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Main Street | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Main Street | Preface and Chapter 1 | Summary




In the preface to Main Street, the narrator introduces the town in which most of the story will take place. Gopher Prairie, says the narrator, is a town of a few thousand in the Midwest. In some respects, it is America, and its Main Street is like Main Streets everywhere.

Chapter 1

The reader is then introduced to Carol Milford, a student at Blodgett College, on the edge of Minneapolis. Carol was orphaned by the time she was 13, but her father had encouraged her to read widely and ask questions. Carol, a pretty girl with an active mind, dreams of conquering the world "for the world's own good." Eventually, she becomes interested in village improvement. She tells herself that after college she will "get [her] hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful." As a first step, she studies "professional library work" at a Chicago school for a year. She then takes a job in the public library of St. Paul. After three years, she does not feel she has been affecting lives as she had hoped. This changes the night she meets Dr. Will Kennicott.


The preface to the novel is short, but critical: it tells the reader what to expect from the book as a whole. By claiming that Gopher Prairie is America, and that its Main Street represents a thousand others just like it, Lewis sets the town up to be a microcosm of small town America in the early 20th century. It is also clear this microcosm will not be treated particularly kindly, because the second part of the preface takes on a more sardonic, or mocking, tone. The narrator proclaims "Main Street is the climax of civilization." Only a cynic, says the narrator, would believe otherwise. But it is clear the "cynic" is in fact the narrator (and perhaps Lewis himself), who will be revealing the truth behind the town of Gopher Prairie.

This introduction also plants the seeds of a conflict Carol Milford will be facing. When Carol is introduced in Chapter 1, she appears to be a bright—if somewhat naive—young college woman with a surprisingly modern point of view. She feels there is more to life than "making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids," as one of her suitors says, and dreams of bringing culture and beauty to one of the small towns she believes to be in need of her assistance. But if the residents of places like Gopher Prairie see their town as the height of culture and progress, they may not be interested in her help, or too pleased with Carol's perception of them.

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