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Main Street

Sinclair Lewis

Chapters 7–10

Chapters 4–6

Chapters 11–13

Summary

Winter arrives. Unfulfilled by housework and shopping, Carol longs for activity and tries unsuccessfully to organize skiing and skating parties. One morning, she gives in to the urge to run down the street and jump across a pile of slush. However, she notices disapproving ladies glancing at her from their windows.

Carol becomes a member of the Jolly Seventeen, which resembles a small town country club establishment. She feels self-conscious, however, as she notes how the other ladies seem to silently judge her. When the ladies begin criticizing their maids as ungrateful and demanding, Carol jumps into the conversation, saying that the maids are probably ungrateful because they are not treated well. She asserts that her maid, Bea, is honest and hardworking. When Carol remarks that she pays her maid six dollars a week, the other ladies protest against paying a maid such an extravagant salary. Carol then meets Miss Villets, the librarian. Carol's comment that a librarian should help people read offends Miss Villets, who responds that the most important job of a librarian is to take care of the books.

Four days later, Vida Sherwin visits Carol. Vida explains that the townspeople constantly watch and judge Carol. Wanting to know what the community thinks of her, Carol learns that they criticize her for showing off her clothes and intellect, for not going to church, and for being too friendly with her maid. Carol feels devastated when she learns of these opinions. When Kennicott come home, Carol asks him what his friends think of her. Although he tells her that everyone likes her, he cautions her to shop in town instead of ordering goods from Minneapolis and to buy groceries from the people in town who are his friends and patients. Although Will assures Carol not to bother about what other people think of her, she feels very unhappy.

Frightened by the way people criticize her, Carol fears going outside when she knows that people may laugh at her behind her back. She self-consciously notices how people on Main Street look at her. One day, she wears a checked suit and finds ladies staring at her dress and commenting about how expensive it looks. Carol also fears the comments of the teenage boys, such as Cy Bogart, who loaf in front of Dave Dyer's store and tease every passing girl. One day, she overhears the boys talking about her, about how she fusses around her house when they look in her windows and how her low-cut dresses display her shapely ankles. Unable to listen anymore, Carol thenceforth remembers to pull down her window shades.

Carol and Will visit Will's mother in northern Minnesota. Carol gets along quite well with her mother-in-law, which restores some of her self-confidence. When they return to Gopher Prairie, Carol determines to act more friendly and to accept the townspeople as they are. Vida visits Carol often and informs her that the townspeople no longer criticize her. However, Carol finds her maid Bea to be a better friend than any lady in the Jolly Seventeen.

Carol vows to keep up her fight to reform the town. One day, she walks to the outskirts of town, where she sees the poorer neighborhoods. She recalls that the elite members of town once told her that poverty does not exist in Gopher Prairie. In the slum district she meets Miles Bjornstam, the town handyman. As Bjornstam comments on the poverty of the area and criticizes the town's richer citizens, Carol feels drawn to his conversation. He invites her inside his shack to have coffee and warm up, and she accepts. They discuss books and talk about the citizens of Gopher Prairie. Although many townspeople dislike Bjornstam because he is an atheist and the only Democrat in town, Carol finds him to be a kindred spirit because she shares his liberal views.

Carol returns home and decides to attempt to make Kennicott interested in poetry. She reads to him, but notes his bored expression and gives it up. When Carol next attends the Jolly Seventeen, she refrains from expressing her opinions and finds herself more accepted by the ladies.

Analysis

These chapters emphasize Carol's loneliness. Carol's friendships with Bjornstam and Bea demonstrate that she may not be as snobbish as we, or the townspeople, have thought. Carol finds a kindred spirit in Bjornstam because they are both nonconformists. She also likes Bea and Bjornstam because they are individuals rather than manufactured products like the conservative townspeople seem to be. Bjornstam's ideas and criticisms of Gopher Prairie closely resemble Lewis's own ideas about his own hometown.

In Chapter 7, Lewis writes that Carol is "a woman with a working brain and no work." In the early 1900s most married women of the middle class did not seek employment, but rather were expected to raise children and to do housework. However, Carol's "working brain" cannot find satisfaction in gossip and housework, the main activities of the women in the town. Although Carol is not exactly a feminist, she does seem like a feminist by Gopher Prairie's standards.

Lewis paints a scathing portrait of small town life as he presents the townspeople as suspicious spies—far from the archetype of warm and trusting people. The people are materialistic, self-righteous, and narrow- minded. The women of the Jolly Seventeen, who represent the town's upper class, criticize Carol because she dares to be different from them. While Carol demands humane treatment of laborers and the poor, the others prefer to maintain the status quo. Suspecting anyone who does not conform to their standards, they unfairly expect Carol to dress like them, think like them, and talk like them.

At the time, many Americans were upset by Lewis' portrait of small town life. However, the novel functions as a document of social history because Lewis faithfully captures the spirit of his times. Main Street was written after World War I (1914–1918), an event that left many people, especially artists, disillusioned and cynical. It was a time of revolution against the ideals, values, and beliefs of the past. At the time, America established itself as a world power but chose to isolate itself from the world's affairs after taking part in the war. Many Americans considered themselves and their country superior, but Lewis's novels in the 1920s frankly exposed the follies of American society—its materialism, hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and self- satisfaction.

Lewis also records the relentless changes to the social fabric of American life in the early 1900s. New technology—electricity, the automobile, home appliances, motion pictures, radios, and telephones—changed everyday life. Many people moved from small communities to big cities. The small, rural community of Gopher Prairie thus began to appear outdated even in 1920, as it appears outdated to us today. Throughout the novel, Lewis references the Progressive political movement that surfaced in America in the early twentieth century. Progressive politicians supported social causes like the labor movement and the women's rights movement.

Carol's character in these chapters is far different from her character at the novel's opening. Her entrapment in the small town has taken a toll on her: she deliberately withdraws from society and fears criticism, nothing like the popular and vivacious college student she once was. Although Carol dreams about being a great crusader, she worries too much about what people think of her. Bjornstam, on the other hand, does not care what others think of him. In many ways, Carol still resembles a child because she demands attention from other people and desires their acceptance. In fact, her desire for acceptance proves to be one of her great shortcomings. After all, rebels, by their very nature, do not necessarily fit into society. Carol finds herself in a dilemma, wondering if she should conform to society's standards or openly rebel against society. Her dilemma provides Main Street with one of its major themes, that of the individual against society. Throughout the novel, Carol tries to maintain her individuality in a society that demands she conform to its standards.

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