Study Guide

Main Street Setting

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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.

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