is the 1920 satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis. Set in the tiny town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the story revolves around the trials and tribulations of Carol Milford Kennicott as she struggles to adjust to small-town living. As Carol contends with the small-minded, middle-class customs of her husband’s hometown, she envisions transforming the place into a bustling hub of culture, art and commerce. However, Carol is resisted by the provincial nature of the small townsfolk who despise big-city values. Sinclair drew inspiration for the novel from his own time spent in the small town of Sauk Center, Minnesota. Main Street
was widely acclaimed at the time of its publication and has since ascended as an American classic. In 1921, the novel was originally awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. However, the Board of Trustees overruled the jury’s decision and awarded the Pulitzer to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence
instead. In 1930, Main Street
helped Sinclair become the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1998, the Modern Library listed Main Street
#68 on its ranking of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th Century.
Narrated in the third-person limited omniscient
perspective, the story begins in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Carol Milford is a bright, beautiful young woman who attends Blodgett College. Carol dreams of settling in a small prairie town and transforming it into a place of beauty, culture and refinement. Following graduation, Carol spends three years working as a librarian in St. Paul. She meets Dr. Will Kennicott at a friend’s party, and he begins courting her. After one year, Carol and Will get married and move to Will’s hometown of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. When they arrive, Carol is disappointed by the drab appearance of Gopher Prairie and the narrow-mindedness of its inhabitants. Carol finds that people in town gossip behind each other’s backs and are thoroughly uncultured. Will’s neighbor, Mrs. Bogart, is a religious zealot who hypocritically gossips about others in town. On the same day Carol arrives, a woman named Bea Sorensen comes to Gopher Prairie. Unlike Carol, Bea is overwhelmed by the splendor of the town. Bea stays and becomes Carol’s maidservant.
Carol restores Will’s old-fashioned abode with modern furnishings. She prepares to throw a party unlike anyone has seen in Gopher Prairie. In the process, Carol learns that the townsfolk do not embrace change. She also feels dispirited when they criticize her every action, including the way she dresses. Carol’s only friends are Guy Pollock, a lawyer, and Vida Sherwin, a high-school teacher. Over time, Carol befriends Bea as well as the town factotum, Miles Bjornstam. Despite the town ostracizing Miles for his support of socialism and the Democratic Party, Carol likes him. Soon, Carol attempts to rouse locals to erect a new city hall, school, library, and more accommodating restrooms for farmers’ wives. However, nobody in town shares Carol’s concerns. In refusal to assist the poor, the townsfolk tell Carol they do not want to spend funds on new buildings. Carol is further enraged when she learns Guy Pollock, whom she thought shared her concern for social justice, is apathetic and only settled down in town because he has “village virus.”
Carol enrolls in the Jolly Seventeen women’s social club and the Thanatopsis women’s study club. Carol attempts to change the boring curriculum of the programs but is ignored by her fellow members. Carol forms a drama club and directs a stage play that is painfully average. Afterwards, Carol is appointed to the library board, where she tries to foster change within the system. Carol wants to encourage people to read, but the old librarian rejects her ideas, as she’d rather keep the books clean than advocate for literacy. Later, Will accuses Carol of being an elitist. A major argument ensues. Once they reconcile, Carol falls in love with Will once more. One evening Carol witnesses Will amputate a farmer’s arm and envisions him as a heroic figure. Still, Carol is stifled by the simplicity of life in Gopher Prairie. She and Will have a baby, whom they name Hugh after her late father. Will’s aunt and uncle, the Smails, visit Gopher Prairie and become a nuisance to Carol.
Bea and Miles wed. The townsfolk still ignore Miles and refuse to visit his house. Bea and her son Olaf die of typhoid. Crestfallen, Miles departs from town and the people blame him for the death of his wife and son. Vida Sherwin marries a local named Raymond Wutherspoon. When WWI strikes, Raymond is enlisted in the army. Will also wants to join, but is told he must remain in Gopher Prairie to continue his medical practice. Later, Carol finds some acculturated company. Erik Valborg, a Swedish émigré, and Fern Mullins, a young English teacher, arrive in Gopher Prairie. Carol is thrilled to learn Erik and Fern have an interest in books, drama, dancing, artwork, etc. Mrs. Bogart’s son, Cy, the leader of the boys gang in town, sullies Fern’s reputation when he accuses the teacher of getting him drunk and making sexual advancements. Fern is forced to quit his job and leaves town immediately after.
Erik becomes attracted to Carol and begins taking long walks with her. Will becomes aware of their relationship but doesn’t mind because he knows Carol and Erik are just friends who have similar scholastic interests. Carol and Will’s marriage begins to erode, which prompts Will to have an affair with Maude Dryer. Once Fern departs from town, Will implores Carol and Erik to stop seeing each other in order to avoid another disgrace. Erik flees Gopher Prairie as a result. Later, Will decides to whisk Carol away from Gopher Prairie by taking her on a long sightseeing trip in California. When they return, Carol is disheartened to see that nothing has changed in Gopher Prairie.
Carol decides to flee with Hugh. Will is heartbroken to see her leave, but Carol assures him she will return someday. Carol relocates to Washington D.C., where she lives and works for two years. She loves the big, beautiful city but feels lonely with all the anonymous people around her. When Will returns to woo Carol again, she recognizes his love and decides to move back to Gopher Prairie. Carol’s time in Washington gives her a new perspective. She feels as if she can make a small contribution to help change Gopher Prairie for the better. When she returns, Carol accepts the townsfolk for who they are. She continues to fight small battles to enforce change. Soon, Carol gives birth to a daughter, whom she hopes can continue her legacy. In the end, Carol discusses her difficulty of inciting reform as Will inattentively ponders the weather.