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Main Street

Sinclair Lewis

Chapters 4–6

Chapters 1–3

Chapters 7–10

Summary

On her first day in Gopher Prairie, Carol goes for a walk to inspect the town. She covers the entirety of the small town on foot in thirty-two minutes. Most of the buildings and houses on Main Street appear haphazardly constructed. The Minniemashie House, the town's hotel and "fine-dining" establishment, has flyspecked windows, dirty floors, and stained tablecloths. Carol sees a cat sleeping on some lettuce in a grocery store window. The ugliness of the town unnerves her. When she returns home, however, she only tells her husband that the town looks "very interesting."

Another young lady, Bea Sorenson, arrives in Gopher Prairie on the same day. However, Bea comes from a farm, not a larger city. Bored with farm life, she has decided to find a job in Gopher Prairie. She walks around town at the same time Carol does. Unlike Carol, Bea feels awestruck by everything she sees, as she has never visited a town as large as Gopher Prairie.

Sam Clark holds a party to for Carol and Will at which Carol meets several townspeople who allegedly represent the town's "smart young set." Several guests boast to Carol about the greatness of the town, informing her several times that the allegedly notable automobile manufacturer Percy Bresnahan was born and raised in Gopher Prairie.

Carol feels uncomfortable throughout the party. Finding the conversation dull, she tries to be entertaining by keeping up a frivolous and somewhat shocking conversation. While the others appear entertained, they do not join her efforts to be amusing. Instead, Sam Clark invites a couple of guests to perform their individual stunts as they do at every party. When Carol tries discussing important social issues such as the labor movement, she learns that the people of Gopher Prairie do not approve of unions and profit sharing. Privately, Kennicott advises her to watch what she says because the townspeople are very conservative. A few days later, the town newspaper publishes an account of the party.

One day, Kennicott takes Carol along on a hunting trip. Carol finds the countryside and farmlands more beautiful than Main Street. She also begins to take pride in her role as housewife. She hires Bea Sorenson as a maid but treats her like a friend. One afternoon, Vida Sherwin, the town's high school teacher, visits Carol. Vida declares that the town needs people like Carol. She also tells Carol that some people in town, including herself and the lawyer Guy Pollock, share Carol's interests. Happy to find others she can talk to, Carol invites Guy and Vida to supper and likes Mr. Pollock immediately because he is one of the few people who does not talk her ear off about how wonderful Gopher Prairie is.

Carol redecorates her house, spending a great deal of time and money. She paints the parlor blue and yellow and decorates it with Japanese ornaments she orders from Minneapolis. The refurnishing of the house attracts much attention. The widow Mrs. Bogart, a neighbor, visits Carol to look at he renovations. Very religious and rather stingy, Mrs. Bogart comments on Carol's extravagance and states that she and her husband should attend church more often. Carol becomes more conscious about her spending. When she discovers that the men of Gopher Prairie make their wives beg for money for their household expenses, she asks Kennicott for a regular allowance. Kennicott agrees to give her money of her own.

Carol hosts a party and makes extravagant plans for it. Although Kennicott considers himself the master of his house, Carol orders him around like a child. The guests arrive and admire her new furniture. Determined to host a lively party, Carol makes the guests dance and not perform their usual party stunts. She makes them play a game in the dark where they take off their shoes and pretend to be wolves. Next, she gives her guests paper costumes for a Chinese masquerade and serves them a Chinese dinner.

The town publishes an article about the party. Carol hopes that other townspeople will also host entertaining parties. However, the next week someone hosts a rather dull party at which the guests perform their usual stunts. Carol feels disappointed that she has not been able to influence the townspeople to change their natures.

Analysis

These chapters provide insight into Carol's ideas of beauty and her radical ideas of social reformation. The people of Gopher Prairie tend to be old- fashioned and conservative. Carol, on the other hand, supports modern, liberal causes like the labor movement and women's rights. She hates Gopher Prairie for its obsessive materialism and lack of culture, and she dreams about reforming the town to an ideal village. The fact that she discards the house's old furniture and family relics and replaces them with new items reflects her desire for change and modernity.

Lewis's description of Carol's first walk around the town provides one of the most memorable scenes of the novel. The author brilliantly recreates small-town life to its tiniest detail: the half-slangy, half-rustic speech of the Scandinavians like Bea Sorenson; the tasteless merchandise in the store windows; the barrenness of homes and lawns; and the appearances and mannerisms of even minor characters. Lewis, modeling Gopher Prairie on his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, realistically exposes the ugliness and dullness of small town life through satire, a literary device that pokes fun at archetypal characters or values. Indeed, Lewis satirizes many types of people throughout the novel. He portrays Mrs. Bogart, for instance, as a religious hypocrite. While the widow claims to be god-fearing herself, she has one son who works in a bar and another son who hangs around with the town's toughest gang. Ezra Stowbody, the bank president, represents the materialism and narrow-mindedness of the townspeople in his distrust of labor unions, socialists, and immigrants. On the whole, Carol finds the townspeople dull because they lack originality, imagination, and culture.

Lewis's brand of social satire shocked American readers at the time. Before Main Street was published, many Americans still viewed the small town idealistically, as a place where good people lived and good morals prevailed. Lewis, however, exposes this myth of the goodness of small town life as a falsehood. He portrays the narrowness of small town life in its rigid demand for conformity, its interest only in material success, and its lack of intellectual concern. Throughout the novel, the townspeople offer Carol only chilly suspicion, not warm friendship. We see this behavior already at this point in the novel, as Lewis characterizes Mrs. Bogart as the type of person who spies on people from her window.

Furthermore, Lewis structures these chapters to maximize the technique of contrast. In back-to-back scenes, Carol's first walk down Main Street contrasts with the Bea's first impression of the town. These two walks present us with two vastly different interpretations of the same scene. The shifting point of view from Carol to Bea may imply that Gopher Prairie may really not be as bad as the hopelessly romantic and idealistic Carol imagines. In this sequence, Lewis suggests that what one sees depends entirely on who one is. In addition to the contrast between the perspectives of Carol and Bea, the beauty of the countryside contrasts with the ugliness of the town. Also, the strenuous efforts Carol makes at being charming at Sam Clark's party and at hosting her own elaborate party contrast with the simple, matter-of-fact newspaper accounts of the two parties.

The personalities of Carol and her husband provide further contrast in these chapters. Unlike Carol, Will shares the townspeople's conservatism. While she is idealistic and interested in art, he is realistic and interested in making money. He is also more sensible and mature than his wife. While Carol is shocked by the fact that Will socializes with a tailor and an undertaker, he does not share this social snobbery. While Kennicott appears somewhat dull and unimaginative, he does possess a greater democratic spirit than his wife.

Lewis admitted that he based the character of Carol on himself and based the character of Kennicott on his father, who was a physician in Minnesota. As a boy, Lewis hated his hometown of Sauk Centre—the model of Gopher Prairie—but he also knew and loved it and strove for the acceptance of the townspeople and his father. Like Lewis, Carol embodies the spirit of a nonconformist, always dissatisfied and restless to see what lies over the horizon. Lewis biographer Mark Schorer maintains, however, that Lewis shared both the qualities of Kennicott and Carol: Carol's romantic reverie but also Kennicott's realistic, sensible, and often crude nature.

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