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Main Street

Sinclair Lewis

Chapters 17–20

Chapters 14–16

Chapters 21–23

Summary

In January, the Kennicotts and a group of friends bobsled to their lake cottages. As the others dance and play games, Carol enjoys herself thoroughly. Inspired, Carol proposes that they form a dramatic club. In order to get ideas for staging a play, she asks Kennicott to take her to Minneapolis so she can watch four modern one-act plays. He reluctantly agrees. Having lived in Gopher Prairie for two years, Carol now feels out of place in the big city. Once in Minneapolis, she also observes how much her unsophisticated husband clashes with the city. Nevertheless, she enjoys staying in their luxurious hotel, eating out, and shopping. Although Kennicott tries to coax Carol to skip the plays, she drags him to see the performances. Carol feels transported by the plays, but Kennicott says he prefers cowboy movies.

The members of the dramatic club—Carol, Vida Sherwin, Guy Pollock, Raymond Wutherspoon, and Juanita Haydock—meet and elect Carol president. Although Carol wants to perform a modern play by Bernard Shaw, the others reject staging a "highbrow" play and instead chose to perform a farce called "The Girl from Kakakee." Carol directs the play and chooses the cast. While Vida and Guy help Carol prepare the stage props, the other members of the troupe complain about Carol's bossiness.

Carol knows from the beginning that the play is not going to be a success. The actors do not attend rehearsals regularly, and Raymond Wutherspoon is the only one who can act convincingly. After a while, everyone feels tired of rehearsing. Wanting to give up, Carol holds the play anyway because all the tickets are sold. On the day of the performance, everything goes wrong. The lights do not work, and the actors feel nervous and act badly and refuse to stage another play next year. However, the Gopher Prairie newspaper praises the play, which only makes Carol feel worse, as she is discouraged by the town's poor taste.

In June, Bjornstam marries Bea Sorenson, Carol's maid. Although Carol seemingly persuades all her female friends from the Jolly Seventeen to attend the wedding, none of them show up. Bjornstam aims to give his new wife a higher social status. Carol manages to find another maid named Oscarina, who loves Carol as her own daughter.

The new mayor appoints Carol to the library board. Carol expects to take charge of the board, but feels humbled when she discovers how learned all the board members are. After a few meetings, however, Carol realizes that the board has no clue how to make the library more useful to the town. The library lacks books and funds, but the board resists Carol's proposals to buy more books. Carol gives up hope of improving the library, and the mayor does not reappoint her to the board.

When Kennicott hints to Carol about having a baby, she dreams of escape, becoming fascinated by the trains that pass through town, considering them a means to run away. Meanwhile, a traveling lecture series known as the Chautauqua arrives in Gopher Prairie. Excited at first, Carol finds the lectures disappointing because they are not very educational. World War I erupts in Europe around this time, but the isolationist townspeople of Gopher Prairie do not take it seriously.

Kennicott's Uncle Whittier Smail and Aunt Bessie decide to move to Gopher Prairie and stay with Carol and Kennicott for three weeks. They prove a constant source of vexation to Carol. They laugh at her liberal ideas, question her constantly, read her private mail, and relentlessly offer their opinions. Carol finds escape by attending the Jolly Seventeen Club.

Carol becomes pregnant and finds the pregnancy disagreeable. When she gives birth to a son, she initially dislikes the infant for causing her a difficult labor. Soon, however, she feels overwhelming love for him and makes him the center of her universe. She names her son Hugh after her dead father. Carol and Kennicott enjoy playing with their son together. Carl also enjoys taking Hugh to play with Olaf, the Bjornstams' son, although Carol's friends make her feel ashamed for visiting the poor Bjornstams.

Analysis

These chapters highlight the difference in perception between Carol and the townspeople regarding cultural enlightenment. While the townspeople, including Kennicott, prefer motion pictures of cowboys and slapstick comedy, Carol enjoys serious theater. She hopes use her drama club to bring a sense of refinement to Gopher Prairie. However, even the drama club members themselves resist her efforts to "enlighten" the town, deciding to perform a juvenile farce instead of a serious play. Carol proves powerless to change the townspeople's preference for entertainment over education. She finds the level of cultural entertainment in Gopher Prairie, including the motion pictures and the traveling lecture series, to be very low. To her, the townspeople, who cannot even acknowledge that her play is awful, lack good taste. Furthermore, the people lack interest in world affairs, such as World War I, because they only care about regional issues.

In Chapter 19, Lewis describes the Chautauqua, the traveling lecture series, with tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. The "lecture" series actually consists of vaudeville comedy, music, and rags-to-riches stories. The lectures consider informing people that Abraham Lincoln was a great President to be enlightenment. On the whole, the lecture series merely caters to the townspeople's taste for entertainment over edification. Because the people of Gopher Prairie give importance to money above everything else, they feel elevated intellectually by listening to stories about how poor people may grow up to become wealthy.

Carol's ideas of reforming Gopher Prairie may seem more realistic than when she first arrived. She no longer dreams about rebuilding the entire town. Now, she concentrates her energy at enacting small reforms like starting a drama club and trying to get the town library to purchase more books. However, Carol may continue to strike us as childish in her constant uncertainness of herself and her incessant dreaming about running away. As all her efforts have failed so far, we may also make the conclusion that Carol will never really be able to change Gopher Prairie. Her experiences thus far suggest that she has only two real options in life: to leave Gopher Prairie or to conform.

At this point, Carol has lived in Gopher Prairie for three years but still has not been able to fit into the town. Carol longs for escape but now finds herself rooted to the town because of her husband and baby. At the end of Chapter 20, Lewis comments that small towns like Gopher Prairie exist everywhere. All such small communities resemble one another, so even those people who do leave their hometown only end up settling in another town that resembles the one they left. Perhaps the reason Carol does not insist on leaving Gopher Prairie at this point is because she knows that there is no escaping a Main Street that is the same in small towns everywhere in America.

Basing Gopher Prairie on his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Lewis himself had a love-hate relationship with his community. Although he hated the narrow- mindedness and conservatism of the people, he knew and loved his hometown and found that he could not escape it completely. Similarly, when Carol attempts to leave Gopher Prairie later in the novel, she finds that she too cannot completely escape it mentally or physically.

Lewis narrates Chapter 20 humorously, portraying Uncle Whittier and Aunt Bessie as simple-minded busybodies who constantly irritate Carol with their questions and opinions. When Carol pretends to have a headache, they fuss about her, asking her how she feels every five minutes rather than leaving her alone in peace and quiet. Throughout the novel, Lewis paints these humorous portraits in order to make fun of and criticize certain types of people. His minor characters often appear as caricatures because he concentrates on only a few of their outward mannerisms instead of revealing their inner thoughts and feelings. Lewis's satire adds humor to the novel and counterbalances the mood of tension and hostility between Carol and the townspeople.

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