Carol Milford, educated, sophisticated, and energetic, has ambitious plans for her life. Her studies have prepared her to join an enlightened, progressive society. But after she becomes Carol Kennicott, the wife of a small town physician, she quickly learns that she is to be nothing more than a gracious wife. Frustrated and torn between the challenge of social change and the comfort of personal security, she begins to understand the cost of conformity--and rebellion.
Much of what is fascinating about Main Street is the intimate look at small-town life in the 1910s. The language is quaint and full of forgotten expressions. Societal teas, drama clubs, buggies versus cars, new suits purchased once a year - these are all things which are intriguing from a purely historical perspective. Lewis was writing based on his own personal experiences, which lends credence to his narration and brings history to life. However, a modern-day reader can easily imagine how uncomfortable a reader of Lewis' era would be at reading Main Street, as it is a no-holds-barred satire on the minutiae of daily small-town living.
Speaking of which, many of the difficulties of Main Street and its impact lie in how much life and society has changed in 100 years. Carol's life as a housewife, complete with servant, would be drastically different today, as her freedom to do as she pleases, to work, to form committees, is so much greater than the time period in which the story takes place. The reader has to ignore the differences and get to the heart of Carol's struggles for happiness to be able to detect why Main Street is relevant today. Carol's happiness does not depend on her status as a wife or her inability to make changes in her adopted town, but rather stem from her inability to find inner peace. It isn't until she makes peace with her life and dreams where she finally finds the contentment she so desperately seeks. This need for inner peace is something to which any reader can relate and proves that humans everywhere have been searching for their own inner peace for ages.
Overall, one can look at Main Street as an excellent historical reference for those interested in discovering what life was like in a frontier town back when the U.S. still had frontier towns. The power of Lewis' satire, though, has been lost over time as the world has evolved and changed in ways unimagined by Lewis or anyone else in the 1900s. Main Street is still enjoyable but not quite as effective a social commentary anymore.
I had little sympathy for Carol. She thinks so highly of herself, yet she behaves as a dilettante. She tries to force her will on her husband and neighbors without making an effort to get to know them as individuals. Her only admirable quality is her acceptance of other outsiders in the community. If only she could have extended the same generosity to her husband and his friends. In the end, it isn't the town that changes. It's Carol. I wouldn't call this conformity or resignation. I'd call it maturity.
Lewis's characterizations seem exaggerated and heavy handed, and the tone is too “preachy” for my taste. Lewis seems to treat his readers the way Carol treats the citizens of Gopher Prairie, trying to force them to accept his view of the world without respecting any opinion but his own.
And it is gray.
And it really, truly does belong to it's historic moment, doesn't it? Thirty years later Carol would have been a firebrand, and this would have been a novel of rebellion and easier to love for me here in 2008, instead of so . . . pathetic. Thirty years earlier and there'd have been no story. She'd have been bored but content. In a French town she'd have been Madame Bovary.
Yeah, you should probably read this. It's fucking good. It's just hard to love.
Oh, PS: How can everybody call this book "satire"? Satire implies exaggeration, and if there's anything in the WORLD this book is, it's accurate. At least, if it doesn't underestimate Williams Lake in 2001 and Weitensfeld in 2008, I don't see how it can underestimate fucking Gopher Prairie, Minnesota in the WWI era. Yes. Depressingly accurate and not funny. Biting, but not satirical.
Carol is a university student in St. Paul, Minnesota in the early 1900s. She doesn't want to just settle for getting married to some boring guy who won't understand her desire to do something, to make a mark. (She reminded me a bit of George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life here in the beginning.) She meets Dr. Will Kennicott, and they seem to have a meeting of the minds. He lives in Gopher Prairie, a small town, but surely being a doctor's wife will be fulfilling? All that prestige and excitement, and then their good conversations at home?
Gopher Prairie could have been any town in the US at the time the book was written - towns with a railroad station and sturdy unimaginative buildings, filled with sturdy and unimaginative people. It could still be many towns across the country today, and a lot larger ones these days, as they have become interchangeable plots of mini-malls that blend into each other along the highway. Is this the chain coffee shop/grocery store/sandwich shop complex in my city, or yours? Some aspects of the issues that Carol faces are dated, but I thought that far too many of them were just as relevant now, unfortunately. If you live in a small enough town, people still notice where you go, who you talk to, and they gossip about it when you fail to meet some standard of town behavior - those aspects of human nature will probably never change. Carol's attempts to convince the townspeople, to rebel against them, to ignore them, to make nice, all have a sort of futility that anyone can understand who's ever been in a difficult situation where every effort to create a sustainable change in either your environment or your own attitude about it seems to fail.
In many ways, I felt like what made this a difficult read was the feeling that all of this was new when Lewis was writing about it, and now we are just that much further down the path. Not only has not much changed, most of it has only intensified.
Recommended for: people from small towns, square pegs.
Quote: "The universal similarity - that is the physical expression of the philosophy of dull safety. Nine-tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another. Always, west of Pittsburgh, and often, east of it, there is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, the same creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops. The new, more conscious houses are alike in their very attempts at diversity: the same bungalows, the same square houses of stucco or tapestry brick. The shops show the same standardized, nationally advertised wares; the newspapers of sections three thousand miles apart have the same "syndicated features"; the boy in Arkansas displays just such a flamboyant ready-made suit as is found on just such a boy in Delaware, both of them iterate the same slang phrases from the same sporting-pages, and if one of them is in college and the other is a barber, no one may surmise which is which."
Now, if Lewis had let Carol Kenicott evolve into a slightly more unsympathetic character, if he had taken a more critical, even handed eye to his protagonist it might have been a truly great work. I couldn't help thinking that in some of the more heavy handed moments Lewis must have been trying to do just this, but if so it doesn't come across clearly. While he beats us over the head with the narrowmindedness of the provincials, Lewis, it seems to me, spares the rod in Carol's case and ultimately spoils what could be a much better critical work. I say this because certainly for all their huffing and puffing the Carol Kenicotts of the world are really no more interesting and less hackneyed than the Sam Clarks. Had he subjected Carol to a bit more roasting Lewis might've better captured the underlying spirit of malaise and hopelessness.
Finally, at times the novel reminded me of a funnier but less brilliant Winnesburg, Ohio. I guess given the subject matter this shouldn't be surprising, but that aside, thematically this notion of hopeless searching that Carol Kenicott takes on seems to have strong parallels in Anderson. In fact, the careful reader will notice that Lewis actually name drops Anderson when composing in a list of fiction Carol has been reading.
Overall: not merely "good" but not good enough to be great
The town is politically conservative - to the point where the sheriff led the townspeople to beat up and drive out a suspected socialist speaker who wanted to speak to an assembly of speakers. Carol is liberal. The main entertainment to be had at dinners or social gatherings is petty gossip and that neighbours should spy upon each other for gossip fodder is the natural order. Carol likes to read books - Shaw, Romain Rolland, etc. company. Carol wants to enact many reforms on the town such as a new town hall, but they are all rejected and laughed off by the town.
In contrast to Carol, Carol's husband has no appreciation for any of the things that Carol holds so dear, like art music or literary books or poetry - he has vague memories of having studied them in university but had no real appreciation for them, calling them "high-brow stuff". He had hoped that Carol would "settle down" and forget all that high-brow stuff and be a wife in the style of the stolid, gossiping way of Gopher Prairie women.
Carol stews in this oppressive environment for most of the book.
Overall, even though I didn't enjoy reading it, I think it was a very good book and very influential; the dialogue and representation of village life are all very realistic. It eloquently points out all the oppression of village life and village thought and ridicules country folk as well as de Maupassant or Flaubert. However, it can't be forgotten that this is a satirical work. Sinclair Lewis shows the foibles of every character, especially Carol and it is difficult to connect with the story. It's entirely unsentimental and a bit pessimistic. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic. Carol is the main character and is a great reader so the reader might relate to her. However, as Carol stays longer in Gopher Prairie, she unwittingly becomes like them. She acquire their way of thinking. When she goes to Minneapolis for a visit, she think and behaves just the people of Gopher Prairie would - she thinks of what the other housewives would say if they say her eating at a fancy restaurant, in a fancy hotel and other typical big city experiences. Her individuality, for lack of a better word, is being worn down by the oppression of Gopher Prairie and this process is highlighted by Lewis's narration and is quite depressing.
The rest of the cast of characters are a bunch of small town stereotypes brought to life, & anyone who reads this & lives in or grew up in a small town will probably recognize the characters in their own towns.
Carol is a liberal, proudly-literate young woman of Minneapolis who marries a doctor and ends up in the small town of Gopher Prairie. She thinks she's going to reform and enlighten the entire town--indeed, even raze Main Street to the ground and rebuild it Georgian-style. Young and naive as she is, she is genuinely shocked and hurt by her reception by the town's well-established cliques who have zero desire to change. Again and again, she tries to make friends and to fight through the enraging mindless boredom of what it means to be a doctor's wife in a small town, where she's supposed to be satisfied with her life of comfort and strain neither her body or mind. Again and again, she fails, becoming increasingly dissatisfied in her marriage and everything that is embodied by Main Street.
My gosh, but Lewis can write. His Babbit impressed me, but Main Street delves deep into the very psychology of a small town. He shows the full ranges of personalities, the social stratification, and the petty, horrible gossip that is the primary hobby for many. Even more, he goes deep into Carol's psychology. He totally gets how it feels to be a woman stuck at home, bored mindless, and afraid of staying in that dread loneliness forevermore; many modern male writers can't do justice to that despair, but Lewis did, and in the 1920s. I also appreciate how his nuanced portrayal doesn't make Carol into a martyr (though she does feel like that at times). Quite often, Carols brings trouble upon herself, but by keeping the point of view with her the majority of the time, we can still sympathize (even if we kinda wanna slap her).
The book also acts like a camera to depict life in a small town on the Minnesota prairie through the 1920s. That means camaraderie, at times, but it also means outright sexism and racism. While minstrel shows and playing at being Chinese get brief mentions, the most blatant racism throughout is the social and racial line between the Anglo-Saxon town elite and the Nordic and Germanic people who make up the common laborers and farmers. Carol is the only one willing to cross those lines--becoming friends with 'the help'--because of her deep loneliness, and it sadly perpetuates the cycle for her. Her efforts to stand up for the newly-arrived artistic sissy--so derided by the manly-men of town, they call him by a woman's name--don't end well, either.
This is truly a masterful read, a rare classic that holds up due to the skill of its writing. I don't often like literary fiction, and many of the subjects here would immediately make me stop reading other books. But Lewis handled everything with such a deft hand, I felt as anxious at times as I might if I read a modern thriller. Mind you, other readers might not feel that way, but I strongly related to Carol in her isolation, and that made this a surprisingly quick read for me.
It's the story of a Carol Kennicott who grew up in a 'city' and after her marriage with the local doctor is ambitious to turn upside down the life of a provincial town. She has a lot of plans how this little town could improve but is always turned down by the local prominence. She turns her back to Gropher Prairie to go back to a city. After two years she comes back and sees the little town much calmer because she learned that there are Gropher Prairie everywhere.
There was only a minor point I struggled with. Sometimes I had the feeling Something similar I've already read. and that made the story too long, but luckily every time I had that feeling a new subject turned up.
Letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Selected Letters, pg. 176