Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440
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 friends tells her the townsfolk are criticizing her every movement, from her offbeat parties to her generous and egalitarian treatment of Bea, her Scandinavian housemaid, Carol is devastated and never quite recovers from the strong hostility she realizes that she has aroused.
The birth of a son brings some joy, but continuing tensions with the town and with her husband leave her restless and frustrated. Like the rest of Gopher Prairie, Will is suspicious of new ideas, harbors serious prejudices about class and nationality, and has little appreciation for his wife’s aesthetic impulses. While Will finds consolation with a mistress, Carol flirts with a couple of like-minded free spirits but, continually discontent, leaves Will and escapes on her own to a job in Washington, D.C. She returns, however, two years later, deciding at last to compromise with Will and with the town. She has not, however, totally succumbed to “the village virus” that Sinclair Lewis suggests turns lively minds into dull and acquiescent ones. At the end of the novel, Carol confidently predicts that her new baby daughter will be “a bomb” that will eventually destroy the crushingly self-satisfied mediocrity of American small towns.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1116
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 necessary funds.
Will buys a summer cottage on Lake Minniemashie. There, Carol enjoys outdoor life, and during the summer months she almost loses her desire for reform. When September comes, however, she hates the thought of returning to Gopher Prairie.
Carol resolves to study her husband. He is well regarded in the town, and she romanticizes herself as the wife of a hardworking, courageous country doctor. She falls in love with Will again on the night she watches him perform a bloody but successful operation on a poor farmer. Carol’s praise of her husband, however, has little effect. Will does not fit into any romantic conception. He accepts his duties as a necessary chore, and the thought that he saved the life of a human being does not occur to him. His interest in medicine is identical to his interest in motorcars. Carol turns her attention to Gopher Prairie.
Carol, trying to interest the Thanatopsis Club in literature and art, finally persuades the members to put on an amateur theatrical; but everyone’s enthusiasm soon wanes. Carol’s choice of a play, George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, is vetoed and replaced with something less known. Carol considers even that choice too subtle for Gopher Prairie, but at least it revives the town’s interest in theater.
After three years of marriage, Carol discovers that she is pregnant. When her son is born, she resolves that some day she will send little Hugh away from Gopher Prairie, to Harvard, Yale, or Oxford. With her new status of motherhood, Carol finds herself more accepted in the town, but because she devotes nine-tenths of her attention to Hugh she has little time to criticize the town. She wants a new house, but she and Will cannot agree on the type of building. He is satisfied with a square frame house. Carol has visions of a Georgian mansion, with stately columns and wide lawns, or a white cottage like those at Cape Cod.
Carol meets a tailor in town, an artistic, twenty-five-year-old aesthete with whom she eventually imagines herself in love. She often drops by his shop to see him, and one day, Will warns her that the gossip in town is growing. Ashamed, Carol promises she will not see him again. The tailor leaves for Minneapolis.
Carol and Will decide to take a long trip to California. When they return three months later, Carol realizes that her attempt to escape Gopher Prairie has not been a success. For one thing, Will was with her on the trip, but what she needs is to get away from her husband. After a long argument with Will, Carol takes little Hugh and goes to Washington, D.C., where she plans to do war work. However, hers is an empty kind of freedom. She finds the people in Washington an accumulation of the population of thousands of Gopher Prairies all over the nation. Main Street has been transplanted to the larger city. Though she is disheartened by her discovery, Carol has too much pride to return home.
After thirteen months, Will goes to Washington to find Carol and Hugh. He misses her terribly, he says, and begs her to come back. Hugh is overjoyed to see his father, and Carol realizes that she has to return to Gopher Prairie. Home once more, Carol finds that her furious hatred for Gopher Prairie has burned itself out. She makes friends with the club women and promises herself not to be snobbish in the future. She will go on asking questions—she can never stop herself from doing that—but her questions now will be asked with sympathy rather than with sarcasm. For the first time, she feels serene. In Gopher Prairie, she at last feels that she is wanted. Her neighbors had missed her. For the first time, Carol feels that Gopher Prairie is her home.
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