Study Guide

Main Street

By Harry Sinclair Lewis

Main Street Introduction

Have you ever felt like your life was totally boring? If so, what did you do to try and change things? What if you felt like you couldn't change things because you were stuck living in a boring town with a boring spouse and nasty old ladies telling you to go to church all the time?

Well, that's what Carol Kennicott feels like in Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, and this book is all about exploring the ways that people try to cope with unsatisfying lives.

Like Carol, Sinclair Lewis was no stranger to disappointment: he had written five novels prior to Main Street and hadn't succeeded with any of them. That would all change when Main Street hit shelves in 1920 and sold 250,000 copies in its first year—a crazy huge number for the 1920s. It would also trigger a decade of uninterrupted success that would hit its climax in 1930 when Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Main Street is the story of an ambitious and intelligent young woman who gets married and moves to the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. She moves to the town with dreams of transforming it into a sort of modern utopia. But there's just one problem: everyone else in Gopher Prairie likes the ugly old town just the way it is.

Carol quickly realizes that these people are perfectly satisfied to live boring lives and never waver from their routines. She also realizes that all of these people are deeply conservative and that they don't tolerate new ideas all that well. But still, it's 1920, and Carol has just gotten married, so she feels stuck in this town with a husband who's increasingly less appealing to her. At that time, there weren't a lot of options for women like Carol—especially in a tiny, out-of-the-way place like Gopher Prairie.

As the novel unfolds, we learn about all the ways that a woman like Carol might try to compensate for her unsatisfying surroundings. Some people tell her to just change her perspective, as if it were just some simple choice she could make. To her credit, Carol does try to love the town and her husband just the way they are.

Not that it works: at the end of the novel, Carol still feels trapped and dissatisfied by life in Gopher Prairie. But at least she has some hope that the future will bring change to places like Gopher Prairie. It ain't a happy ending, but it ain't sad either. It has all the satisfaction of a tie in a sports game. Ugh.

We'll be real: this book ain't gonna cheer you up. But at least it can tell you a little bit about change, and seeing how Carol deals with her situation might help you get out of your own rut. That's something, right?

What is Main Street About and Why Should I Care?

Sometimes life just isn't all that satisfying, right? Maybe you feel like you're stuck in a rut, or maybe you feel like nothing interesting ever happens to you. The good news is that plenty of other people feel the same way. The bad news is that there's no single method for making this situation better. That's a journey everyone needs to take for him- or herself, and that's exactly what Carol Kennicott tries to do in Sinclair Lewis's Main Street.

So when you deal with a difficult situation, maybe your first instinct, like Carol's, is to change that situation. Maybe you want your friends to change their views about something. Maybe you want them to stop making fun of others. It could be anything. But you'll quickly realize that it isn't easy to change the way people think. You might even feel like it's impossible. That's certainly what Carol Kennicott thinks after trying—and totally failing—to get the people of Gopher Prairie to appreciate art and become more progressive in their politics.

When all her efforts to change Gopher Prairie fail, Carol tries to change herself instead. She does this by working to appreciate the things in her life by changing her perspective. But the sad truth is that perspective isn't always a choice. Over time, dissatisfaction may creep back into your life if you don't try to change your situation. In fact, by the end of the book, Carol still feels like she's completely trapped.

That doesn't mean you have to suffer the same fate, dear Shmooper. In the end, Main Street tells you to do anything you can to make your world better and never to give up on your ambitions. People might call you a crank and say you should just settle down and be satisfied with the way things are. But if everyone listened to that advice, the world would never make any progress, right?

Main Street Resources

WEBSITES

The Sinclair Lewis Society
In an ironic twist of fate, some people decided to start a club based around Sinclair Lewis. Let's hope they're not like the Boosters' Club or Athletic Club that we find in Babbitt.

Sinclair Lewis' Novels for Download
As the warning says, make sure you know your country's copyright laws before deciding which books to download. Grrrrr.

Lewis at St. Cloud State
Check out this site for a great bibliography and some solid online resources related to Sinclair Lewis.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Main Street (1923 Film)
Released only three years after Lewis' book, this film is the only close adaptation made to date.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

The Romance of Sinclair Lewis
In this article, author and critic Gore Vidal discusses why it's a shame that people don't read Sinclair Lewis the way they used to.

Sinclair Lewis and the Novel Prize
In the excerpt, The Atlantic gives us a taste of the long Sinclair Lewis biography written by Mark Schorer. The article starts with a funny story about how Lewis thought a prank was being played on him when he first learned that he had won the Novel Prize.

AUDIO

Main Street Full Audiobook
Got a spare eighteen and a half hours? Great, so sit back and throw on this recording on Main Street.

NBC University Theatre Present Main Street (1948)
Travel back in time to an age when the radio drama was one of the most dominant forms of media.

IMAGES

Lewis Burning a Hole in Your Soul
Some people felt like Lewis was too judgmental of a person—and photos like this give you a good sense of why.

Young Lewis
Here's a good look at what Lewis would have looked like when he wrote Main Street.

Incredibly Awkward Smile
The title says it all. This photo makes Lewis look like he's about to eat a kitten.