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Main Street

Sinclair Lewis

Chapters 21–23

Chapters 17–20

Chapters 24–26

Summary

Fearful of remaining a spinster, Vida Sherwin marries Raymond Wutherspoon at the age of thirty-nine. She takes a very active part in all the activities of the town. She sometimes recalls how Kennicott had tried to woo her before he met Carol. Vida discouraged Kennicott but secretly hoped that he would continue to court her. Instead, he married Carol. Dejected, Vida feels that she shares a mysterious link to Carol. Though she becomes Carol's friend, she often feels jealous of Carol. She resents how Carol takes Kennicott's love for granted and how she thinks that she can rebuild the town overnight.

Living in the same boarding house and sharing many interests, Vida and Raymond become friends. Vida often talks to Raymond about Carol and Kennicott. When Vida tells Raymond that she plans resign from her job and leave Gopher Prairie, they become engaged. They move into a small house, and Vida resigns from her job to do housework. Raymond, who works in the men's department of Harry Haydock's Bon Ton Store, becomes a store partner due to Vida's efforts.

Carol cannot share Vida's contentment with simple housework. Instead, Carol reads many novels by contemporary authors. In the books she reads, Carol finds only two popular traditions of representing small-town life: one tradition sentimentalizes small towns as "the one sure abode of friendship, honesty, and clean sweet marriageable girls," while the other tradition pokes fun of "shrewd comic men who are known as 'hicks' and who ejaculate 'Waal I swan.'" Carol asserts that small-town life only offers dead contentment, in which people accept a mechanized life by thinking and talking alike.

To Carol, Gopher Prairie represents a typical American small town. The people in small towns compare their town to great European cities but care more about material matters, such as land prices or cheap labor, than any great achievement in scientific or culture. The citizens of small towns feel virtuous in their ignorance, considering anyone with knowledge to be snobbish. All small towns resemble one another so that people will feel at home wherever they go.

Vida and Carol argue over Carol's opinion of Gopher Prairie. Vida informs her friend that the people of Gopher Prairie are making efforts to improve their town through small, sensible improvements—installing school ventilation, planting gardens—not through the fantastic reforms Carol wants. Vida also points out that Carol gives up too easily. She informs Carol that some townspeople are persuading the town council to build a new school. Carol feels hurt at being left out of the new school campaign. After their conversation, Carol humbly tries to help Gopher Prairie in small ways: she campaigns to hire a welfare nurse for poor families, teaches a group of Camp Fire girls, and plants gardens.

When America enters World War I, Raymond Wutherspoon enlists. Although Kennicott is eager to enlist as well, the doctors' council of Gopher Prairie persuades him to remain to town where his services are needed. Many people in Gopher Prairie express their antipathy toward German-Americans. Cy Bogart, the leader of a gang of young boys, wins admiration for beating up a German farmer's son. The ladies in town give up their bridge parties to make bandages for the Red Cross. Carol joins the women but does not share their blinding hatred of the enemy.

Percy Bresnahan, a wealthy automobile manufacturer from Boston, visits his hometown of Gopher Prairie. The whole town welcomes him at the train station. Bresnahan calls upon his friend Kennicott and meets Carol. The Kennicotts join him with a group of friends at a fishing party. Bresnahan talks importantly about business and politics. Throughout the day, Carol feels conscious of the way he looks at her.

Bresnahan takes Carol out for a drive. Sensing her feelings about Gopher Prairie, he tells how lucky she is to have Kennicott and to live in Gopher Prairie. As they discuss their different points of view, Carol notices Bresnahan's desire for her. She feels flattered for inspiring physical attraction in a rich, powerful man, but she does not personally admire him.

Analysis

Though Lewis narrates Main Street almost entirely through Carol's point of view, Chapter 21 focuses on the point of view of Vida Sherwin. For the first time in the novel, Lewis gives an account of Vida's past relationship to Kennicott, her sexual repression, and her love-hate relationship with Carol. While the two friends share many similarities—both want to reform Gopher Prairie, both are educated women who worked before their marriages—these chapters highlight their considerable differences. While Carol wants to make revolutionary reforms in Gopher Prairie, Vida feels content making small improvements. For all her ideas of reform, however, Vida proves to be just as conventional as the other ladies of the town. She finds contentment in housework and becomes intolerant of Germans when World War I erupts. Carol, on the other hand, cannot justify the townspeople's sudden hatred to Germans and German- Americans.

Carol reads the works of many important contemporary authors—Anatole France, H.G. Wells, Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson—who were important socialists, realists, and philosophers of the time. Indeed, these writers were influential to Lewis himself, who embraced their school of naturalism, attempting to realistically present "a slice of life" through pessimistic themes and an emphasis on the materialization of modern life.

In 1920, the publication of Main Street created a literary commotion, unlike any existing work in its scathing satire of American small-town life. In the early twentieth century, American novels seemed to be written in one of two sharply opposing ways: the dark realism and naturalism of authors like Theodore Dreiser (whom Carol reads) and 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 gap by combining realism with romance; indeed, Carol remains an incurable romantic but gradually finds the realities of everyday life dull and depressing. As Carol's attempts to reform the town fail and her optimism decreases, the novel begins to feel more realistic than romantic. As Carol reads the realistic writers and current philosophers, she also takes up their attitudes.

In Chapter 22, Carol largely speaks for Lewis himself when she denounces American small-town life and the representations of this small-town life in American literature. As many critics have pointed out, however, Lewis only satirizes and criticizes society, failing to offer any real solutions or even suggestions.

Lewis infuses Main Street with minute details and local color, evoking the characteristic appearance, mannerisms, speech, and dress of a particular place or time period. Throughout the novel, Lewis records everyday, slang-ridden speech and immigrant accents such as Bea's. He also often floods our imaginations with detailed, list-ridden descriptions and virtual photographs that depict what life is like in Gopher Prairie: "cheap motor cars, telephones, ready-made clothes, silos, alfalfa, Kodak's, phonographs, leather-upholstered Morris chairs, bridge-prizes, oil-stocks, motion-pictures, land-deals, unread sets of Mark Twain." Such extensive detail gives us the sense that we ourselves are in Gopher Prairie; we thus share Carol's discontentment about "a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless… listening to mechanized music, saying mechanized things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world."

The historical drama of World War I provides the background of Chapter 23. When America entered the war, young men all across the nation flocked to enlist. Lewis faithfully records the sudden spirit of patriotism, the hatred and prejudice against the German enemy, and the sudden intolerance of German- American immigrants. Furthermore, Gopher Prairie's reaction to Bresnahan in Chapter 23 reminds us of the tide of materialism Lewis saw in America at the time. The town clearly places great importance on material success, admiring Bresnahan merely because he is wealthy. Lewis, however, dismisses Bresnahan as an unimportant character in the novel, placing more importance on the townspeople's fawning reaction to him than on his character itself.

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