Places: Main Street

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1920

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: c. 1910-1920

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedGopher Prairie

Gopher Main StreetPrairie. Fictional Minnesota town that is the novel’s primary setting and target of its satire. Lewis begins with a prologue describing Gopher Prairie’s Main Street as the “continuation of Main Streets everywhere. . . . the climax of civilization. . . . Our railway station is the final aspiration of architecture.”

Lewis modeled Gopher Prairie on the similarly sized town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in which he grew up. Each is a wheat town of about three thousand residents, situated at the edge of an endless prairie, but within easy reach of Minnesota’s many lakes. In a thirty-two-minute walk, Carol Kennicott, the newly arrived bride of Dr. Will Kennicott, completely explores the town. She hopes to find a village of the sort described in sentimental novels, with hollyhocks and quiet lanes and quaint inhabitants. Instead, she is overwhelmed by the ugliness that greets her as she walks down Main Street. The town’s three-story hotel is shabby; its dining room a sea of stained tablecloths. The drug store features a greasy marble soda fountain and shelves of dubious patent medicines. A grocery story has overripe fruit in its window. The meat market reeks of blood. The saloons stink of stale beer. The clock in front of the jewelry store does not work. There is no park or courthouse with shady grounds where she can rest her eyes. Only two buildings please her. The Bon Ton Store, the largest in town, is at least clean, and the Farmers’ National Bank is housed in an Ionic temple.

The people of Main Street match the buildings. The clerk raising an awning before his store has dirty hands, and none of the men appears to have shaved in the last three days. The Gopher Prairie elite, who gather in the evening to welcome Carol, disappoint her. Lewis defines the village aristocracy as composed of all persons engaged in professions, or earning over twenty-five hundred dollars a year, or having grandparents born in America. However, to Carol they appear uncouth, lacking in culture, and deficient in style.

Lewis displays some ambivalence in his attitude toward Gopher Prairie, softening his satire as the novel continues. As Main Street becomes more familiar territory, its blemishes become less irritating to Carol. She learns to discriminate among the inhabitants of the town, finding virtues even in people who seem crude and uninteresting when she first meets them.

*Minnesota countryside

*Minnesota countryside. Brief passages throughout the novel contrast the beauty of Minnesota’s rural landscape with the shabbiness of Gopher Prairie. While walking down the railroad track to Plover Lake, Carol marvels at the wildflowers she finds in bloom, and is enchanted with a pasture near the lake, likening it to a rare old Persian carpet of cream and gold. On a hunting trip with her husband, Carol admires Minnesota’s lakes and wheat fields, seeing in them the dignity and greatness of style she cannot find on Main Street.

Lake Minniemashie

Lake Minniemashie. Minnesota resort area where Dr. Kennicott buys a summer cottage. Although the lake’s cottages are mere shacks, clustered too close to one another, Carol enjoys her summers at the cottage. Majestic elms and linden trees shade the dwellings; across the lake, fields of ripe wheat slope up to green forests. Soothed by the gentle landscape at the lake, Carol finds it easy to get along with the same women who irritate her in town. To her regret, she cannot persuade her neighbors to use the cottages after their customary September closing. A rare winter sledding trip to the lake reveals the beauty of Minnesota’s scenery under snow and ice.

*Chicago

*Chicago. Although Lewis uses Carol to dramatize his critique of village life, he does not elaborate on her city life. The narrative of Carol’s experiences while in a Chicago library school is little more than a list of features that no rural town can offer–the Art Institute, symphony concerts, theater, and professional ballet. Likewise, while she is a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, she reads widely, socializes briefly, and meets her future husband.

*Minneapolis

*Minneapolis. Minnesota’s largest city. After Carol settles in Gopher Prairie, Minneapolis functions as a place of cultural refuge; the sound of a passing train’s whistle holding out hope of escape from village limitations. However, when her husband takes her to Minneapolis for a week, she feels like a country bumpkin, confused by the crowds in the railroad station, shy and hesitant in the grandiose lobby of their hotel, and amazed by the conveniences offered in the hotel’s bathroom.

*Washington, D.C

*Washington, D.C. National capital where, during World War I, Carol escapes from Gopher Prairie for an extended period by working as a clerk in a government bureaucracy. Lewis uses the city and Carol’s experiences to elaborate on his own ambivalence toward small-town life. Washington offers Carol vast parks and splendid buildings whose absence disturbs her on her first encounter with Gopher Prairie. She particularly values lively political and cultural discussions with her new friends. However, she also soon discovers that two-thirds of her Washington acquaintances come from small towns. When Gopher Prairie residents visit, she welcomes them to Washington and shows them its many sights. Experiencing urban life as a mature woman, Carol becomes more sympathetic to Gopher Prairie, accepting the raw new settlement’s uncouthness. Eventually, she returns to her life within it.

BibliographyBucco, Martin. Main Street: The Revolt of Carol Kennicott. New York: Twayne, 1993. Focuses on Lewis’ development of his Main Street heroine, especially her unconscious self-perceptions as prairie princess, Carol D’Arc, Lady Bountiful, Mater Dolorosa, Village Intellectual, American Bovary, and Passionate Pilgrim.Davenport, Garvin F. “Gopher-Prairie-Lake-Wobegon: The Midwest as Mythical Space.” In Sinclair Lewis at One Hundred: Papers Presented at a Centennial Conference. St. Cloud, Minn.: St. Cloud State University, 1985. Creates connection between fictional places and their peoples. Relates them to Yi-Fu Tuan’s theories of the dualities of the fear and possibility of space and the familiarity, comfort, and constrictiveness of place.Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Twayne, 1962. A comparison of Lewis’ works that concludes that Main Street critiques the falseness and shallowness of American life whereas some Lewis novels defend it.Light, Martin. The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1975. Demonstrates Lewis’ pattern, especially obvious in Main Street, of sending his heroes into the world motivated by heroic chivalric behavior, which results not only in foolish beliefs and behavior but also in kindness, generosity, sympathy, and idealism.Shorer, Mark, ed. Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Places Main Street in the context of Lewis’ other work.
Categories: Places