Main Street: Essay Q&A
1. What aspects of the novel might have angered residents of small town's in America at the time of its publication?
Lewis' explicit suggestion, via Carol and Miles Bjornstam, that the town's people were essentially leeches exploiting the farmers would have most likely upset the bankers and merchants in many small towns who felt they were doing the farmers a service. Similarly, the cynical portrayal of religion, in the character of Mrs. Bogart and the obvious agnosticism of Carol, would have angered the devout members of many small town churches. Most significantly, the suggestion that the lives of small town residents suffer the intense scrutiny as portrayed in the novel upset the prevailing notion, espoused by Kennicott, that there was more latitude and personal freedom away from the cities.
2. How does Carol Kennicott triumph over Main Street? How is she defeated by it?
When Carol returns to Gopher Prairie from Washington D.C. she is not certain whether she has overcome her former bitterness toward the town. She is worried that all the things that previously vexed her would still affect her: the predictability, lack of anonymity, ugly architecture and overt materialism. When she returns she finds that though she misses the mystery of the city she is comforted by the familiarity. She does not concede, however, that she is satisfied with Gopher Prairie as it is and herein lays her victory. Though Carol is able to recognize the shortcomings of the small town life she is not deeply affected by its faults. Rather, she knows that she carries within her, and more specifically within the children she will raise, the seeds of change that will one day overcome even the most intractable problems of the town.
3. In what ways is Will Kennicott a sympathetic character? In what ways is he unsympathetic?
One of the great strengths of the novel is that the main characters, namely Carol and Will Kennicott, recognize their inherent flaws, hypocrisies and compromises. Indeed, as we get to know Will Kennicott, mostly through Carol's eyes, we find that he is perhaps overly pragmatic but that he is also a human being capable of understanding far more about his wife than she often gives him credit for. This is especially true in Charleston when Carol, weary of wondering what to do with her life, asks Will to decide whether or not she should return to Gopher Prairie and he, wisely, tells her that though he wants her back he needs her to come to that decision on her own. Though he is a sympathetic character at crucial moments like these, however, he is less sympathetic to his wife during the ordinary course of their life when he fails to appreciate her need for romance and dismisses her as "frigid" and therefore unable to engage in a serious extra-marital affair with Erik Valbourg.
4. Discuss the various methods Carol uses to escape Main Street without actually leaving Gopher Prairie?
Carol's first attempts to escape the constraints of Main Street take the form of trying to improve the town. She tries to develop support for a plan to rebuild the city hall but gives up her attempt when the various members of the Thanatopsis club offer their own plans instead. Furthermore, she learns that the town fathers would never endorse a plan to spend money on something they don't consider in need of fixing. Dissuaded from outright reform, Carol tries to escape through the theater but her attempts to mount a small drama company in the town reveal the native lack of talent, including her own, in the field. The final straw in her theatrical aspirations comes when the local paper gives a nice and friendly review of the play that she knows was perfectly horrible. When Erik Valborg appears in town Carol's infatuation with him springs not simply from his appearance and attentions to her but from her need to escape the everyday life of the town. When he asks her if she loves him, she denies any deep feelings and explains herself by saying: "Everything crushes in on me so, all the gaping dull people, and I look for a way out." After Erik leaves and Carol and Will travel the west, Carol knows that she must really escape Gopher Prairie and not simply take a vacation. In a determined, but sorrowful, state of mind she takes the train out of town, works in Washington D.C. for several years and finally gains the perspective and poise necessary to exist in Gopher Prairie without feeling trapped by it.
5. What elements of the novel would Lewis' contemporary audience have recognized as indicative of material progress?
The pages of Main Street are filled with references to automobiles, trains and telephones - each a symbol of progress in early twentieth-century rural America. In addition to representing the cutting edge of technology and industry at the time, each of these devices was a means of communicating and communing with the world outside the small town. The towns themselves came into being when rail companies laid track through a particular area. The auto allowed relatively swift travel to the surrounding farms and represented an economic achievement for the owner. At the time the telephone was rapidly becoming a necessity in each home. Lewis addresses each of these advances in detail at various points throughout the novel. The train is of special importance because not only does it carry Carol to Gopher Prairie but it represents a means of escaping the town once she begins to feel trapped. The auto, besides being the number one topic of conversation of the men (Carol notices that the garages are the busiest places in town), serves as a status symbol. Will Kennicott is especially devoted to his auto, he fusses over it, draws up plans for a new house with the garage as its focus, and mourns the days when he must use the sled and horses. As Carol notes, the small towns have begun to disdain the active winter sports such as skating and sledding since the
advent of the automobile has made such pastimes seem archaic. Finally, the telephone is the great leveler in the small town since it allowed the farmer to be in quick and ready contact with the town. Will castigates a late night visitor seeking medical aid for his wife since the man has not installed a phone and had to summon him personally. Similarly, Will enjoys a good joke on the party-line listeners (a facet unique to the telephone and the technological extension of the town gossip) when he drops a sly comment over the line during a house call.