Main Street Essay, Research Paper
Sinclair Lewis was a queer boy, always an outsider, lonely. Once he had
become famous, he began to promulgate an official view of his youth that
represents perhaps an adult wish for a inoffensive life that never was. He was
Sinclair Lewis (Hutchisson 8). In the years from 1914 to 1951 Sinclair Lewis, a
flamboyant, driven, self-devouring genius from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, aspired
in twenty two novels to make all America his province. (Hutchisson 9). Although
his star has now waned, he was in his time the best-known and the most
controversial of all writers and through a number of books remarkable for their
satiric bite and for their ambivalent love and hatred of the land and the people he
took as his domain, he helped to make Americans known to themselves and to
the world. Lewis was a descendant of the line of Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau,
Whitman and Twain (Mencken 17). Like them, he railed against the insidious
effects of mass culture and the standardization of manners and ideas. Lewis
dreamed of a better America and in his best novels he turned the light of his
critical gaze upon our most hallowed institutions including the small town. He
became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for his
works on American life (Mencken 19).
Many of Lewis?s books had relevance to his life growing up. He grew up in
a small town with all the small town qualities and wrote mostly satirically about
them. One of many books that satirize small towns is Main Street. In this novel,
many themes are presented such as the use of satire as an urge to reform, family
life of the period as portrayed in the novel, and World War I and its impact on the
main streets of America. During the period Lewis wrote the novel, World War I
sparked in Europe. During this time the United States was pushed into the war
and many soldiers were needed and drafted by the United States military. This
time affected many young boys and many families. It also brought on a new
feeling of nationalism and patriotism not only in the big cities, but also in the small
towns. Some of these characteristics were satirized by Sinclair Lewis in this
book. Much of what goes on during Sinclair Lewis?s life goes into his books
including his marriages, important dates, and early life. Small towns grew
numerous across the country because during this period many immigrants
traveled west. Small towns are much different than big cities because they have
different values, goals, and morals. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis satirizes the
small town lives and values of Americans through the idealistic view of Carl
Carol Kennicott?s view of Gopher Prairie, the small town, is skewed
because of her past and her biased way of looking at it. Much has been written
and said about Carol. She is Lewis himself in feminine guise, as he admitted in
1922: ?… [She is] always groping for something she isn?t capable of obtaining,
always dissatisfied…intolerants of her surroundings, yet lacking any clearly
defined vision of what she wants to do or be? (Schorer 273). Carol Kennicott is
more advanced and intellectual than any of the people in the town. She
graduates from Blodgett College, a religious institution, which protects its
students ?from the wickedness of the universities? and censors them from
whatever they do not want them to learn (2). Carol?s first meeting with the
townspeople is a different experience for her. Because of her intelligence and
sophistication, she brings up topics such as labor unions and profit-sharing (42).
The townspeople react differently as one of the conversationalist says, ?All this
profit sharing and welfare work and insurance and old-age pension is simply
poppycock? (43). She is interested in sociology and wishes to participate in
village improvement. (3). ?She did not yet know the immense ability of the world
to be casually cruel and proudly dull, but if she should ever learn those dismaying
powers, her eyes would never become sullen or heavy or rheumily amorous? (2).
This quote demostrates how Carol is put into a bad situation because of her
surroundings and how she has to change the town if she wants to be fulfilled
Furthermore, Carol also wants change and she wants to be the one who
makes it in Gopher Prairie where she lives. She goes there and wants to make it
pretty and modern without knowing much about it herself (Dooley 63). She thinks
that because of her education, she has to make change and do something to
fulfill her life. Using the town as a means to do this, is a way that Carol does it.
She also says no to a marriage proposal because she wants to be free from the
chains of marriage (24). Will Kennicott is received with open arms because he
offers her a chance to make that change by residing in a small town with him.
Equally important is that Carol is an orphan since the age of thirteen. Her
childhood is the time period when she learns to be independent which makes her
free. Being given too much freedom is not always a good thing for a young
person: ?…she is impulsive, undiplomatic, and ignorant of complications? (Dooley
62). Because of Carol?s early life and her education, she has a skewed way of
looking at the town and how she wants to change it. Although she wants to
change the small town, she does not realize the characteristic of a small town.
Accordingly, there are different morals, values, and manners in a small
town. Small towns tend to gossip more than regular towns and criticize others
who do not belong in that town. For example, Carol overhears her neighbors Cy
Bogart and Earl Haydock, teenage delinquents, say, ?…Ma says she?s stuck-up
as hell. Ma?s always talking about her? (92). Earl also adds, ?They?re all
laughing up their sleeves at her? (93). Carol comes to a realization that people
have been criticizing her instead of admiring her. This realization is a huge blow
to Carol because she believes her intentions and actions have been
misinterpreted. She needs to be more involved and fit in better with the people of
the town and try to understand them so she is not be as lonely as she is. This
change would also help her regain her self-confidence.
In effect, Carol joins the Jolly Seventeen which is for young married
women and is the social status of Gopher Prairie (76). They have a meeting to
make Carol a member and start to play games. The subject of maids comes up
and they talk about how they get paid too much and are ?…ungrateful, all that
class of people? (78). Carol puts herself into the conversation by showing respect
for her maid, but the other women are offended and attack Carol by asking Carol,
?Don?t you think it?s hard on the rest of us when you pay so much? (78). All of the
women verbally attack a new member of the club and attack her views because
she does not conform to them. Later that day, she gets into another argument
because the librarian believes the purpose of a library is to preserve books ( 80).
The librarian does not even listen to her and pushes her off to the side. Then
later Carol decides to join the women?s study club, Thanatopsis. She is voted
into membership and makes a few suggestions about future programs. This time
Carol brings up the issue of charity for the poor of the community. Once again
Carol is ganged up on by all the women. Carol suggests that the women sew
clothes for the poor, but Mrs. Stowbody, snaps, ? Heavens and earth, they have
more time than we do? (126). After that Carol suggests that the Bible should not
be the only book that is read and ?everybody cleared their polite throat? (127).
They just ignored her comment and kept moving on with the meeting as if not
acknowledging Carol. Carol is determined to be involved in the town and make a
change in it.
As a result of Carol?s desire to make change, she creates the Gopher
Prairie Dramatic Association. The first of many problems that occur is only seven
come out of the fifteen in the association?s first and most important meeting
(186). As Carol made suggestions to what kind of play would be put on, Ella
Stowbody along with others did not listen and sat back because they believed
their ideas were better than Carols (186). Carol had bought many things
including the lighting equipment, paint and wood, and furniture yet no one else
took the play seriously. As Carol says, ?They gaily came in half an hour late? and
made up excuses such as ?Dave wants me to sit in a poker game? or ?…afraid the
dampness might start my toothache? (186). Many did not even bother to call and
make up an excuse. Their rudeness and horrible punctuality was caused by the
actors and actresses not liking Carol and her non-conformity. The play turned out
to be a flop and the towns gossip and talk started to bother Carol. She was not
the only person affected by the towns manners and morals.
As a result of Miles Bjornstam?s wife and son being killed by drinking
contaminated water, Miles was the only one left to blame because he did not
provide the family with clean water (280). The town demoralized him by showing
little sympathy for Miles. As he moved away to Canada, ?There was talk of
arresting him, of riding him on a rail? and they called him a ?…blasphemer and a
traitor? (285). During a time of need for MIles, the small town perception is to
blame someone to deal with a death. These kinds of morals expressed by the
town are all throughout the novel and their manners are not similar with what big
city folks perceive as good manners.
At a party served by Carol, the guys ask for food. When they are served
they do not even acknowledge her and she says, ?Your friends have the manners
of a barroom? (Lewis 260). This perfectly illustrates and summarizes how the
people in small towns gossip, stereotype, and do not accept anything that is not
according to their own rules and standards. This leads to Gopher Prairie having
problem within their own society.
In fact, there are many different situations that occur in small towns that
would not occur in other places. For example in the first party, the men and
women divide and talk of different issues (42). This example shows how the
women and men are different in what they talk about because of their conformity.
Carol wants to know what the men talk about, as the other women ?…talk of
children, sickness, and cooks…? (41). She is an outcast because she is bored
by irrelevant and uncomplex conversations. During this time, Carol brings up
advanced topic and is shocked at the men and women because they are not
used to such topics being brought up. Later that night Will Kennicott tells Carol
that she has to be ?…more careful about shocking folk? (45). He turns out to be
just like the townspeople that live in Gopher Prairie because he wants his wife to
conform to the ways of a town party. Carol does not accept this conformity and
decides to have her own party. She wants her party to glow and be extravagant.
?I?ll make ?em lively, if nothing else. I?ll make ?em stop regarding parties as
committee-meetings? (64). She manages an old-fashioned square dance, a solo
by Raymie Wutherspoon, and a rough-and-tumble game involving wolves and
shepherds, the guests? shoes being sheep. The grand climax of the evening is
the paper Chinese masquerade costumes for a Chinese concert, with tabouret
and combs for drums and fifes. This party is a big change for the townspeople
and they have fun and enjoy it, but the following week a party is held where the
group reverts to stunts and dull conversation once again. Carol tries to change
the social conditions of the town, but her efforts give in to conformity. ?Her
attempts to stimulate some gaiety are met with embarrassment and ridicule, and
killed by an unshakable preference for things as usual? (Grebstein 65).
After Carol realizes that people have been criticizing instead of admiring
her, she becomes lonely and goes back to the Jolly Seventeen club as a result.
Her longing for companionship has forced her to make concessions and to be
more diplomatic. ?She had no opinions on anything more polemic than woolen
unio-suits…? (108). Because she is lonely and has no place to turn, she is forced
to go against her own morals and be a conformist because of the social
conditions of Gopher Prairie. Of course the other women like this change in
Carol as one of the member says, ?Isn?t dandy that your have settled down to
being homey with us? (109). The people in the club do the same things every
meeting with no changes. Through the monotony, Lewis satirizes the way people
of small towns do not like change and do not want change.
Consequently, many of the social gatherings and the town itself is
monotonous and drab. ?It is a stripping away of all pretensions to civilized life
which leaves main street a naked symbol of dullness, conventionality and sterility?
(Dooley 67). Put simply, the parties are unostentatious, irksome, and sedated.
They do not offer anything different and always are the same. Carol tries to
change that but all her efforts are futile. In the winter Carol tries to organize
skating and skiing parties with no success. Everyone just wants to conform
(76-77). When Carol?s plans to try something new and different are shut down by
the town, she realizes she has nothing to do. This fact further bothers Carol
because she is a women with a working brain and no work. She is bored of life
and what the town has to offer.
The second day of the Kennicott?s life in Gopher Prairie is spent by hunting
prairie chickens and squirrels because there is nothing else to do (47-50). ?With
her we discover the village nothingness, ?a negative thing; an intellectual squalor;
a swamp of prejudices and fears? ? (Dooley 62). Small towns are not only dull,
but they are also infested with curiosity. Such a society produces cheap
automobiles, dollar watches and safety razors, and ?small buys men? of ?the cash
register and the comic film? (Lewis 238). ?Always, west of Pittsburgh and often
east of it, there is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford
garage, and the same creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops ?
(Lewis 239). Lewis is satirizing not only all towns, but specifically Gopher Prairie
for its monotounous and dreariness. This characteristic is caused by the tradition
and the fixture of small towns, specifically Gopher Prairie.
In many cases of small towns, Gopher Prairie is controlled by institutions.
First of all the Thanatopsis club which is comprised of the towns most
distinguished women is one of the places where Carol turns to improve the town
(Grebstein 66). This study club disposes of many authors because facts about
their life were considered and not their poetry itself. The women censor
themselves and other from reading authors that might affect the town (125).
Carol decides that she wants to join the other club called the Jolly Seventeen
which is a middle-class club for younger married women. They play bridge and
are offended by any new ideas or differing opinions brought up by Carol (76-80)
She decides that she wants to leave this club also so she takes matters into her
own hands by making her own club to put on plays. She takes members in to act
in a play, but of the fifteen that are interested, only a few of them are actually on
time for rehearsals and care about that play. The play ends up to be horrible and
no one seems to enjoy it (186). Then she tries to go to City Hall and look for
ways to change and reform the town. She suggests an improvement project, but
she is confronted with people without any desire for improvement (113-116).
Every organization that Carol turns to does not appeal to her ideals because none
want change. She is the only one in the town who believes change is good and
can have benefits.
In addition, Will Kennicott also fits in with the town because of his
conformity and desire to stay the same. Because of this, Carol and Will are set
on a collision course. Carol?s conflict with the town has a counterpoint in another
conflict involving her husband (Grebstein 67). She eventually separates from
Will, but learns that there are worse towns. On her return to Gopher Prairie,
Carol finds the town somehow easier to accept. She participates in a number of
concrete reforms and is herself finally accepted by the town.
Carol feels that she may not have won the battle against mediocrity but
that she has at least kept fighting (Maglin 112). The long, episodic, and almost
plotless story of Carol Kennicott and her struggles with Gopher Prairie finally ends
without solving many of her problems, but through the novel, Lewis satirizes the
lives of small town people and their fight to conform and not let anyone change
their morals or values.