While Carol remains unaware of her husband's affair with Maud Dyer, Maud pretends to be Carol's friend. At the Jolly Seventeen, Maud tells Carol about Nat Hicks's new assistant tailor, a young man who looks and acts so feminine that people call him Elizabeth. He wears a coat and tie, talks in a refined manner, and reads all the time. The ladies of the club laugh at him for putting on airs. On Sunday, the Kennicotts attend church and Carol notes the young man known as Elizabeth, whose real name is Erik Valborg. To Carol, Erik looks like a young poet. As the people in town poke fun of him and criticize him for failing to enlist, Carol feels the need to defend him but remains silent.
Fern Mullins, the new high school teacher, arrives from Minneapolis and boards with Mrs. Bogart. When Carol and Fern meet, they find that they have much in common and form a new friendship. Meanwhile, Carol longs to talk to Erik and meets him in the tailor shop. She learns that he is interested in drama and that he shares her love for beautiful things. Carol invites Erik and Fern to her house to discuss restarting the dramatic club. Though Kennicott acts politely to Fern, he acts coldly to Erik.
Carol takes Hugh walking and encounters Erik. As they talk, Erik tells Carol about his life and ambitions: he wants move to the East and become a dress designer, despite the fact that many people laugh at his dream and that he fears not becoming successful. Erik, the son of a Swedish farmer, has received only a self-taught education; Carol notes how he mispronounces many words. Asked for her advice, Carol tells Erik to continue to educate himself in a more systemic manner. As they walk home together, Carol sees Mrs. Bogart and Aunt Bessie staring at her through a window.
Carol finds herself thinking constantly about Erik. Although she wants to help him and feels responsible for him, she does not want to interfere with his life. When she meets Erik again, he tells her that he is making efforts to educate himself and that he regards her as his teacher. For a brief moment, Carol remembers her father and associates him with Erik.
Erik is interested in tennis, and organizes a tennis tournament. However, on the day of the tournament, Harry Haydock moves the tournament to another court without telling Erik. Carol decides to play tennis anyway, along with Erik and the other couples Harry has deliberately snubbed. Slowly, the town accepts Erik as an intelligent, polite young man. Although Carol notes Erik's admiration for her, she looks at herself in the mirror one day and suddenly feels old and unattractive.
Carol, the Dyers, Erik, Cy Bogart, and Fern Mullins spend a day together at the lake. Carol feels jealous at Maud Dyer's display of affection for Erik. When Erik asks Carol to go for a boat ride, she agrees and feels very conscious of his presence next to her. As Erik talks about how much he admires her, Carol feels content and does not insist on returning to shore. When they do return, she feels embarrassed for being gone such a long time.
Back in Gopher Prairie, Carol feels self-conscious. When Mrs. Bogart comes to visit, Carol evades a lecture on propriety by starting the conversation with a remark that she finds the women in Gopher Prairie too nosy. Carol later meets Erik again at a party given by Harry Haydock. Erik says that he has been offered a job in a flourmill and asks for her advice. Carol only tells him that he must decide for himself. As they talk, Carol feels conscious of people looking at them. When Erik tells Carol how much he loves her, she points out the fact that she is married. Erik, however, tells her that he does not care. Distressed, Carol walks away from him. She asks Kennicott to take her on a trip to get away from town, but he tells her that he cannot leave.
Carol feels close to Erik because they are both outcasts in Gopher Prairie. To Carol, Erik provides an image of romance and refinement that she finds lacking in the small town. Her incurably romantic side imagines Erik as a "bewildered spirit fallen on Main Street," believing that Main Street will mock him until "that spirit doubts his own self and tries to give up the use of wings." Carol feels the need to encourage and protect him before the town crushes his individual, dreamy spirit. While Carol imagines Erik to be a poet like Keats, Lewis does not portray the young man idealistically. Half-educated and only superficially interested in culture, Erik writes rather bad poetry and speaks flowery phrases to Carol in Chapter 30: "Your lips are for songs about rivers in the morning and lakes at twilight." Throughout the novel, Lewis uses everyday, colloquial dialogue; now that his characters speak poetically, he pokes fun at their efforts.
Carol's relationship with Erik, then, is rather complex. On one hand, she seems to function like a mother figure to him or a patron who encourages a young artist. To Carol, Erik also recalls her father. Her father represents her animated childhood, which ends at the age of thirteen when her father dies—"divine love, and perfect understanding." Throughout the novel, Carol sadly reflects that Kennicott does not resemble her father at all because he does not understand her. However, she also always feels conscious of Erik's good looks, and his admiration for her is not completely platonic. Carol does fall in love with Erik—although she does not admit it herself—but does not allow him to make any physical advances on her. Instead, she seems to fall in love with the concept of falling in love.
At this point in the novel, Carol is thirty and has lived in Gopher Prairie for five years. She has begun to feel self-conscious about her age and her rural life. She feels behind the times, unable to keep up with current trends such as the latest fashion or social issues. A young man around twenty-five, Erik embodies "universal and joyous youth" and the freedom of youth. Carol's relationship with Erik is rooted in her desire to recapture such youth that she once felt. Furthermore, Erik also represents escape for Carol. She dreams of escaping Gopher Prairie, and earlier in the novel has found an escape only in her interests in the outdoors, trains, and books. Now, she takes an interest in Erik as a way of escaping Gopher Prairie. She even catches herself thinking about running away with him, but does not even think about acting on her whims. After all, we should note by now that Carol is more of a thinker or a dreamer than a doer.
In these chapters, Carol's fantasy "affair" with Erik ironically contrasts with Kennicott's real affair with Maud Dryer. Though Carol does not allow herself to have a physical affair with Erik, she feels self-conscious of the townspeople watching her with Erik and guilty about her attraction to him. Their relationship is not discreet, as they often walk and talk together in public and take the opportunity to go boating together privately. Carol often feels the need to explain the relationship to herself and to others. Maud Dyer, on the other hand, does not suffer from any guilt about her affair with Kennicott—she even pretends to be Carol's friend. Kennicott and Maud begin a discreet affair that no one notices, not even the town gossips who seemingly know everything about everyone. On the other hand, many people observe and comment on Carol's open friendship with Erik. In this regard, Carol's comment, "Isn't it wonderful how much we all know about one another in a town like this," is heavily layered with sarcasm. Ironically, it is Erik—not Kennicott—of whom Carol feels jealous. In Chapter 30, she feels jealous of seeing Maud and Erik talking together on the beach, but feels no jealousy whatsoever when she sees Maud and Kennicott talking privately at a church social. Carol's lack of jealousy shows that she takes her husband's love and loyalty for granted, as people like Vida and Mrs. Bogart and even Kennicott himself tell her throughout the novel.
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