Club. At the first meeting of the Jolly Seventeen, Carol dismays everyone when she says that the duty of a librarian is to get people to read. The town librarian staunchly asserts that her primary trust is to preserve the books.

Carol is unconventional from the start. She hires a maid and pays her the overgenerous sum of six dollars per week. She gives a party with an Asian motif. She occasionally kicks off a slipper under the table, revealing her arches. Worse, she redecorates the old Kennicott house and gets rid of the mildew, the ancient bric-a-brac, and the dark wallpaper. Will protests against her desire to change things.

Carol joins the Thanatopsis Club, hoping to use the club as a means of awakening interest in social reform, but the women of Gopher Prairie, while professing charitable intentions, have no idea of improving social conditions. When Carol mentions that something should be done about the poor people of the town, everyone firmly states that there is no real poverty in Gopher Prairie. Carol also attempts to raise funds for a new city hall, but no one thinks the ugly old building needs to be replaced. The town votes against appropriating...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)

Main Street Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Carol Milford, an attractive, eager librarian, marries Dr. Will Kennicott and comes to Gopher Prairie with every expectation of seeing the town through her husband’s eyes. Will, a character based to a great extent on the novelist’s father and brother Claude, both country doctors, is proud of Gopher Prairie and does not see clearly the faults which become so apparent to Carol almost at once. Carol Kennicott would like to change everything, from the dull buildings that line Main Street to the people who inhabit the houses, people whose interests in life are very narrow indeed. Will’s friends assume that Carol will “settle in” and embrace their values, and when she does not do so, they are quite disturbed.

Lewis constantly emphasizes the freedom of the countryside surrounding the town, so that nature, even in the midst of stormy winter, is preferable to the stultifying atmosphere of Gopher Prairie. Some of Carol’s happiest times are spent with her husband, tramping through the area, appreciating nature.

She tries various plans to “raise the cultural level” of the town. She gives well-planned parties, instead of the usual dull ones that seem to her to be funereal. She offers to use her skills as a librarian to upgrade The Thanatopsis, a ladies’ literary discussion group which specializes in brief summaries of the lives of great literary figures; she organizes a drama club to produce plays of more lasting merit than The Girl from Kankakee. She consistently fails.

Furthermore, she finds that even in Gopher Prairie, a village of about four thousand souls, there are strict notions of “social class,” prejudice against the Swedish and German immigrants, rigid notions about morals, anti-union feeling, an avid love of gossiping, and, above all, a sense of unremitting dullness.

Carol does find a few friends. There is Guy Pollock, a lawyer who at first seems to share her views of Gopher Prairie. There is her hired girl, Bea Sorenson, a young Swedish farm girl who (by contrasting it with Scandia Crossing, population sixty-seven) looks at Gopher Prairie as a big city. There is the town outcast, Miles Bjornstain, an independent “Red Swede” who marries Bea. There is Erik Valborg, a would-be artist/designer who works as a presser in a local tailor shop, and there is Fern Mullins, a young schoolteacher.

Yet each friendship comes to naught. Guy confesses that “village virus” has infected him even unto death; Miles loses his beloved Bea and their little son, Olaf, to death and leaves his farm to...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)

Main Street Summary

Part 1 Summary

Main Street concerns the struggle faced by a free-minded woman, Carol Kennicott, who has been raised to be artistic and inquisitive...

(The entire section is 596 words.)

Part 2 Summary

As life goes on in Gopher Prairie, Carol still finds herself dissatisfied. She is disappointed when she sees the angry Red Swede, Miles...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Part 3 Summary

Carol takes Hugh and goes to live in Washington D. C. for a few years. She gets a job in the government and shares an apartment with some...

(The entire section is 208 words.)