The principal themes of Lewis’s major novels are concern with the effects of small-town life and narrow-minded people on those who do not conform to established patterns, and a castigation of American middle-class materialism. His first two successful novels, Main Street and Babbitt, clearly illustrate these ideas even by their titles. In the first, his main character, Carol Kennicott, tries to raise the level of life in Gopher Prairie, the small town to which she has come after her marriage. She finally “settles” for the dullness of Main Street, which typifies such places.
In Babbitt, Lewis creates a protagonist so symbolic of the emptiness inherent in the middle-class pursuit of material things that his name can now be found in the dictionary, defined as “a self-satisfied person who conforms readily to middle-class attitudes and ideals.” In Arrowsmith, Lewis continues his castigation of small-minded individuals, this time showing how their lack of vision and their emphasis on “the practicality of profit” hamper the work of scientific research and negatively affect those in the medical profession. Finally, in Elmer Gantry, Lewis draws his most loathsome character, a man who manipulates unthinking people in order to advance his career in the ministry. By the novel’s end, Elmer Gantry has achieved his materialistic goals, but he is shown to be an empty shell of a man, so evil that he is almost unaware of his own hypocrisy.
Lewis’s work relies but little on plot. The author acts as a photographer of the locales in which his novels are set, creating them and the characters who inhabit them with exactness. He relied heavily on careful research before writing each book, and his ability to re-create so exactly the places, speech, and manners he writes about has made a number of critics call him a consummate mimic. His work is somewhat regional in the sense that his four most outstanding novels are set in the American Midwest, his own bailiwick.
He is a satirist, somewhat sarcastic in tone even when he is drawing the portrait of a character to be admired by the reader. What his work lacks, however, is sufficient probing below the surface of characters to give the reader a genuine sense of each one’s motivations. Like a professional photographer, Lewis carefully sets his camera angles to give a particular slant to each picture, a slant usually planned to call attention to the most negative aspects of both the setting and the people pictured.
The era in which Lewis produced his four best novels is an important factor to consider in evaluating them. Main Street appeared just after World War I, when small-town America had passed its original frontier days but had not yet truly begun its emancipation from the set patterns and values so much a part of the earlier rural society.
With Babbitt, set two years later, Lewis shows the following stage in American development. In mid-sized cities, the emphasis on “not being a hick” has led to an emphasis on the possession of the most up-to-date models of all material objects as being equal to success. It is notable that this novel does not deal with social criticism of genuine business tycoons or “robber barons,” as some earlier muckrakers had, but rather with the almost pitiful strivings of those who are the very antithesis of those earlier individualists. To George Babbitt and the other characters in the novel, the most important factor is conformity—being well-liked, being part of the herd.
One of the usual criteria in literary analysis is the manner in which the writer develops characterization. Do the people in the novel exhibit more than a single side, or are they so inhumanly consistent that they become stereotypes? With a few exceptions, it is in this area of his work that Lewis may be faulted. Granted, this is the pitfall of the genre—satire—and Lewis based his characters on models he observed in his society. Nevertheless, taking only the photographer’s view of his subjects detracts in some cases from the verisimilitude. As critic Geoffrey Moore put it, “Lewis’s method was to choose an institution or a class of people, decide on a point of view, and then flatten his characters into the mould he desired. . . . [t]here is no ’innerness.’” When Lewis does go beyond this tendency toward a journalistic style, however, as he does with Carol Kennicott in Main Street, Max Gottlieb and Martin Arrowsmith in Arrowsmith, and a few other of his creations, he avoids completely the charge of creating caricatures.
Lewis can certainly be seen as a critic of the era in which he wrote his best novels, but he was no reformer; he does not suggest solutions. In the manner of some European novelists, such as Émile Zola, he merely points out, through satire, what he sees.
First published: 1920
Type of work: Novel
A young, idealistic bride tries unsuccessfully to alter life in a small midwestern town circa 1920.
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 travel west; Erik becomes a small-time film actor; and Fern Mullins is forced to resign from school and is run out of town on a trumped-up morals charge based entirely on malicious gossip.
The Kennicotts have a son, Hugh, and for a while the child fills Carol’s life; however, even after she and Will have had an extended vacation in California, she finds that life in Gopher Prairie is intolerable. In addition to the faults Carol has found from the beginning, the town has succumbed to the new “booster” mentality, which has raised the price of land but has not raised the level of everyday life one iota.
With her husband’s reluctant approval, Carol and Hugh go to live in Washington, D.C., where she gets a job in the Bureau of War Risk Insurance. It is a first step toward her independence, but she finds a “thick streak of Main Street” even there. After a year, her husband comes to Washington; they take a short trip south, which Will calls a “second wooing,” and five months later, Carol decides to return to Gopher Prairie, pregnant with her daughter and determined to continue “the good fight.”
Lewis leaves little doubt about his opinion of Gopher Prairie and its faults, but the reader also sees that although Carol has good intentions from the beginning, she is not really focused on what changes she wants to make. She is somewhat immature. Perhaps her character represents the American woman of the postwar period searching for her role in a radically changed society. It is only after she has lived in Washington and had contact with the suffragists that she begins to define herself as an individual. Her speech to Will at the end of the book is quite prophetic. She takes him to look at their sleeping baby daughter and says:Do you see that object on the pillow? Do you know what it is? It’s a bomb to blow up smugness. If you Tories were wise, you wouldn’t arrest anarchists; you’d arrest all these children while they’re asleep in their cribs. Think what that baby will see and meddle with before she dies in the year 2000! She may see an industrial union of the whole world, she may see aeroplanes going to Mars.
Dr. Will Kennicott seems sometimes to be a father figure to Carol. He loves her deeply and is more than patient with her peccadilloes. He is a good doctor, but he sees no romance in his profession; he has accepted some of the less attractive qualities of Gopher Prairie, such as the notion of social classes, as shown in his disapproval of having Carol take Hugh to visit Bea and Miles to play with their son, Olaf. He is somewhat interested in making money to secure their future; he is also completely honest, basically kind, and thoroughly loyal. Most of the other inhabitants of Gopher Prairie are not particularly memorable. They are, for the most part, types rather than distinctly drawn individuals.
(The entire section is 4313 words.)