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Main Street | Themes

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Resistance to Change

Throughout Main Street, Carol Kennicott attempts to introduce a number of reforms to the town of Gopher Prairie. Without exception, her neighbors resist her efforts, and each one ends in failure. Even simple ventures—such as Carol's desire to create more entertaining social affairs—are seen by her neighbors as ways for her to flaunt her superiority, or show off her big-city background.

The town's reactions to Carol's more ambitious ideas—city planning, help for the Scandinavian farmers and immigrants who live outside the town, more rights for women—reveal some of the truths behind the community's preference for maintaining the status quo. Although sometimes the townspeople resist for financial reasons—with people simply not willing to pay for improvements—the opposition more often comes from complacency, smugness, or a twisted view of morality. The townspeople are quite certain Gopher Prairie is fine just as it is, and that the more progressive ideas seeping in from the outside are the weapons of atheists (a view promoted by the pastor of the church) or traitors trying to undermine the country by throwing it into turmoil.

The one time the town is willing to change is after the war, when prices for crops skyrocket and land speculation provides an opportunity for the townspeople to increase their wealth. Only then are the people willing to consider changing their town to make it more attractive to investors. But these changes are purely for financial gain, since materialism is the one "religion" the town has always believed in.

The Many Faces of Hypocrisy

The image of the small town celebrated in literature of the early 20th century was that of a pastoral community where people were kind to one another, morality was absolute, and decency reigned. The people of Gopher Prairie firmly believe their town is an exemplar of this romantic image, but throughout the novel, readers see that just beneath the surface is a much uglier version of the town. The reason behind the disconnect is that most of the citizens of Gopher Prairie, on one level or another, are hypocrites.

Simply defined, hypocrisy is the practice of behaving in ways, or taking part in activities, that one would criticize or condemn in others. It can also be described as the failure to live by one's own moral rules and principles. Main Street is rife with examples of both. For example, most of the women of the town, who consider themselves "good Christians," do not hesitate to rip others to shreds with gossip. They will do good works, but only if they get credit for their efforts. Perhaps most shamefully, they act kindly only to those who meet certain criteria. Poor farmers, immigrants, and outsiders do not meet those requirements. So they take little interest in Bea Bjornstam and her child, for example, even when they are dying. When Fern Mullins is accused of impropriety, they are more than willing to ignore facts and destroy her reputation.

There is also a type of hypocrisy that depends on self-delusion. Mrs. Bogart, Carol's neighbor, is a prime example of this. She considers herself a good Christian and dedicated mother, but one of her sons works in a bar and another has become a thug. She turns a blind eye to this, blaming any failures on others, stubbornly seeing her son Cy as a good and innocent boy. Most tellingly, she refuses to accept any responsibility for her own failures.

Morality and the sanctity of marriage are also under attack in Gopher Prairie. Men freely engage in extra-marital activities and keep one another's secrets. Even the women—many of whom are sexually repressed—cheat on their husbands either physically or emotionally. Worse, the men excuse their own actions by painting the women as needy or morally corrupt, enticing men to behave inappropriately.

A Woman's Work

A critical sentence in Main Street states that Carol is "a woman with a working brain but no work." This statement, which describes the situation faced by many intelligent women of the time, is a theme revisited throughout the novel. Women were still considered second-class citizens in the early 1900s, and they were certainly not welcome in the workplace. The effects of that attitude are epitomized by the women in the novel: they keep their minds occupied with superficial clubs and gossip, invent ailments so they have something to focus on, and search for any release from their sexual repression. That Lewis would focus on these ideas is not surprising, given that the woman suffrage movement was reaching its peak during the time he was writing the novel.

Carol herself is used as an example of a woman trying to break away from old conventions and find her place in the more progressive world she has glimpsed. College-educated and bright, she even begins her post-college years as a career woman. It is obvious, though, that most of society expects such activities to be temporary: it is assumed Carol will marry, keep a home, and raise children. This assumption is made painfully clear when she arrives in Gopher Prairie, a place where the men control the businesses and the finances. Her own achievements are of no interest to the townspeople: she is now considered only "the doctor's wife."

In fact, the only "career women" in town, such as Vida and the librarian, tend to be unmarried and are pitied for their situation. The moment Vida does become a wife, she stops teaching school. News of the suffragists' movement in the cities is considered dangerous—possibly the work of anarchists—and Carol's own ideas and attempts at reform are dismissed or treated with distrust. So insidious are the effects of this attitude that Carol eventually finds her ambition and drive drained out of her. Only when she finally rebels and moves to Washington is she finally able to hold a job, hear the ideas of intelligent women, and help support their work for reform.

Distrust of Outsiders

A number of the characters introduced in Main Street fall into the category of outsiders. These include Bea Sorenson, Miles Bjornstam, Guy Pollock, Erik Valborg, Fern Mullins, and Carol Kennicott herself. Although Carol is at first welcomed because she is the new bride of one of the town's doctor, it becomes clear the residents of Gopher Prairie have little patience for, or interest in, anyone who is not "one of them." (The only outsiders that easily fit into the community are Aunt Bessie and Uncle Whittier, who Carol notes have simply moved from one Main Street to another.)

Each of the outsiders represents something the townspeople dislike, or are suspicious of. Carol represents progressive thinking, and what the town considers "highbrow" culture. Guy is a representative of this culture, as well as of liberal ideas. Bea is a simple immigrant, trusting and hopeful, while Miles is the firebrand and socialist, representing the working man. Erik Valborg—with his somewhat effeminate mannerisms and way of dressing—is initially seen by the town to be a comic sexual misfit. And Fern Mullins represents a freer, less repressed type of woman previously unknown in Gopher Prairie.

Almost without exception, the outsiders are broken or destroyed. Guy abandons his beliefs almost entirely, succumbing to the "Village Virus," and settling into apathy. Bea and her child are literally killed by the town's indifference to her, and Miles's hatred of the town's hypocrisy and cruelty eventually drives him to leave it in disgust. Erik, although he is eventually accepted by the town as a sort of amusing pet, cannot find a place for himself, and leaves. Fern is driven out, her reputation destroyed. Carol rebels, leaving the town for two years. However, she eventually makes her peace with it, perhaps because she learns to accept it for what it is, rather than despising it for not being the romantic ideal she had envisioned.

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