Title: Main Street
Author: Sinclair Lewis
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“Lewis’s idealistic, imaginative heroine, Carol Kennicott, longs ‘to get (her) hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful’, but when her doctor husband brings her to Gopher Prairie, she finds that the romance of the American frontier has dwindled to the drab reality of the American Middle West. Carol first struggles against and then flees the social tyrannies and cultural emptiness of Gopher Prairie, only to submit at last to the conventions of village life. The great romantic satire of its decade, Main Street is a wry, sad, funny account of a woman who attempts to challenge the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness of her community.”
Thoughts: In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis provides a crystal-clear picture of small-town living during the early part of the twentieth century. The result is a charming, honest look at one small, Midwestern town and all of its inhabitants. While the language, mode of dress, and popular activities may be antiquated now, the interactions and struggles remain as true today as they did in the 1910s. More importantly, through Carol’s fight to accept her lot in life, Lewis presents a study of humanity that never ages.
Much of what is fascinating about Main Street is the intimate look at small-town life in the 1910s. The language is quaint and full of forgotten expressions. Societal teas, drama clubs, buggies versus cars, new suits purchased once a year – these are all things which are intriguing from a purely historical perspective. Lewis was writing based on his own personal experiences, which lends credence to his narration and brings history to life. However, a modern-day reader can easily imagine how uncomfortable a reader of Lewis’ era would be at reading Main Street, as it is a no-holds-barred satire on the minutiae of daily small-town living.
Speaking of which, many of the difficulties of Main Street and its impact lie in how much life and society has changed in 100 years. Carol’s life as a housewife, complete with servant, would be drastically different today, as her freedom to do as she pleases, to work, to form committees, is so much greater than the time period in which the story takes place. The reader has to ignore the differences and get to the heart of Carol’s struggles for happiness to be able to detect why Main Street is relevant today. Carol’s happiness does not depend on her status as a wife or her inability to make changes in her adopted town, but rather stem from her inability to find inner peace. It isn’t until she makes peace with her life and dreams where she finally finds the contentment she so desperately seeks. This need for inner peace is something to which any reader can relate and proves that humans everywhere have been searching for their own inner peace for ages.
Overall, one can look at Main Street as an excellent historical reference for those interested in discovering what life was like in a frontier town back when the U.S. still had frontier towns. The power of Lewis’ satire, though, has been lost over time as the world has evolved and changed in ways unimagined by Lewis or anyone else in the 1900s. Main Street is still enjoyable but not quite as effective a social commentary anymore.