Study Guide

Main Street Analysis

By Harry Sinclair Lewis

  • Tone

    Mocking, Dissatisfied

    Even when he's trying to be dead serious, Sinclair Lewis can't help but mock the parts of people's personalities that he finds lacking, shallow, or downright bad. When describing the arrival of a pretty young woman in Gopher Prairie, for example, Lewis captures the reaction of the town's conservative women by saying:

    She was tall, weedy, pretty, and incurably rakish. Whether she wore a low middy collar or dressed reticently for school in a black suit with a high-necked blouse, she was airy, flippant. "She looks like an absolute totty," said all the Mrs. Sam Clarks, disapprovingly, and all the Juanita Haydocks, enviously. (28.4.2)

    Passages like this one remind us that moral judgment is rarely if ever pure. It usually comes from a place of proud superiority or, in Juanita Haydock's case, from envy. Mrs. Sam Clark wants to think she's above dressing prettily like this new girl, but the truth is that she's getting too old to pull it off. That's why she and Juanita criticize the girl: they're secretly jealous of her beauty.

    Sinclair Lewis is obsessed with pettiness more than any other human quality, and you can see it in the way his narrator takes an especially sarcastic tone toward petty characters.

  • Genre

    Realism, Satire

    The genre of Main Street can make for interesting discussion. Today, many people think of the book as a great example of satire because of the way it exposes the people of Gopher Prairie to ridicule as typical small-town Americans. But in a memoir, Sinclair Lewis's first wife, Grave Hegger, claimed that "Main Street was not a satire until the critics began calling him a satirist, and then [Lewis started] seeing himself in that role" (source). In other words, Lewis himself likely thought of Main Street as a realist novel describing the malaise of a dissatisfied housewife.

    It's fair to say that Main Street might be considered either a realist novel or a satire, depending on how funny you actually find it. If you just find the novel flat-out depressing, it probably fits more into the realist mode. But if you catch yourself constantly chuckling at Lewis's characters (including Carol), then you probably lean more toward the satirical reading. Lewis's writing is both realistic and biting, so the novel really is probably a mix of the two genres, whatever Lewis's original intentions were.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Although the title might seem busy at first, it's unlikely that Sinclair Lewis could have found a better way to express the tension that Carol Kennicott feels throughout this book. The tension we're talking about comes from the fact that Carol thinks Gopher Prairie—particularly Main Street, its center of excitement—is a total dump. "Main Street with its two-story brick shops, its story-and-a-half wooden residences, its muddy expanse from concrete walk to walk, its huddle of Fords and lumber-wagons, was too small to absorb her" (4.2.2).

    If everyone in Gopher Prairie agreed with Carol and thought that the town and its Main Street were nowhere near good enough, there wouldn't be much of a conflict in this book; everyone would just pitch in and support Carol's plans to make the town better. But the problem is that when anyone other than Carol looks at Main Street, they see a bustling center of American pride and enterprise. When they look at this place, they truly see a "Main Street," a downtown hotspot that should fulfill every human need you could ever feel.

    But that's just the thing: Carol looks at Main Street and can only think of a thousand other Main Streets across America that are exactly like it. The street is a symbol of the boredom and mediocrity to which she's committed herself by marrying Dr. Will Kennicott. Meanwhile, the rest of Gopher Prairie goes on thinking everything is awesome, thinking things like this: "But here she could put on her hat any evening, and in three minutes' walk be to the movies, and see lovely fellows in dress-suits and Bill Hart and everything!" (4.3.22). There's a big gap between these viewpoints, and Lewis suggests that this gap will probably never close.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    "But I have won in this: I've never excused my failures by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith."

    "Sure. You bet you have," said Kennicott. "Well, good night. Sort of feels to me like it might snow tomorrow. Have to be thinking about putting up the storm-windows pretty soon. Say, did you notice whether the girl put that screw-driver back?" (39.8.11)

    Even though she ends up returning to Gopher Prairie at the end of the novel, Carol Kennicott vows that she will never surrender to the simple-mindedness of the town and its people. She makes a passionate speech about how she will go on think of new ways to make the town more beautiful, even if she knows that nothing will ever come of these thoughts. In her words, she may not fight the fight, but she'll keep the faith by refusing to let herself be convinced that the town and its people are fine just the way they are.

    Of course, Lewis can't help but give the last word in the book to Will Kennicott. He hears Carol's speech and basically says, "Yeah, yeah. That's really great, Carol. But now I'm going to go back to thinking about all the boring daily stuff I always think about." In other words, Will's never going to really change, no matter what Carol says or does. The same goes for Gopher Prairie itself: it's probably never going to really change.

    And that's where Lewis leaves us—right back where we started.

  • Setting

    Gopher Prairie, Minnesota

    The bulk of this novel takes place in the small fictional town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Lewis did such a convincing job describing this town that ever since this book appeared, Gopher Prairie has become a symbolic of any small, conservative American town.

    When Carol first thinks about moving to this place, she has visions of an ideal country village that's brimming with quaint loveliness: "Here—she meditated—is the newest empire of the world; the Northern Middlewest; a land of dairy herds and exquisite lakes, of new automobiles and tar-paper shanties and silos like red towers, of clumsy speech and hope that is boundless" (3.2.28). This fantasy only lasts until the moment Carol first lays eyes on the place.

    When Carol's train pulls into Gopher Prairie, she's already worried that the place won't meet her idealistic expectations—and she's right. She sees, for example, "that Gopher Prairie was merely an enlargement of all the hamlets which they had been passing. Only to the eyes of a Kennicott was it exceptional" (3.3.5).

    Carol almost immediately realizes that Gopher Prairie is a lot like a dumb TV sitcom that tons of people love. She knows she'll never love it, but people like her husband think it's the greatest thing ever. Some people even go as far as to say, "I'm not only insisting that Gopher Prairie is going to be Minnesota's pride, the brightest ray in the glory of the North Star State, but also and furthermore that it is right now, and still more shall be" (35.3.12). Carol can only look around and wonder if they're talking about the same town.

    Most of the text of Main Street follows Carol's inner struggle while she tries to like Gopher Prairie. But she also tries not to like the place, because she worries that doing actually liking it and giving in to it will grind her down into a dull, mediocre person. In fact, by the end of the book, she has spent so many years hating Gopher Prairie that she can't keep up the energy to hate it anymore: "Her active hatred of Gopher Prairie had run out. She saw it now as a toiling new settlement" (38.9.1).

    Carol knows she'll never give in to the idea that Gopher Prairie is a great and exciting place, but at this point, she feels sorry for it more than she hates it. She knows that this town—and thousands of other towns just like it—will never be jarred out of its dumb, satisfied complacency. So she feels like there's nothing left to do but to go on silently criticizing it.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    This is America—a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves. The town is, in our tale, called 'Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.' But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois, and not very differently would it be told Up York State or in the Carolina hills.

    Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford Car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store […]

    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?

    Before you get into the meat of Main Street, Sinclair Lewis wants you to read a passage where he describes the small town of Gopher Prairie and the type of people who live there. He also makes a point of saying that the story of Gopher Prairie could be the same for any small town in America. He tells us that the folks of this town have good solid morals and will never bother to think about anything not familiar to them.

    Of course, Sinclair Lewis is exaggerating here. It's almost as if he put this epigraph into the book to make sure his readers understand that he's criticizing towns like Gopher Prairie for being closed-minded and hypocritical. His overblown language is also supposed to mock the self-assured confidence that many small-town folk have about their special little towns and the great people who live in them.

    Lewis even goes so far as to say that all of Western history has happened so that small towns like Gopher Prairie can exist. The funny thing is that many of the characters in this book actually believe these things. Lewis, on the other hand, can only do a facepalm and shake his head at them.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    Sinclair Lewis's poetic language can be really tough to follow at times. As if that weren't bad enough, the plot of Main Street can get really, really dull. It's all part of Lewis' effort to show us how lame Carol Kennicott's life is, but the fact is that sometimes Lewis might succeed a little too well at describing a boring life. Put it all together, and you'll definitely need your full attention to get through this bad boy.

  • Writing Style

    Inappropriately Poetic

    It's fair to say that Sinclair Lewis's writing style reflects the world as Carol Kennicott would like it to be—filled with pretty, descriptive language. At the beginning of the book, this language is appropriate, because it reflects Carol's dreams in life. In just the second paragraph in the book, for example, we get the following passage:

    A breeze which had crossed a thousand miles of wheat-lands bellied her taffeta skirt in a line so graceful, so full of animation and moving beauty, that the heart of a chance watcher on the lower road tightened to wistfulness over her quality of suspended freedom. (1.1.2)

    As the novel goes on, the flowery language that follows Carol around seems less and less appropriate to her boring new life in Gopher Prairie. When Carol looks at the dull Main Street, for example, she sees this:

    Main Street was a black swamp from curb to curb; on residence streets the grass parking beside the walks oozed gray water. It was prickly hot, yet the town was barren under the bleak sky. Softened neither by snow nor by waving boughs the houses squatted and scowled, revealed in their unkempt harshness. (11.6.1)

    Other folks in Gopher Prairie might see the same scene and think, "Golly, what a fine street." It's almost as if Lewis's writing style is as out of place in a town like Gopher Prairie as Carol Kennicott herself is.

  • Gopher Prairie

    When Will Kennicott first tells Carol about her new home of Gopher Prairie, she imagines a quaint country town that she'll be able to transform into a thriving world of culture. But from the moment she first lays eyes on the place, she thinks, "Gopher Prairie was merely an enlargement of all the hamlets which they had been passing. Only to the eyes of a Kennicott was it exceptional" (3.3.5). Immediately, Gopher Prairie goes from being a symbol of hope to one of despair and imprisonment.

    And let's face it: the image of a prairie full of gophers doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. In a lot of ways, the townspeople really are kind of like a bunch of gophers: nondescript, not particularly intelligent, content to roll around in their little corner of the prairie as if nothing else existed in the world.

    Living in Gopher Prairie wouldn't be so awful for Carol if everyone else found it as ugly as she does. But the truth is that everyone else in the town seems to think it's the best gosh-darn town that ever existed. When Carol looks to her husband Will, "She knew that he was satisfied with Gopher Prairie, but it gave her vicarious hope to think of going, to ask for railroad folders at the station, to trace the maps with a restless forefinger" (20.4.5).

    Carol spends most of the novel suffering in silence, thinking that she's the only person in the world who realizes that Gopher Prairie is ugly. But toward the end, she has sympathy for the place instead of disgust. As the narrator tells us, "Her active hatred of Gopher Prairie had run out. She saw it now as a toiling new settlement" (38.9.1). But that doesn't mean she's going to start liking the place. Now she just feels sorry for it, and as the end of the book suggests, this might be as good as she's gonna do.

  • Main Street

    As the title of the novel suggests, Main Street in Gopher Prairie plays a central symbolic role in the book. When Carol Kennicott first sees the town, all she sees is that "Main Street with its two-story brick shops, its story-and-a-half wooden residences, its muddy expanse from concrete walk to walk, its huddle of Fords and lumber-wagons, was too small to absorb her" (4.2.2).

    In other words, Carol is not going to be happy with her new life, because Main Street is simply not enough for her. This is supposed to be the heart of the city where all the interesting stuff happens, but the sad truth is that Main Street is filled with a bunch of fashion-impaired people with no real ambition in life, at least according to Carol.

    This is kind of a bigger problem than it might seem, because "Main Street" is pretty much a code word for all American small towns everywhere. Do you think New York City has a Main Street? Or San Francisco? Or Chicago? Nope: Main Street is pretty much Main Street wherever you go. So the problems Carol has with this particular Main Street are problems that she has with small-town America in general, even if she can't quite articulate that.

    By the end of the book, Carol has accepted that she'll probably never change Main Street or make it more beautiful. But she also promises herself that she'll never give in to thinking that it's fine just the way it is. As she tells herself in the book's closing scene: "I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe!" (39.8.10).

    Carol will continue to stay true to her beliefs about culture and beauty. But at the same time, she knows there are thousands of Main Streets all across America that are just like the one in Gopher Prairie, and none of them will probably ever change much.

  • The Village Virus

    The Village Virus is a concept invented by Guy Pollock that explains how people who move to small towns eventually lose their ambition and settle into a life of quiet mediocrity. As he puts it himself, "The Village Virus is the germ which—it's extraordinarily like the hook-worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces" (13.1.24).

    Guy goes on to tell the story of his own journey to Gopher Prairie: he arrived as an ambitious young man and eventually found himself settling down and not wanting to take on the challenges of a big city.

    The issue seems to be that in small-town America, the pressure to conform is much greater than it is in a big city. Everyone is watching and sniping at everyone else, and any kind of behavior that deviates from a bland norm gets punished immediately. Eventually, the pressure becomes too great, and people just tend to give in. It's kind of like high school, except instead of jocks and mean girls, you have cranky old Christian ladies and unimaginative, cookie-cutter men.

    When Guy finally realized how mediocre he'd become, he thought: "Then I found that the Village Virus had me, absolute! I didn't want to face new streets and younger men—real competition. It was too easy to go on making conveyances and arguing ditching cases" (12.1.32).

    Guy basically says that the Village Virus is the thing that might eventually suck away Carol Kennicott's ambition and make her just one more faceless small-town housewife. He hates the fact that this is what happens to people, but at the same time he's completely given in to it. It's this exact kind of surrender that Carol fears more than anything in the world, and she does everything she can to resist it.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third-Person (Omniscient)

    95% of this book, you could say that Main Street features a limited third-person perspective, given that it seems to follow only the thoughts and actions of one character—Carol Kennicott. Yet there are a handful of places where the narrator leaves Carol and follows another character.

    In chapter four, for example, we get this: "The train which brought Carol to Gopher Prairie also brought Miss Bea Sorenson" (4.3.1)—and then we find out a lot about Bea. Lewis likely does this to show us that it's totally possible for someone to have a completely different first impression of Gopher Prairie from the one Carol has. Instead of hating the place, Bea Sorenson thinks it's the greatest town ever, with tons of fun stuff to do. This puts Carol's problems into a different perspective.

    The narrator's most significant break with Carol comes in chapter 21, which Lewis devotes to the backstory and secret pain of Vida Sherwin, who had a romantic fling with Will Kennicott just before Will married Carol. Again, Lewis probably does this to remind us that Carol is not the only complicated person in Gopher Prairie, even though she might think so. Everyone has their secret pains and disappointments (like Vida), but they just don't go around broadcasting them all day.

    Lewis does the same thing again when he shows us the inner mind of Will Kennicott, who constantly feels belittled and humiliated by Carol's criticism. Now, it's clear from the narrative focus that Carol should be our main point of sympathy, but Lewis also wants to remind us that the people around her have feelings, too, even if she thinks of them as a bunch of self-satisfied fools.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Anticipation Stage and 'Fall' into the Other World

    Carol Milford begins this book with great anticipation about how her life is going to turn out and all the adventures she's going to have. But once she gets married, she realizes that she has committed herself to a life of dullness and mediocrity. The town of Gopher Prairie is not what she thought it would be. But—oh, well. She figures that maybe she'll be able to change the place and make her mark on the town.

    Initial Fascination or Dream Stage

    Despite her despair, Carol tries her best to make Gopher Prairie into a better town. She tries to set up a dramatic club to perform plays, and she even gets the women's reading club to look at some actual literature. But every time she feels like the town has taken a step forward, it takes two steps backward. People sometimes love Carol's ideas, but none of them ever take root. Still, Carol has some hope that she'll be able to change things.

    Frustration Stage

    Over time, Carol realizes that none of her projects will ever succeed in making Gopher Prairie any better. The people of the town resent her for thinking she's better than all of them. If anything, Carol is horrified to find out that the town has been changing her much more than she's been changing it. When she travels to the big city, Carol realizes that she's totally out of touch with modern fashion and that she's turned into a clumsy country bumpkin. She's not sure how much longer she can go on like this.

    Nightmare Stage

    Carol eventually strikes up an emotional affair with the young Erik Valbourg. But her husband Will finds out and runs Erik out of town. Worse yet, Carol realizes that Erik doesn't have enough talent to realize any of his big dreams in life, which makes her wonder if she's in the same situation. She runs away to live in Washington, D.C. just to get away from her husband and from Gopher Prairie.

    Thrilling Escape and Return

    After living in Washington for two years, Carol gets pregnant with her second child and decides to come back to Gopher Prairie. Her great hope is that the future will provide her daughter with better options in life than it provided Carol herself. It's not that happy of an ending, but Lewis isn't about to give us any easy answers when it comes to the problem of how to live a fulfilling life.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation): I'm Gonna Be Great!

    Carol Milford begins this book attending college and dreaming great dreams about how she's going to change the world. But that all hits a snag when she marries Dr. Will Kennicott and moves with him to his dull rural town of Gopher Prairie. Carol tries at first to force her ambitions onto the town, but she meets a lot of resistance from the people there. She wants them all to change and improve themselves, but they're happy to continue on doing things as they've always done them.

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication): Not So Fast!

    The more Carol pushes the people of Gopher Prairie to change, the more they push back and tell her to be satisfied with things the way they are. Carol responds by distancing herself from her husband Will and going for nature walks as much as she can. She even strikes up an emotional affair with a young tailor's assistant named Erik Valbourg. Like Carol, Erik has big dreams, so it makes sense that Carol thinks he's the only person she can truly connect with.

    Eventually, Will Kennicott finds out about the affair and puts a stop to it. Carol realizes that she can't go back to her old life, so she takes her son Hugh and moves to Washington, D.C. to get away from her husband and Gopher Prairie. She ends up living there for two years.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point): Huh? What Happened?

    We'll be real: Main Street doesn't really have a climax in the normal sense. Yes, Will Kennicott comes to Washington to see if Carol will come home with him. But after a sober talk, they both decide that Carol needs a little more time to find herself.

    When Carol finally makes the choice to head back to Gopher Prairie, she does it more out of fatigue and resignation than anything else. It's not like she has a "Eureka!" moment, or anything; she just realizes that she's experienced everything she's ever going to experience in Washington. Oh, yeah—she also finds out she's pregnant again, and the timing of the pregnancy doesn't exactly suggest that the baby is her husband's.

    Falling Action: Back to the Grind

    When Carol moves back to Gopher Prairie, she's actually kind of happy to see her old neighbors, but she also knows this feeling will get old quickly. It's not totally clear what would make Carol happy; it just seems like she has an ambition that could only be truly fulfilled if she were a man. Unfortunately, her options are limited by the fact that she's a woman in 1920s America.

    Resolution (Denouement): In the Year 2000

    Now that she's back living with Will, Carol wants to make a few things clear. She tells Will that even though she's back, she'll never be satisfied with Gopher Prairie or its people the way they are. She admits that she hasn't really changed anything, but she'll also never let go of her dissatisfaction. To which Will responds: "Yeah, yeah. That's great, Carol. Say, do you think the maid left the furnace on?"

    So, yeah—Carol can look forward to much more of the same life that drove her away in the first place. Her one great hope now is that her daughter will grow up to have opportunities that Carol herself never had.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Carol Kennicott graduates from college with big dreams of changing the world. But that all goes south when she marries Dr. Will Kennicott and moves with him to the dull town of Gopher Prairie. Carol tries to change the town to suit her ambitions, but she quickly finds that the town is much more interested in changing her and making her into a quiet housewife. Carol tries all sorts of sneaky ways to change the townsfolk without them even realizing it—but none of her schemes work.

    Act II

    Carol feels deeply dissatisfied with her life in Gopher Prairie, but she also feels stuck because now she has a baby son named Hugh. Carol spends most of her time hanging out in nature with Hugh. One day, she meets a tailor's assistant named Erik Valbourg. Like Carol, Erik has grand ambitions. The two have an emotional affair, but the whole thing ends when Will finds out about it and catches them together. Erik leaves town, and Carol is crushed to realize that he doesn't have the talent to make good on any of his big dreams.

    Act III

    With Erik gone, Carol realizes that she'll never be happy in Gopher Prairie. So she takes her son Hugh and moves to Washington, D.C. She lives there for two years and works in an office building. The change is pretty good at first, but Carol eventually sees that she'll be dissatisfied no matter where she is. She moves back to Gopher Prairie, hoping that her new daughter will have a better chance at a happy life than Carol herself did.