No one really knows what to make of Erik Valbourg when he first moves to Gopher Prairie as a tailor's assistant. Oh, wait—yeah, they do. They make fun of him for being effeminate and wanting to design women's dresses and for speaking like some kind of fancy-pants. The ridicule follows him wherever he goes, and townsfolk are often heard saying things like, "I bet he doesn't make eighteen a week, but my! Isn't he the perfect lady though! He talks so refined, and oh, the lugs he puts on" (28.1.4).
People even nickname this guy "Elizabeth" for acting so prim and proper. The truth behind this mockery, of course, is that people don't like some stinking tailor's assistant acting above his place in the social hierarchy. On top of that, they just don't understand him—and don't want to.
But here's the thing about Erik: he's the only person in Gopher Prairie who shares Carol Kennicott's big dreams and ambitions for bringing high culture to the masses. Like Carol, Erik is dissatisfied with his place in the world, dreading that he's "[b]eing careful about words, when there's millions of bushels of wheat here! Reading this fellow Pater, when I've helped Dad to clear fields!" (29.1.11). Erik clearly wants a better life than his father had, but everyone acts like he's being uppity whenever he says so.
It's not long before Erik recognizes Carol as a kindred spirit. He starts flirting with her and asking her to have an affair with him, saying: "You do like me! I'm going to make you love me!" (30.4.31). He even succeeds a little bit in getting Carol to fall for him.
In the end, however, Carol's husband Will puts an end to the affair and basically runs Erik out of town. The last thing we hear about Erik is that he probably won't realize any of his dreams, because he's actually more mediocre than he realizes. Deep down, Carol knows this is true, and the realization crushes her.