Critical Evaluation

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Sinclair Lewis frequently had difficulty in determining in his own mind whether his works were meant as bitterly comic satires of American life and values or whether they were planned as complex novels centering on the lives of the characters he made famous. One of the difficulties of reading Lewis is that these two conflicting sorts of writing are both present in many of his works, and frequently at odds with each other. This is demonstrably true of Main Street. For all his satire of small-town attitudes and values, Lewis is not unequivocal in his attack. He finds a great many things of value in the best Main Street has to offer, and he seems to see Carol Kennicott’s reconciliation with the town at the end of the novel as a triumph rather than a failure on her part. Though Main Street is, as it has been frequently called, a revolt against the village, it is a revolt marked by the complexity of Lewis’s attitude toward Gopher Prairie and toward its real-life counterpart, Sauk Center, Minnesota, where Lewis spent his early years.

Lewis’s characters, particularly Will and Carol Kennicott, are other complicating factors in this novel that prevent its being simply a satire. Unlike the one-dimensional figures typical of satire, the Kennicotts develop into real people who demand the reader’s attention and sympathy. Carol in particular is developed more novelistically than satirically, as Lewis traces her development from a naïve and foolishly idealistic young women into a more tolerant and understanding human being. Readers who accept only the critical and satiric portrait of the small town that lies at the surface of Main Street would be embracing the same overly simplistic attitudes that characterized Carol at the beginning of the novel.

During the early part of the century, Americans tended to accept on faith the premise that all that was best in life was epitomized by the small-town environment. Though by no means the first author to attack this premise, Lewis with Main Street achieved the widespread popularity that gave new prominence to this revolt against the small town. Lewis, himself a small-town boy, knew well the discrepancy between the vision of the village as utopia and the actuality of its bleak cultural and moral atmosphere. As Lewis makes clear in his prologue, Main Street represents all such towns, and by his treatment of Gopher Prairie, Lewis sought to strike a satiric blow at the very heartland of America. Rather than utopia, Lewis discovers in the provincial mentality of the small town a surfeit of hypocrisy, bigotry, ignorance, cruelty, and, perhaps most damning of all, a crippling dullness and conformity that is essentially hostile to any possibility of intellectual or emotional life. Yet, even while ruthlessly exposing these negative qualities of the small town, Lewis finds, particularly in the matter-of-fact courage and determination of Will Kennicott, some of the very qualities that initially gave the small town its reputation as the strength of America. Lewis himself was ambivalent in his attitude toward the village, and this indecisiveness creeps into the novel to mitigate his criticism.

The action of the novel centers on Carol’s discovery of the nature of life and society in Gopher Prairie and culminates in her eventual compromise with the town. Carol’s growth as a human being is an excellent device through which to expose the bleak heart of the midwestern town, and Lewis does so by contrasting the town’s qualities and values with Carol’s own. Young, educated, intelligent, and idealistic, Carol can cause Gopher Prairie to see what it lacks. Yet her idealism is accompanied by...

(This entire section contains 750 words.)

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a naïveté and intolerance, which are poor qualifications for accomplishing the reforms she advocates. She can only hope to change Gopher Prairie by becoming part of it. In losing her naïveté, Carol gains a capacity to confront reality and even to change it over time.

Actually, most of Carol’s reforms are too superficial to cure what Lewis called the “village virus.” Carol’s concern is more with manners than values, and she would only substitute the slick sophistication of the city for the provincial dullness she finds so intolerable. The perfect foil to her is Will, who, while epitomizing all the worst of the town’s boorishness, goes about his daily medical practice with quiet efficiency, determination, and even courage, which Lewis clearly admires. Ultimately, it is Gopher Prairie that triumphs when Carol reconciles herself to its full reality.

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Main Street