Main Street | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Main Street | Chapter 32 | Summary

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Summary

Shortly after Carol's flirtation with Erik, Fern Mullins asks Carol to be her chaperone for a barn dance, but Carol is unable to attend. The day after the dance, though, Carol sees Mrs. Bogart evicting Fern from her home. The old woman then begins a door-to-door smear campaign, insisting that 22-year-old Fern corrupted her 20-year-old son Cy by getting him drunk "for the first time," and then lying about it to Mrs. Bogart's face. Even Kennicott realizes this is ludicrous, given Cy's reputation, but Mrs. Bogart says she has gone to the school board. She wants them to know Fern is unfit to be a teacher, having taken advantage of her son, who is still a student at the high school.

Carol learns the truth from Fern. The girl had gone to the dance with Cy "for the sake of dancing." Once at the party, she had seen him steal a bottle of whiskey and get sloppily drunk. Fern, deciding to take Cy home before he could cause trouble, found herself fighting off his advances every step of the way. Carol takes Fern's story to the school board, hoping to save the girl's job and reputation. But even while agreeing Fern bears little blame, the board's compromise punishment is simply to allow her to resign. She leaves town that night, by which time the town believes Fern and a couple other girls had brought a case of whiskey to the dance and gotten a bunch of little boys drunk. Carol later hears from Fern that no school is willing to hire her.

Analysis

Just as in the chapter describing the death of Bea and her child, this episode reveals the cruel, unforgiving nature of the town, and the destructive power of gossip. Within five months of her arrival, Fern's reputation and career are ruined, something made even more tragic by the fact that she had acted responsibly in trying to keep Cy out of trouble.

Mrs. Bogart, on the other hand, has acted unconscionably. It is clear she is denial, insisting that her crude, violent, and cowardly son is an innocent who needs to be protected. More critically, Mrs. Bogart is hiding from the truth of her failure as a mother and a Christian, although her nervous protests make the reader suspect she is aware of her own shortcomings. Unfortunately for Fern, she has also found the best way to deflect attention from her own sins is to invent them in others.

The town's love of gossip makes Mrs. Bogart's strategy all too easy to achieve. Even while admitting that Cy is a rough, immoral young man and that Fern is probably innocent, the town feeds the gossip machine because it is more entertaining than the truth. It is also clear that the town will automatically defend one of its own—no matter how despicable—over an outsider. So they would rather destroy Fern than admit that Cy, born and raised in Gopher Prairie, may have been the guilty party. The incident also illustrates another way in which women are demeaned. When sexual misconduct occurs, the townspeople are likely to see the women as the corrupting influence, eager to seduce the men. Carol realizes that both the dislike of outsiders, and the assumption that the woman is naturally at fault, do not bode well for her if her dalliance with Erik is ever exposed.

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