Main Street Summary
by Sinclair Lewis

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,556 words.)