One night, Erik visits Carol when Kennicott is not home. As Erik leaves the house, Carol sees Mrs. Westlake walking past. The next day, Kennicott tells Carol that Mrs. Westlake is spreading rumors about her around town and revealing the secret that Carol had confided to her. Kennicott warns Carol not to confide in Mrs. Westlake.
Likewise, Vida warns Carol that rumors are circulating town and warns her not to let a young man's innocent fondness grow into something more serious. Vida reveals her past relationship with Kennicott and her opinion that Carol does not appreciate her husband enough. Vida tells Carol that she must lead a spotless life if she wants the credibility to effectively reform other people. Carol imagines leaving Kennicott, but realizes how much her husband needs her. Around town, Carol continues to feel self-conscious about everyone watching her.
Fern Mullins asks Carol to chaperone a barn dance with her, but Carol cannot go. The next day, Carol hears Mrs. Bogart screaming at Fern and throwing her out of her house. Mrs. Bogart tells the whole town that Fern took her son, Cy, to the barn dance, got him drunk, and physically corrupted him. Carol and Kennicott find the story incredulous. Fern admits that she took Cy to the dance but says that he stole the whiskey from some farmer, got himself drunk, and then tried to force himself on her. As she is strong, Fern had been able to resist Cy's advances as she drove him home. Carol defends Fern's name around town, but Mrs. Bogart does not listen, claiming that a teacher should have higher morals and that the school board should fire Fern.
Carol attempts to comfort Fern, who feels humiliated by the whole episode. As Carol speaks to all the members of the school board to clear Fern's name, she realizes that they believe Fern's story but will still fire her for the sake of appearances. Fern resigns and leaves town. A week later, Fern sends Carol a letter thanking her for her friendship.
Although Carol fears another scandal, she decides to take a walk with Erik in the country. As they walk, they see Kennicott's car approaching them. Kennicott simply asks if they want a lift back to town. Carol feels great suspense when they return home, but Kennicott calmly tells her that he knows she has been honest and that he will not play the role of the outraged husband. Instead, he asks her to stop seeing Erik before she creates a scandal like Fern's. He then tells her how much he loves her and asks if she still loves him. Carol promises no to see Erik again.
The next evening, Carol receives a letter from Erik that informs her that he is moving to Minneapolis. When Erik leaves, Erik's father comes into town in order to have a few unkind words with Carol. When Kennicott comes home, Carol tells him that she needs to take a trip far away from Gopher Prairie. He agrees, asking her to wait three weeks before they leave. They decide to go to California and leave Hugh with the Smails.
The Kennicotts travel for three months in California and the Southwest. They return to Gopher Prairie in April. Seeing the town again, Carol realizes that nothing has changed. Everyone acts and talks the same. Nonetheless, she finds comfort in seeing her son again. She also enjoys being around familiar faces once again. As Kennicott appears happy to be back home, Carol decides not to convey her disappointment.
Carol silently endures Gopher Prairie and keeps busy. Raymond Wutherspoon returns from the war, much to Vida's delight. As the price of wheat skyrockets, the town grows and becomes wealthier. A boosting campaign begins as the townspeople attempt to transform their town into another St. Paul or Minneapolis. The newly arrived and smooth talking Mr. Blausser takes charge of the campaign, making speeches about Gopher Prairie's greatness. All the townspeople except Carol admire him. Among other improvements, the town acquires city street lighting and forms a new baseball team. Carol cannot endure the townspeople's arrogance for thinking their town the greatest place on earth. She finally feels ready to leave Gopher Prairie.
Carol and Erik's abortive romance reaches its climax in Chapter 33. Seeking only friendship from Erik, Carol appears to fall in love only with the idea of being in love. Her relationship with Erik represents her growing separation from her husband. Throughout the novel, the conflict between Carol and Gopher Prairie balances her conflict with Kennicott. While her conflict with the town takes center stage in the first half of the novel, the second half focuses on her deteriorating marriage.
Many literary critics have noted the resemblance of Main Street to the Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, a story of an unhappy, romantic housewife who, like Carol, feels trapped in her rural environment and dreams of escape. Madame Bovary, however, attempts to find surrogate fulfillment through a string of love affairs. Carol, on the other hand, rejects all the opportunities she has to have an affair, first with Guy Pollock, then with Percy Bresnahan, now with Erik. Despite her radical ideas, she remains a conventional and moral person in many ways.
In addition to the comparisons to Flaubert, Lewis's brand of social criticism reminded many critics of Charles Dickens. Both Lewis and Dickens called attention to the faults and shortcomings of people and places—criticizing manners, morals, social conditions, and institutions—but did not propose any solutions to these perceived ills. Furthermore, both authors often used satire and biting humor and drew caricatures of minor characters, emphasizing exaggerated features of a character. Furthermore, both writers believed that one was free to choice one's own fate and could overcome life's obstacles.
In Chapter 32, Fern's story provides one of the great tragedies of the novel, a powerful depiction of how a community can crush an individual. The scandal- hungry and self-righteous citizens, espousing stifling morals, sacrifice the innocent Fern to please themselves. Lewis attacks the narrow-minded citizens who enjoy juicy scandals without bothering to ascertain the truth. While the townspeople pride themselves as good Christians and criticize Carol for not attending church often enough, only Carol treats Fern (and the Bjornstams) with friendship and Christian charity.
Fern's story also implies a double standard. While the citizens of Gopher Prairie practically run Fern out of town, the boys and even some grown men of the community encourage Cy's lewd behavior. Moreover, though the townspeople gossip about Carol's affair with Erik, they do not create a public scandal or force her to leave town because, unlike Fern, Carol belongs to the town's upper class. Fern, on the other hand, is vulnerable to attack because she is merely an unmarried, working-class teacher.
When Carol and Kennicott return from their second honeymoon in Chapter 34, Lewis foregrounds the two characters' contrasting points of view. The optimistic and materialistic Kennicott characteristically notices the new construction jobs around town, while the pessimistic Carol only notices the accumulating garbage in people's backyards.
In Chapter 35, Lewis presents the town boosting campaign in order to attack the self-righteousness of the townspeople who believe their city to be the greatest place under the sun. The materialistic people lack vision and the appreciation of finer things in life. We should remember that, to Lewis, Gopher Prairie represents a microcosm of the United States. Thus, in his attack on Gopher prairie, he attacks the whole panorama of materialistic twentieth-century American life.
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