Study Guide

Main Street Themes

By Harry Sinclair Lewis

  • Religion

    In Main Street, when it comes to religion, the good folks of Gopher Prairie don't mess around. Sure, not everyone is as crazy about the Bible as the old Mrs. Bogart, but it's pretty clear that non-Catholic, non-Mormon Christian is the only way to go if you want to be accepted by the townspeople.

    In many cases, Sinclair Lewis suggests that religion isn't really a faith as much as it is an excuse for some people to go around telling others how to act—or, much more importantly, how not to act. We see this trend especially when Mrs. Bogart gets a young teacher named Fern fired just by suggesting that the woman has engaged in immoral behavior. The town knows the story is bogus, but even the suggestion of immorality is enough to ruin a young woman's name in Gopher Prairie.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Is there any character in this book who's more annoying than Mrs. Bogart? Why or why not?
    2. How does Mrs. Bogart try to get Carol to come to church more often? What types of things does she tend to say and why?
    3. In Mrs. Bogart's opinion, why is the world constantly getting worse, and what can be done to make it better again?

    Chew on This

    In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis shows us that it's impossible to be openly religious without also being hypocritical.

    Main Street reminds us that even though religion can be strict, it can do a good job of keeping away the spiritual confusion that creates dissatisfaction and deep unhappiness.

  • Marriage

    Don't get married on Main Street, folks. Chances are it ain't gonna be pretty; after all, it's hard to have a good marriage if you actually hate your life.

    At least that's what happens to Carol Kennicott. When she first marries Will Kennicott, Carol thinks she's walking into a fairy tale and that she will live happily ever after. But that whole fantasy comes crashing down when she gets her first look at Gopher Prairie: she almost instantly realizes that she has made a huge mistake and wishes she could escape from it.

    As the years go by, Carol tries to make the best of her situation, but the truth is that marriage never comes easy for Carol. Everyone else thinks she should just settle down and be content with being a housewife and washing the dishes, but Carol will never feel this way. She has too much ambition and wants to leave a mark on the world, and married life prevents her from following these dreams.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Do you think Carol made a mistake by marrying Will Kennicott? Did Will make a mistake by marrying her? Why or why not?
    2. How does Carol deal with being stuck in a marriage she doesn't like? What are some of the strategies she uses to make it more bearable?
    3. How do society's expectations for Carol change once she's married to Will? Does she like the change?

    Chew on This

    In Main Street, we learn that marriage is a prison unless both partners feel like they have an equal voice in the relationship.

    In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis shows us that it's silly to believe that a marriage can be satisfying forever.

  • Family

    In Main Street, once Carol is married, she's expected to start having kids so that she and Will can have a true family. Now, Carol lost both of her parents by the age of eleven and grew up an orphan, so she has a fairly loose connection to the idea of family. On top of that, she doesn't plan on having kids right away, because there's still so much she wants to do with her own life. But she has to weight these ambitions against the crushing expectations that the town of Gopher Prairie is constantly throwing at her.

    So, what's a family, anyway? Is it just what the people of Gopher Prairie think it is? Or is it more complicated than that?

    Questions About Family

    1. Do you think Main Street gives an optimistic or pessimistic view on the concept of family? Why?
    2. Is there something wrong with Carol that makes her not very eager to have a family?
    3. Why does Carol envy the lives of Bea Sorenson and Miles Bjornstam? What does their family have that Carol's doesn't?
    4. How does Carol deal with the arrival of Will's aunt and uncle into Gopher Prairie? Do you agree with her approach?

    Chew on This

    In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis suggests that family is more likely to be a burden than a blessing.

    Main Street shows us that no matter how frustrated we get with them, we'll always remain devoted to our families.

  • Gender

    It's fair to say that in Sinclair Lewis's time, women didn't enjoy the same opportunities that men did.

    In Main Street, when Carol marries Will Kennicott, she's saddened to find that instead of widening her horizon of possibilities, she has drastically shrunk it. She moves with Will to the small town of Gopher Prairie, where she's expected to settle into a boring life as a typical housewife. There are all kinds of things she'd like to go out and do, but no one in the town understands why Carol can't be satisfied to have babies and wash dishes all day.

    It's not until the last quarter of the book that Carol takes control of her destiny and moves to Washington D.C. to find out what it's truly like to be out on her own. Even then, she has trouble finding fulfillment. So what's the issue? Does Carol have trouble finding a good life because she's a woman, or because she has deeper issues—or both?

    Questions About Gender

    1. Which of Carol's problems in this book are connected to her status as a woman? Which are not?
    2. What is a typical man in Gopher Prairie like? What sorts of things does he like and what does he not like? Why?
    3. How much of the conflict between Carol and Will comes from the fact that they don't understand what it's like to be the opposite sex?

    Chew on This

    Main Street is a feminist book about how society restricts women's choices and makes them miserable.

    In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis suggests that Carol Kennicott is ahead of her time. If she had been born fifty years later, she'd have a much better chance of finding fulfillment.

  • Love

    It's hard to say what love means for Carol Kennicott in Main Street. She's never been the type of person who defines herself as part of a relationship; she's an independent woman who puts her personal ambitions above everything else.

    Now, it was totally fine for a man to feel this way in Sinclair Lewis's time, but if a woman felt this way, she was considered to be unnatural and immoral, and that's why the people of Gopher Prairie spend so much time reminding Carol that she's supposed to be happy as a baby-making housewife. Is that what love is? Or could it also mean other things? Is Carol too independent for love, or do definitions of love change?

    Questions About Love

    1. Do you think Carol is capable of real love? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think Carol doesn't love her baby son at first? Is it unnatural? Does nature have anything to do with it? Why or why not?
    3. Do you think Carol will ever be able to feel for anyone the way she feels for her dead father? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Main Street, we find almost no examples of what many people would think of as true love.

    Main Street shows us that in the long run, the most you can hope for in life is to be with someone you respect. Love will just fade after the first few years.

  • Class

    In Main Street, class is a complicated thing. Make no mistake: Gopher Prairie likes to refer to itself as a democratic place, but there are limits to how much the wealthy folks in town are willing to mingle with the poor folks.

    Carol Kennicott is ashamed at how much the town lives off the hard work of laborers and farmers who are forced to live in slums in the countryside. But whenever she expresses this shame, the middle class folks of Gopher Prairie jump all over her and call her a socialist. They don't take too kindly to being criticized, and when it comes to worker relations, they're more than happy to consider themselves better than farmers and laborers.

    Questions About Class

    1. Which class would you say Will and Carol Kennicott are in (lower, middle, upper)? Why?
    2. How does Will respond to Carol's comments about the townspeople being parasites who live off the farmers?
    3. Is there anyone Carol can talk to about her progressive views on class and workers' rights? Who and why?
    4. Where do you think Carol gets her ideas about class? Why?

    Chew on This

    In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis suggests that class snobbery is an evil that will never go away.

    Main Street shows us that there are class differences because some people are better off than others—and think it is because they are just plain better than others.

  • Alcohol and Drugs

    In Main Street, you have to be careful about what you do even when you think nobody's watching. That's because everybody is watching.

    Folks around Gopher Prairie don't think very highly of people who drink, for example, especially if those people are women. A man can drink too much, and people will say, "What a shame." But if a woman drinks too much, folks assume that she has loose morals—and that she should be run out of town as soon as possible.

    That's exactly what happens to the young Fern Mullins, who ends up getting fired from her job for getting a high school student drunk… except that the whole story is a lie, and everyone knows it. Nevertheless, the town is so obsessed with appearances that the mere suggestion of drinking is enough to ruin Fern's career.

    Questions About Alcohol and Drugs

    1. Why do you think there's a double standard when it comes to men and women drinking in Gopher Prairie? What evidence do we find for the double standard?
    2. Why is the town so quick to get rid of Fern Mullins even when they know the story about her getting Cy drunk is made up?
    3. How often does Will Kennicott drink? What does it tell us about his character?

    Chew on This

    In Main Street, we see that alcohol is usually a way for people in small towns to cope with the dullness of their daily lives.

    Main Street shows us that the people who drink a lot tend to be people with bad morals.

  • Man and the Natural World

    If you ask Carol Kennicott, the best thing about the world of Main Street isn't, you know, Main Street—it's the vast field and forest right outside of Gopher Prairie.

    Carol often retreats to the great outdoors in order to get away from the prying eyes and gossiping mouths of the townsfolk. Of course, no amount of nature can compensate for the fact that Carol is eager to have some adventure and culture in her life, things she feels she can only get by living in a big city. She's tired of just being another country bumpkin, but as long as she's stuck in Gopher Prairie, nature is going to be one of her only pleasures. It's even one of the few things she and her husband Will can agree on.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. How does Sinclair Lewis tend to portray nature in this book? Is it negative, positive, or both? Why?
    2. Where do Erik Valbourg and Carol first speak to one another alone? What's the significance of the location?
    3. At what moments does nature give some comfort and satisfaction to Carol? Why do you think this is?

    Chew on This

    In Main Street, nature is satisfying because it helps people escape the anthill of human pettiness.

    Main Street shows that nature is much uglier than people like to think.