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[708] Main Street – Sinclair Lewis

1main

” The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears killed with axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot, and a rebellious girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest. ” (Ch.1, p.3)

Main Street is a satirical novel depicting the claustrophobic life in a small rural town during the 1910s. The female protagonist, Carol Milford, is a liberal, well-educated woman from St. Paul, Minnesota. She marries the town doctor Will Kennicott, who takes her to his home in Gopher Prairie. The novel is about Carol’s perception of the town’s lack of culture and her attempts at reform. In her house-warming party, she defies common decency by sitting with the men after dinner and frees the town elites from their years of decorum.

I wonder if you can understand the ‘fun’ of making a beautful thing, the pride and satisfaction of it, and the holiness. (Ch.19, p.230)

Carol dabbles in numerous town affairs: the planning of a new council building, better selection in the library, the women’s literary club, and charity support for the poor. She was disconcerted that she was left out of the planning of the new school building. Every step of the way she meets with opposition, as the small town, inveterate in its old ways, operates to counteract the romantic and artistic idea as per the doctor’s wife. She becomes dissatisfied with the town and her life, and chooses to cope with the hidden derision by withdrawal. Her husband defends the town and his friends against her denigrating comments; but he softens in his insistence on having their marriage conform to a traditional model.

When I die the world will be annihilated, as far as I’m concerned. (Ch.22, p.281)

Carol’s fecklessness is believable and sometimes irritating, but the town-people’s general resistence to every form of non-conformity is also believable. Lewis deftly renders the frequently nice and friendly narrow-minded prejudice of small-town America that is all the most difficult to combat because it is well-meaning and patriotic. Carol is also not the most lovable person to reason with. She is overbearing and egotistic.

All that said, I have mixed feelings about Main Street, which is a satire without being overtly funny or comic. Lewis writes with intelligence, but also from an attitude of supposed worldliness that I find very pretentious. His plots meander and his tone is unclear. The story unfolds at an interminable pace, and the episodes have a repetitive flavor that quickly becomes trying.

466 pp. Barnes & Noble Classic. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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