Main Street: Theme Analysis
Individualism versus Conformity
One of the great themes of Sinclair Lewis' work is the struggle to maintain individuality in the conformist enclaves that were small town America in the early 1900's. Lewis' most sympathetic and well drawn characters, Carol Kennicott in particular, recognize that small towns betray the promise of American greatness by stultifying morals and standardizing manners. This theme is deeply enmeshed in Main Street and is most obvious in Chapter 22 when Carol, in debate with Vida Sherwin, protests that the small town has sacrificed ingenuity for safety and that the farmers are the only members of rural society who can afford to harbor new ideas and push for progress. Carol summarizes her observation of the small town mentality with one of the book's more memorable passages: "It is the prohibition of happiness. It is slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness made God."
Role of Women in Modern Society
Carol Kennicott, as an educated woman capable of supporting herself, represents an emerging class of women in the United States during the early 1900's. These women formed the backbone of the suffragette movement and were at the vanguard of many of the social reform movements that sprang up around the country during the period. Many of these women married and bore children just as their mother's had done before them with the difference that they did so by choice rather than necessity and chose to maintain their intellectual independence rather than subsume their desires to the demands of their husband's or the rigors of home and hearth. With one foot in the past and another defiantly placed in the future, bereft of predecessors and lacking a close-knit network of like-minded peers (particularly in the isolated prairie towns) the Carol Kennicott's of Lewis' day were left to invent their own place in society. Carol first calls attention to this aspect of her life in conversation with Guy Pollack in Chapter 16 when she states that all the young women of her generation "want a more conscious life. We're tired of drudging and sleeping and dying." Later, Carol receives valuable advice from an experienced suffragette who, in Chapter 38, advises her that the only way to balance her domestic desires and individualistic will is to "keep on looking at one thing after another in your home and church and bank, and ask why it is, and who first laid down the law that it had to be that way."
Idealism versus Materialism
The story of Carol Kennicott and Gopher Prairie can aptly be described as the struggle between an idealist and a materialistic society. Whereas Carol seeks a "more conscious life" the denizens of Gopher Prairie seek to bury their consciousness in the acquisition of things and status. For the women it is gossip and clothing; for the men: autos, sports and hunting. That Carol is not completely immune to this syndrome, as evidenced by her desire for nice clothes
and exotic furnishings, makes her all the more believable as both a resident and dissenter of Main Street. Ultimately, Carol learns that if she hopes to change the values of Gopher Prairie she must be willing to continuously question those values and reconcile herself to the knowledge that change will not come in her own time. Once she is able to assimilate this view, she is able to return to Main Street as an autonomous individual capable of seeing beyond but living with the crass materialism of it's inhabitants.