I’ve never considered myself to be a huge fan of American literature but am doing my best to get back into it to see what all the fuss is about. Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (and to some extent Melville’s Moby Dick) might just be the work that succeeds where Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemmingway failed.
A young woman, Carol Milford, leaves her career as a librarian in the big city to marry Dr. Will Kennicott, physician of the small town Gopher Prairie. In G.P. she finds that things rarely change, the folks are close-minded, and everyone is watching her every move. She attempts to reform the place using almost every tactic she can think of, from trying to speak with men at parties, to joining almost every society in town and creating a few of her own, to trying to raise money for new, more modern, and aesthetically pleasing buildings, to running away. In the end, she settles back into the same ol’ same ol’, neither particularly happy nor un-happy-just somewhere in the middle.
Lewis’ writing is superb, sassy, and extraordinarily bitter. Although he does not seem to be completely in love with Carol’s character and at times paints her to be over the top, he empathizes with her. At once this book struck a chord with me on a personal level. Once upon a time I moved from an “exotic” and faraway location to a smaller town where kids gossiped about and falsely praised one another. True, my town was a lot nicer, and if you knew which town I was talking about, you’d roll your eyes at me. Nevertheless, the caustic smiles of the inhabitants of both my town and G.P. look awfully similar.
On another level, I wonder what Lewis would think if he could see the world today. Towns look ever more alike with the wondrous invention of the strip mall. What suburban sprawl doesn’t feature its very own Walmart, Applebee’s, or Starbucks? The internet and television bring more of us closer to the world beyond but oftentimes only further criticisms and fears rather than dispel them. Women still gossip, men still talk about motoring, hunting, and industry.
In the book’s introduction, Morris Dickstein finds parallels between Main Street and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which I think deserves a bit of debate. I found it had more in common with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Bear with me here, it’s been about 5 years since I read either book (both of which happen to be in my top 10). Carol finds much wrong with the society, no one seems to think for themselves nor have any desire to culture or further themselves. She attempts to reform the place and absolutely fails.
In W & P, one of the characters (I’ve forgotten which one), admires peasant life, noting that in their lack of education peasants have it the easiest. Sure, they have hard work and never seem to reap high rewards, but they do not stress themselves over trivial matters. He is surrounded by aristocrats who speak French, rather than Russian, in an effort to become something more civilized. It does not seem to matter that they are currently at war with Napoleon and his French speaking soldiers. Both Lewis and Tolstoy use their characters (and sometimes the narrative) to express their dismay with their current societies and hopes that something, some day, will change.
Emma Bovary may, at first, seem to share much in common with Carol Milford. Both are educated and marry men related to health services. Both quickly become dissatisfied with married life and seek outlets in which they can save themselves, be they theatre or young men. However, to claim that Carol Milford is simply a puritanical version of Emma Bovary would be to water her down. Flaubert attempted to create beauty with Bovary, Carol is there to make a point. Bovary has never lived off the farm or in a big city, nor has she ever worked or had young aristocrats come courting her. She longs for a life she has never experienced so much that she becomes delusional and creates a new world for herself. Carol, on the other hand, is not, nor has she ever been, delusional. Yes, she is naive, innocent, and perhaps a bit too eager. But she has lived in the big city, she has been well-educated, worked as a librarian, and had man vie for her attentions. She has hopes for G.P. and is continuously disappointed by its lack of movement. Hardly ever do I find that a male author really succeeds in telling a story from a female’s perspective, but Lewis does a fantastic job here. He captures her frustrations with the town, herself, her husband, and her station in life as a woman. She wants to work, to fall in love, to go hunting with the men, and she’ll be damned if she doesn’t figure out how she’s gonna do it. If you hadn’t figured it out by now, I loved every page.
It was pretty funny too:
Carol reflected that the carving-knife would make an excellent dagger with which to kill Uncle Whittier. It would slide in easily. The headlines would be terrible…Carol again studied the carving-knife. Blood on the whiteness of a tablecloth might be gorgeous.