Analysis of Sinclair Lewis' 'Main Street'

Modified: 5th Aug 2021
Wordcount: 1956 words

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The story of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis had been written as an aggressive satire that focused primarily on social issues of the small towns of the American Midwest. This was in order to provoke a different, or perhaps, a negative view of the small, rural town life to the readers of the 1920’s. Much of the American population during this time viewed these small, simple towns positively, as an ideal example of true Americana nature and morality that brought a reassuring contrast to the developing, and often frightening world during the time period. It is clear to see that with this novel, Sinclair Lewis aimed to diminish this positive view of these small rural centers, and shed light on the ills of their society, which created conflict to individuality. When focusing on the reception of this novel, it is apparent to see that it had achieved its purpose, as it became widely popular, as well as controversial.

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The themes within this satirical novel describe the political, social, and economic aspects of rural, Midwest society at this time. Main Street allows the reader to develop a personal opinion as well as a clear view into the social conditions vividly, and the views of the people of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. As stated, Sinclair Lewis focused mainly on attacking the views of the rural, small towns America that many saw as ideal. Sinclair Lewis sheds light upon the narrow-mindedness, conformity, mediocrity and nescience of the people of Gopher Prairie, representing the small towns of America. The people of this small town criticize and shun individuality and those who do not conform to their standards. This is all illustrated by the theme of the individual vs. the community. The protagonist, Carol Kennicott’s attempts to change the town of Gopher Prairie into a more idealistic town in which she desires it to be, in the face of the town’s resistance to change. Carol attempts this as she also attempts to harmonize with the population of Gopher Prairie as a new citizen. The resistance that Carol brings to conforming creates a conflict that lasts throughout the novel, and although she does not bring radical change, she may be viewed as successful for putting up a fight. As for a description of the political and economic themes of this novel, Sinclair Lewis leaves a somewhat bleak direct description of these aspects. Although, it is clear to see a description of these two aspects throughout the primarily social themes. Gopher Prairie, being a small town, had a rather simple economy that was primarily based on agriculture and small, independent businesses. Due to this, the people of Gopher Prairie highly valued, and revered material success. This is shown by the character Percy Bresnahan, who in contrast to the social structure of Gopher Prairie, was a wealthy automobile manufacturer who was admired by the townspeople, but is discovered to be relatively unimportant in the city of Washington by the protagonist, perhaps illustrating the ignorance of the people of Gopher Prairie. Sinclair Lewis does not focus intensely on the political structure of the small town, and leaves the citizen’s views or insight on politics rather bleak. Perhaps this lack of description only gives more insight into the close-minded and ignorant views of the people of Gopher Prairie, representing small town life everywhere at that time. (SparkNotes Editors, n.d.). Due to the time period in which the novel takes place, there are unique characters that could have only been created from the social structure and happenings of the 1920’s. To clarify, the most prominent example of this would be World War I, which created prejudice or resentment to foreigners, by the people of the U.S, especially in small towns like Gopher Prairie. This is illustrated by Sinclair Lewis in the novel, with the character of Miles Bjornstam, a Swedish immigrant who was ostracized by the town due to him being an immigrant, as well as his radical ideals of socialism, due to this many considered him to be insane and he was nicknamed the “Red Swede”. (SparkNotes Editors, n.d.). The explanation of whether or not the conditions have improved is dependent on how a person views the small town life of America. Although, after reading this novel and one is exposed to the ills of small town life, it is simple to infer that the conditions that Sinclair Lewis focused on have improved positively. This could be partially due to amount of small towns being drastically shortened compared to that time period, or the fact that people could have possibly become less ignorant, or short-minded due to the world today, compared to back then.

The author of this satirical novel, Harry Sinclair Lewis was born on February 7th, 1885, in the small farming immigrant village of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. It is clear to see that his experiences from growing up in a rural Midwestern town have had a major influence on his writings, clearly on Main Street. When Sinclair was just six years old, his mother, Emma Kermott Lewis died. His father, Edwin Lewis, a country doctor, remarried a year later. In the year 1903, Lewis was accepted into Yale University and moved east. There, he worked regularly as a contributor for the Yale Literary Magazine. Even though he became dissatisfied with college and dropped out, he eventually graduated from Yale in 1908. After publishing his first novel in 1912, Lewis married Grace Livingston Hegger in 1914. The couple then moved to Port Washington on Long Island. After becoming an editor at various companies and devoting his evenings to writing fiction, Lewis published Main Street in 1920. Main Street became somewhat of an overnight success and gained him international acclaim as a satirical novelist, and sold 250,000 copies of the novel in the first year of publication, he then began to write other novels such as Babbit, and Arrowsmith. After divorcing his first wife, Grace, Lewis married the journalist Dorothy Thompson in 1928. In 1930, Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. After divorcing his wife in 1942, he spent the last years of his life throughout Europe alone, suffering from Alcoholism. On January 10th, 1951, Harry Sinclair Lewis died in Rome from a heart attack at the age of sixty-five; he was then buried in Minnesota. As stated, Sinclair Lewis’ childhood living in the rural small town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota showed great influence on his works. This proved to be greatly true in the creation of Main Street, for the town of Gopher Prairie was closely modeled after Sauk Centre. (Main Street, Sinclair Lewis, Introduction, Brooke Allen),

When focusing on the main characters within the novel of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, it is ideal to narrow the main characters down to Carol Kennicott and Dr. Will Kennicott. These two characters are married in the story, and Will Kennicott is the reason why Carol moves from Minneapolis, to the small town of Gopher Prairie, to marry him. As stated, Carol Kennicott is the protagonist, and through her is how the reader views Gopher Prairie and its people. Even though they are married, at times throughout the story Will Kennicott could be viewed as the antagonist. Carol Kennicott is portrayed as culturally sophisticated and college educated woman, who lives a city life in Minneapolis. When she meets Dr. Will Kennicott, he convinces her to marry him and move to his town of Gopher Prairie. Upon arrival, Carol has dreams she took with her of rebuilding an ugly, small prairie village into a sophisticated and beautiful place. Although she has these big dreams, the fact that she is more of a thinker and a dreamer as well as the townspeople’s unwavering resistance to change, Carol ends up not being able to accomplish much physically, but rebels more mentally. Throughout the story, Carol attempts to achieve happiness, or at least become content with her life that she feels she should not have chosen. Perhaps many readers could relate to her plight and relate to it, or others could view her as immature. It is important to understand that Carol’s character represents the role-change of women during the 1920’s; this is shown by her constant refusal to be content with the traditional domestic duties of women. Carol’s social activism and desire to bring change could also be viewed as representation of the progressive spirit around the turn of the century. (SparkNotes Editors, n.d.). As for the secondary protagonist of Dr. Will Kennicott, he can be viewed as representing traditional values, and at times, being opposed to the somewhat radical ideals of Carol and her desire for change. While Carol is constantly trying to bring change to Gopher Prairie, Will appears to remain content with the way his hometown of Gopher Prairie is. Will also shows contrast to the interests of Carol, such as preferring to watch movies rather than appreciating poetry and drama, and finding the people of Gopher Prairie to be friendly and simple, as Carol views them to be dull and unsophisticated. Even though Will can be viewed as unimaginative, he can also be seen as a very competent doctor, who is also highly intelligent, as he performs multiple and successful operations throughout the story.

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Throughout most of the story, Will Kennicott fails to understand Carol’s undying desire to bring change to his home town.  (SparkNotes Editors, n.d.). From the information stated, the plot of the story takes hold once Carol begins some of her first attempts at reforming the town of Gopher Prairie, but first she attempts to make friends with the people of Gopher Prairie. First by hosting parties in order to gain a social foothold and enliven the people. Carol also joins Women’s clubs such as the “Jolly Seventeen” a social club, as well as a book club named the “Thanatopsis” club in order to rally the women to follow her in her social reforms. Despite these attempts, as well as forming a drama club and staging a play, Carol is still received as an outsider, as she learns that many of the townspeople constantly criticize her and her actions. Despite this, Carol does find companions amongst the somewhat outcasts of Gopher Prairie, such as Miles Bjornstam, the town’s handyman, named the “Red Swede”. She also befriends the town lawyer and bachelor, Guy Pollock, and the teacher at the local high school, Vida Sherwin as well as Bea, the maid at her house. Carol soon becomes frustrated due to no one supporting her plans for new social buildings and reforms, and she begins to resent the life she has chosen at Gopher Prairie. Within time, Carol and Will Kennicott have an argument over Carol’s discontent of her life and struggle for happiness. Will Kennicott claims that Carol believes she is higher than the people of Gopher Prairie. After they settle their argument, Carol begins to fall in love with Will all over again or perhaps for the first time. She begins to view him in a new light, as a stable, accomplished doctor and Carol’s new found love takes her mind off of her discontent with Gopher Prairie. This does not last long, as Carol still struggles to be content with the dull life she is living, and she becomes increasingly desperate to find interest, nearly having an affair with the tailor’s assistant, Erik Valborg. Eventually, in order to avoid a scandal, Erik leaves Gopher Prairie. Will Kennicott then takes Carol on a long trip around California, in order for her to avoid the gossip of the town. When she returns, after forgetting about the troubles of Gopher Prairie, she returns to find that the narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy of the people of the town has not come to change at all.  (SparkNotes Editors, n.d.).


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