Carol Milford, after college and jobs in Chicago and St. Paul, marries a doctor, Will Kennicott, from Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Shocked by the gritty ugliness of her new home, she envisions a series of projects to make it more beautiful, but each is frustrated by narrow-mindedness, special interests, apathy, or pragmatism. Even her attempts to introduce joyousness, imagination, and culture into the town’s social life are dismissed. She realizes that small-town life, far from being friendly and democratic, fosters tighter caste systems, more rigid conventions, and more prejudice against nonconformists and immigrants than the cities she has left.
In time, she finds her relationship with her husband faltering because she refuses to accept and admire the town as it is. After Will’s attempts to make her happier with plans for a new home and an extended vacation fail, Carol takes their child and escapes to Washington, D. C. There she comes to a new understanding of herself, her marriage, and Gopher Prairie.
Lewis makes his attack on small-town America explicit in his preface. Massive details and recurring imagery underscore his urgent plea that America revitalize its belief in true democracy, personal integrity, and the nourishment of beauty to fulfill its promise. Otherwise, he suggests, America’s hope of building a great civilization will be thwarted; it will become only a standardized, materialistic empire reflecting the worst of Main Street.
(The entire section is 443 words.)