Main Street Essays and Criticism
by Sinclair Lewis

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Repetition Versus Traditional Plot

(Novels for Students)

There can be little dispute of the fact that Sinclair Lewis’s book Main Street has had a profound and lasting influence on what people think of when they think of the American small town. Since its publication, it has no longer been possible to think of the pleasures of the little community—the sense of oneness and the admirable determination that makes independence possible—without also thinking of its dark, smothering aspects at the same time. The book sold over a million copies in its time and keeps selling at a steady pace today, as readers examine truths about this culture that have stayed the same throughout nearly a century. This, despite the fact that urban sprawl, population boom, multiculturalism, and a shifting economy have nearly erased the industrial class that was on the rise when Lewis wrote. In spite of the book’s obvious power, however, there are still literary purists who resist calling Sinclair Lewis a great novelist, categorizing him instead as a sociologist who could recognize trends in the culture and make up characters to represent various types but lacked the imagination to spin all of the different types into one complete story.

Criticism like this occurs as a result of the weaknesses in Main Street. Its characters seldom achieve any more depth of personality than the figures in advertising who exist to represent certain character types, and the book flings them into and out of situations so carelessly that readers are constantly reminded of the author’s controlling hand. There is hardly any plot, just one instance in Carol Kennicott’s life followed by another. All of these distinct elements are fine for unmasking hypocrisy and other hidden social trends, as a sociologist would do, but they do not make for great fiction. According to this school of thought, Lewis cannot be considered an unimportant writer, but he can’t be considered a talented novelist either.

This roundabout way of accepting Lewis’s impact while denying his skill in his chosen profession presumes that the more interwoven the plot of a novel is, the more successful it is. In fact, Main Street is successful precisely because it allows the story line to meander around, spinning its wheels in the mud of Gopher Prairie just as Carol Milford Kennicott spins her wheels, only occasionally catching on to the illusion that she is actually going somewhere. An intricate plot, with each scene leading to the next, advancing the story, and building to a climax that seems to be necessarily the only place this story could have gone, would not serve the point that Lewis was trying to make.

Instead of a “woven” plot, Main Street relies upon recurrences and similarities. Events do not cause each other so much as they echo one another. People in Carol’s life resemble others, and things happen that seem just like things that have already been told about. This often is a sign of a weak novelist, who cannot keep inventing new possibilities and is forced to recycle ideas that have already been explored. In this case, though, the pattern of repetition creates its own narrative form, and it is one that serves to make readers understand what it is like to be Carol. If the novel is about her search for identity, then it is only fitting that she and the readers should have to see things and then see other things that look like the first things before any sense of understanding is earned.

The most obvious case of events in Carol’s life in Gopher Prairie repeating each other concerns her romantic intrigues with Guy Pollock and Erik Valborg. The similarities of the two cases are inescapable, which makes the differences that much more telling. They are both artistic outcasts, both cases in which her need for intellectual companionship nearly draws her over a line into infidelity. In many ways, her tension over Erik is a simple repeat of the internal struggle that she underwent several years and hundreds of pages earlier when, walking home after a heartfelt...

(The entire section is 7,293 words.)