Skip over navigation

Main Street

Sinclair Lewis

Important Quotations Explained

Chapters 36–39

Key Facts

Her cheek near his sleeve, she studied a dozen village pictures. They were streaky; she saw only trees, shrubbery, a porch indistinct in leafy shadows. But she exclaimed over the lakes: dark water reflecting wooded bluffs, a flight of ducks, a fisherman in shirt sleeves and a wide straw hat, holding up a string of croppies.

This passage occurs at the end of Chapter 2 when Kennicott proposes marriage to Carol and asks her to move to Gopher Prairie. As Kennicott shows Carol pictures of Gopher Prairie, Lewis uses the photographs to reference his own writing. After all, we could say that Lewis uses a photographic style of writing by realistically and thoroughly describing a person or object's appearance. The fact that the pictures are "streaky" and "indistinct" symbolizes Carol's lack of association from Gopher Prairie. At this point in the novel, she has never visited Gopher Prairie and possesses no personal ties or memories to the town. When Kennicott shows her pictures of the town again in Washington, D.C., however, her relationship to the town has changed. When she sees the pictures of the town for the second time, she recognizes her own house and porch and the faces of people and places she knows. Furthermore, the two episodes in which Kennicott shows her pictures of Gopher Prairie provide the novel with a rhythm or circular quality: Carol moves to Gopher Prairie, leaves, and then returns. It is also important to note in this passage that Carol admires the pictures of nature. When she moves to Gopher Prairie, she finds a beauty in the countryside that she does not find in town.

A small wooden motion-picture theater called "The Rosebud Movie Palace." Lithographs announcing a film called "Fatty in Love." Howland & Gould's Grocery. In the display window, black, overripe bananas and lettuce on which a cat was sleeping. Shelves lined with red crepe paper, which was now faded and torn and concentrically spotted… Dahl & Oleson's Meat Market—a reek of blood. A jewelry shop with tinny-looking wristwatches for women.

Appearing at the beginning of Chapter 4, Carol's first impression of Gopher Prairie is one of the novel's best-known passages. Lewis uses a keen power of observation and biting satire to describe the ugly, almost uncivilized small town. He endlessly lists items to emphasize the town's lack of beauty and sophistication: a crude slapstick motion picture playing in the theater, a cat asleep on some lettuce in a grocery store, the smell of blood coming from the butcher's shop, and cheap-looking watches in the jeweler's window. The fact that Carol first impression of Gopher Prairie is unfavorable reflects the way that she will perceive the community throughout the rest of the novel. Her dissatisfaction with the town's ugliness and her wish to reform and rebuild the town provides the novel with one of its major conflicts.

Lewis's attack on the crudeness of small town life created a controversy in his own time because few authors had depicted small towns in an unfavorable light. Most depicted American small-town life—especially in the Midwest—romantically, mythologizing the friendship, warmth, intimacy, and picturesque beauty of small towns. In this passage, Lewis portrays the small town realistically, in order to demythologize the romantic image painted by authors before him. In this passage and throughout the novel, he uses lists and descriptive sensory images—the sight of store window displays, the smell of blood—to realistically evoke the setting, transporting us to Gopher Prairie.

She had found only two traditions of the American small town. The first tradition, repeated in scores of magazines every month, is that the American village remains the one sure abode of friendship, honesty, and clean sweet marriageable girls… The other tradition is that the significant features of all the villages are whiskers, iron dogs upon lawns, gold bricks, checkers, jars of gilded cat-tails, and shrewd comic old men who are known as "hicks" and who ejaculate "Waal I swan."

This important passage occurs in the beginning of Chapter 22 as Carol absorbs herself in reading in an attempt to escape Gopher Prairie. Though Lewis satirizes small-town America throughout his novel, he also satirizes the prevailing depictions of small-town life in popular literature of his time. He attempts to realistically portray small town America in the early twentieth century; to him, Gopher Prairie represents a microcosm of America, and the characters found in the Gopher Prairie can be found in all cities. It is important to note that Lewis dismisses not only the unrealistically rosy pictures of small-town life but also disdainful depictions of small towns as communities of uncivilized "hicks." Lewis's satire is, then, double-edged, as it is directed against those who romanticize small-town life and those who haughtily ridicule small-town life.

The publication of Main Street in 1920 created a literary commotion, as the novel was unlike anything anyone had ever written. At the time, many Americans were upset by Lewis's portrait of small-town life. Before Lewis's novel appeared, many Americans still viewed the small town in an idealistic light, as a place where good people lived and good morals prevailed. In Main Street, however, Lewis exposes this myth of the goodness of small town life as a falsehood, portraying the narrowness of small-town life in its rigid demand for conformity, its interest only in material success, and its lack of intellectual concern. The people do not offer warm friendship but rather chilly suspicion.

In the early twentieth century, the American novel seemed to be written in two sharply opposing ways: the dark realism and naturalism of authors like Theodore Dreiser (whom Carol reads) or the sentimentality of authors like Booth Tarkington (who wrote popular rags-to-riches stories that the people of Gopher Prairie admire). Lewis attempted to bridge this literary gap by portraying small town America satirically but realistically.

She was startled by the return of her father, startled by a sudden conviction that in this flaxen boy she had found the gray reticent judge who was divine love, perfect understanding. She debated it, furiously denied it, reaffirmed it, ridiculed it. Of one thing she was unhappily certain: there was nothing of the beloved father image in Will Kennicott.

This passage appears in the middle of Chapter 29 as Carol embarks on a romantic friendship with Erik. Carol's memory of her father, who died when she was thirteen, provides an important motif throughout the novel. For the most part, Lewis does not provide deep glimpses into the inner psychology of his characters; instead, he functions most of the time as a realist, nearly photographic writer by describing the surface appearance of things, places, and people. Literary critics have often remarked that even the main characters of Main Street are superficial and not well rounded. However, Carol's longing for her father and her desire to escape Gopher Prairie reveal much about her inner psychology. This passage reveals her unhappiness, her desire to return to her happy childhood, and her attempt to escape the dullness of life in Gopher Prairie. Throughout the novel, she attempts to mentally escape the town by absorbing herself in her books, reform projects, housework, and friendship with Erik. Her relationship with Erik further reflects her growing separation from 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 screwdriver back?

This seemingly insignificant passage about trivial, material topics—the weather, storm windows, a screwdriver—ends the novel. These words succinctly emphasize the fact that nothing has really changed for Carol throughout the course of the novel. While she dreams about how the world is progressing, Kennicott barely listens to her, speaking these mundane words instead. This final image from the novel, therefore, presents a picture of the way Carol's life really is, in contrast to the way she dreams life could be. It is important to note that Kennicott, not Carol, speaks the final words of the novel. Perhaps Lewis suggests that Carol is finally defeated by Gopher Prairie and her husband's more sensible outlook to life, or that Will is more correct to use a common sense approach to life.

Although Will has the last word, however, Main Street ends unresolved. The last image of the relationship between Will and Carol is one of an impasse, with neither really listening to the other. In the end, Carol does not fully surrender herself to her husband and to Gopher Prairie: she continues to daydream about making the Gopher Prairie a better place, and vows not to give up the fight against mediocrity and conformity. We may easily imagine that Carol will continue to daydream and struggle to find happiness in small-town America. The critic Mark Schorer has pointed out that this impasse represents Lewis's own mixed feelings about his background. While Lewis continued to believe in Midwestern values, he felt drawn to big-city culture and manners and maintained a love-hate relationship to Sauk Centre throughout his life.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us