Main Street Themes
by Sinclair Lewis

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The American people's vision of the small town as a version of Eden persisted throughout the Industrial Revolution and, indeed, continues into the second half of the twentieth century. At their most romantic and sentimental, American people often try to call to mind a time when citizens were hard working and honest, friendly and helpful, energetic and devoted to the concepts of freedom and democracy, when Americans were altruistic and nonmercenary. In Main Street, Lewis dissected a small town that was both microcosmic and macrocosmic and showed its people to be in actual fact antithetical to all the values they outwardly professed. Lewis himself makes the point in the novel's "Foreword," when he says with satiric intent but mirroring his fellow Americans' views: "Main Street is the climax of civilization. . . such is our comfortable tradition and sure faith. Would he not betray himself an alien cynic who should otherwise portray Main Street, or distress the citizens by speculating whether there may not be other faiths."


(Novels for Students)

Prairie Life
To some extent, the attitudes that prevail in the book’s fictional setting, Gopher Prairie, are a result of the town’s geological circumstances. As Lewis makes clear, the towns scattered across the North American Great Plains plateau were set off in virtual isolation from the rest of the world before the twentieth century. At the time when the novel takes place, from 1912 to 1920, automobiles were unreliable, with thin, smooth tires that offered little traction in wet or snowy conditions and simple engines that gave out frequently even under normal conditions, jammed by common problems, such as “carbon buildup,” that are not serious today. Telephone service was secure within a town, but the wires that stretched along country roads were weak and vulnerable to the elements, and long distance service was very costly. Living in isolation most of the time, with travel especially hampered during the winter, the citizens of prairie towns fed off each other’s ideas, prejudices, and wisdom, without the benefit of fresh ideas from the other towns in their own state, much less from the great metropolitan centers or from other countries.

Most of Carol Milford Kennicott’s struggles stem from her attempts to find a convincing and satisfactory identity for herself. It is clear that she thinks of herself as some sort of artist and that she is knowledgeable in various aspects of sciences, but she has a difficult time blending all of her theories together with her environment to provide an identity that she can be proud of. In college, she takes a particular interest in sociology, but she never pursues it formally as a profession. Dining at a boarding house, she is pressed to name her particular artistic interest, and, suffering under the pressure of the traveling salesmen’s mockery, she blurts out, “archeology,” a subject that had been on her mind at the time but certainly not a subject that identifies her interests throughout the novel. She tries to start a little theater company, but none of her fel- low citizens takes his or her task very seriously, and so Carol gives up on it, discouraged. She attends the literature discussion group but finds it shallow. She encourages Erik Valborg to be a poet, even though she knows that he is not very good.

The one identity that Carol is unwilling to consider is the one that she fits into, judging from external standards: the identity of a Gopher Prairie society matron. She sees the other women in her social class as either lacking or suppressing the intelligence, curiosity, and personality that she believes a person should have.

Part of Carol’s dilemma about recognizing her own identity stems from the fact that the housewife identity that she works so hard to resist is closely bound to the “wife” identity that comes naturally to her. Even though Carol often views Will Kennicott as a dull and weak-willed man, there are times, such as when she assists...

(The entire section is 1,345 words.)