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Satire in Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street”

Sinclair Lewis was a queer boy, always an outsider, lonely.  Once he had become famous, he began to promulgate an official view of his youth that represents perhaps an adult wish for a inoffensive life that never was.  He was Sinclair Lewis (Hutchisson 8).  In the years from 1914 to 1951 Sinclair Lewis, a flamboyant, driven, self-devouring genius from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, aspired in twenty two novels to make all America his province. (Hutchisson 9).

Although his star has now waned, he was in his time the best-known and the most controversial of all writers and through a number of books remarkable for their satiric bite and for their ambivalent love and hatred of the land and the people he took as his domain, he helped to make Americans known to themselves and to the world.   Lewis was a descendant of the line of Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Twain (Mencken 17). Like them, he railed against the insidious effects of mass culture and the standardization of manners and ideas.

Lewis dreamed of a better America and in his best novels he turned the light of his critical gaze upon our most hallowed institutions including the small town.  He became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for his works on American life (Mencken 19). Many of Lewiss books had relevance to his life growing up.

He grew up in a small town with all the small town qualities and wrote mostly satirically about them.  One of many books that satirize small towns is Main Street.  In this novel, many themes are presented such as the use of satire as an urge to reform, family life of the period as portrayed in the novel, and World War I and its impact on the main streets of America.  During the period Lewis wrote the novel, World War I sparked in Europe.  During this time the United States was pushed into the war and many soldiers were needed and drafted by the United States military.

This time affected many young boys and many families.  It also brought on a new feeling of nationalism and patriotism not only in the big cities, but also in the small towns.  Some of these characteristics were satirized by Sinclair Lewis in this book.  Much of what goes on during Sinclair Lewiss life goes into his books including his marriages, important dates, and early life.  Small towns grew numerous across the country because during this period many immigrants traveled west.

Small towns are much different than big cities because they have different values, goals, and morals.  Main Street by Sinclair Lewis satirizes the small town lives and values of Americans through the idealistic view of Carl Kennicott. Carol Kennicotts view of Gopher Prairie, the small town, is skewed because of her past and her biased way of looking at it.  Much has been written and said about Carol.  She is Lewis himself in feminine guise, as he admitted in 1922:  “… [She is] always groping for something she isnt capable of obtaining, always dissatisfied…intolerants of her surroundings, yet lacking any clearly defined vision of what she wants to do or be” (Schorer 273).

Carol Kennicott is more advanced and intellectual than any of the people in the town.  She graduates from Blodgett College, a religious institution, which protects its students “from the wickedness of the universities” and censors them from whatever they do not want them to learn (2).  Carols first meeting with the townspeople is a different experience for her.  Because of her intelligence and sophistication, she brings up topics such as labor unions and profit-sharing (42).  The townspeople react differently as one of the conversationalist  says, “All this profit sharing and welfare work and insurance and old-age pension is simply poppycock”  (43).  She is interested in sociology and wishes to participate in village improvement.  (3).  “She did not yet know the immense ability of the world to be casually cruel and proudly dull, but if she should ever learn those dismaying powers, her eyes would never become sullen or heavy or rheumily amorous” (2).

This quote demostrates how Carol is put into a bad situation because of her surroundings and how she has to change the town if she wants to be fulfilled mentally.     Furthermore, Carol also wants change and she wants to be the one who makes it in Gopher Prairie where she lives.  She goes there and wants to make it pretty and modern without knowing much about it herself (Dooley 63).  She thinks that because of her education, she has to make change and do something to fulfill her life.  Using the town as a means to do this, is a way that Carol does it.  She also says no to a marriage proposal because she wants to be free from the chains of marriage (24).

Will Kennicott is received with open arms because he offers her a chance to make that change by residing in a small town with him.  Equally important is that Carol is an orphan since the age of thirteen.  Her childhood is the time period when she learns to be independent which makes her free.  Being given too much freedom is not always a good thing for a young person:  “…she is impulsive, undiplomatic, and ignorant of complications” (Dooley 62).  Because of Carols early life and her education, she has a skewed way of looking at the town and how she wants to change it.

Although she wants to change the small town, she does not realize the characteristic of a small town. Accordingly, there are different morals, values, and manners in a small town.  Small towns tend to gossip more than regular towns and criticize others who do not belong in that town.  For example, Carol overhears her neighbors Cy Bogart and Earl Haydock, teenage delinquents, say, “…Ma says shes stuck-up as hell.  Mas always talking about her”  (92).  Earl also adds, “Theyre all laughing up their sleeves at her” (93).  Carol comes to a realization that people have been criticizing her instead of admiring her.  This realization is a huge blow to Carol because she believes her intentions and actions have been misinterpreted.

She needs to be more involved and fit in better with the people of the town and try to understand them so she is not be as lonely as she is.  This change would also help her regain her self-confidence. In effect, Carol joins the Jolly Seventeen which is for young married women and is the social status of Gopher Prairie (76).  They have a meeting to make Carol a member and start to play games.  The subject of maids comes up and they talk about how they get paid too much and are “…ungrateful, all that class of people” (78).  Carol puts herself into the conversation by showing respect for her maid, but the other women are offended and attack Carol by asking Carol, “Dont you think its hard on the rest of us when you pay so much”  (78).

All of the women verbally attack a new member of the club and attack her views because she does not conform to them.  Later that day, she gets into another argument because the librarian believes the purpose of a library is to preserve books ( 80).  The librarian does not even listen to her and pushes her off to the side.  Then later Carol decides to join the womens study club, Thanatopsis.  She is voted into membership and makes a few suggestions about future programs.  This time Carol brings up the issue of charity for the poor of the community.  Once again Carol is ganged up on by all the women.  Carol suggests that the women sew clothes for the poor, but Mrs. Stowbody, snaps, ” Heavens and earth, they have more time than we do” (126).

After that Carol suggests that the Bible should not be the only book that is read and “everybody cleared their polite throat” (127).  They just ignored her comment and kept moving on with the meeting as if not acknowledging Carol.  Carol is determined to be involved in the town and make a change in it. As a result of Carols desire to make change, she creates the Gopher Prairie Dramatic Association.  The first of many problems that occur is only seven come out of the fifteen in the associations first and most important meeting  (186).  As Carol made suggestions to what kind of play would be put on, Ella Stowbody along with others did not listen and sat back because they believed their ideas were better than Carols (186).

Carol had bought many things including the lighting equipment, paint and wood, and furniture yet no one else took the play seriously.  As Carol says, “They gaily came in half an hour late” and made up excuses such as “Dave wants me to sit in a poker game” or “…afraid the dampness might start my toothache” (186).  Many did not even bother to call and make up an excuse.  Their rudeness and horrible punctuality was caused by the actors and actresses not liking Carol and her non-conformity.  The play turned out to be a flop and the towns gossip and talk started to bother Carol.  She was not the only person affected by the towns manners and morals.

As a result of Miles Bjornstams wife and son being killed by drinking contaminated water, Miles was the only one left to blame because he did not provide the family with clean water (280).  The town demoralized him by showing little sympathy for Miles.  As he moved away to Canada, “There was talk of arresting him, of riding him on a rail” and they called him a “…blasphemer and a traitor” (285).  During a time of need for MIles, the small town perception is to blame someone to deal with a death.  These kinds of morals expressed by the town are all throughout the novel and their manners are not similar with what big city folks perceive as good manners.   At a party served by Carol, the guys ask for food.  When they are served they do not even acknowledge her and she says, “Your friends have the manners of a barroom” (Lewis 260).

This perfectly illustrates and summarizes how the people in small towns gossip, stereotype, and do not accept anything that is not according to their own rules and standards.  This leads to Gopher Prairie having problem within their own society. In fact, there are many different situations that occur in small towns that would not occur in other places.  For example in the first party, the men and women divide and talk of different issues (42).  This example shows how the women and men are different in what they talk about because of their conformity.  Carol wants to know what the men talk about, as the other women “…talk of children, sickness, and cooks…”  (41).

She is an outcast because she is bored by irrelevant and uncomplex conversations.  During this time, Carol brings up advanced topic and is shocked at the men and women because they are not used to such topics being brought up.  Later that night Will Kennicott tells Carol that she has to be “…more careful about shocking folk” (45).  He turns out to be just like the townspeople that live in Gopher Prairie because he wants his wife to conform to the ways of a town party.  Carol does not accept this conformity and decides to have her own party.  She wants her party to glow and be extravagant.  “Ill make em lively, if nothing else. Ill make em stop regarding parties as committee-meetings”  (64).

She manages an old-fashioned square dance, a solo by Raymie Wutherspoon, and a rough-and-tumble game involving wolves and shepherds, the guests shoes being sheep.  The grand climax of the evening is the paper Chinese masquerade costumes for a Chinese concert, with tabouret and combs for drums and fifes.  This party is a big change for the townspeople and they have fun and enjoy it, but the following week a party is held where the group reverts to stunts and dull conversation once again.  Carol tries to change the social conditions of the town, but her efforts give in to conformity.  “Her attempts to stimulate some gaiety are met with embarrassment and ridicule, and killed by an unshakable preference for things as usual” (Grebstein 65).

After Carol realizes that people have been criticizing instead of admiring her, she becomes lonely and goes back to the Jolly Seventeen club as a result.  Her longing for companionship has forced her to make concessions and to be more diplomatic.  “She had no opinions on anything more polemic than woolen unio-suits…”  (108).  Because she is lonely and has no place to turn, she is forced to go against her own morals and be a conformist because of the social conditions of Gopher Prairie.  Of course the other women like this change in Carol as one of the member says, “Isnt dandy that your have settled down to being homey with us”  (109).

The people in the club do the same things every meeting with no changes.  Through the monotony, Lewis satirizes the way people of small towns do not like change and do not want change. Consequently, many of the social gatherings and the town itself is monotonous and drab.  “It is a stripping away of all pretensions to civilized life which leaves main street a naked symbol of dullness, conventionality and sterility” (Dooley 67).  Put simply, the parties are unostentatious, irksome, and sedated.  They do not offer anything different and always are the same.  Carol tries to change that but all her efforts are futile.  In the winter Carol tries to organize skating and skiing parties with no success.  Everyone just wants to conform (76-77).

When Carols plans to try something new and different are shut down by the town, she realizes she has nothing to do.  This fact further bothers Carol because she is a women with a working brain and no work.  She is bored of life and what the town has to offer.   The second day of the Kennicotts life in Gopher Prairie is spent by hunting prairie chickens and squirrels because there is nothing else to do (47-50).  “With her we discover the village nothingness, a negative thing;  an intellectual squalor;  a swamp of prejudices and fears ” (Dooley 62).

Small towns are not only dull, but they are also infested with curiosity.  Such a society produces cheap automobiles, dollar watches and safety razors, and “small buys men” of “the cash register and the comic film” (Lewis 238).  “Always, west of Pittsburgh and often east of it, there is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, and the same creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops ” (Lewis 239).  Lewis is satirizing not only all towns, but specifically Gopher Prairie for its monotounous and dreariness.  This characteristic is caused by the tradition and the fixture of small towns, specifically Gopher Prairie.

In many cases of small towns, Gopher Prairie is controlled by institutions.  First of all the Thanatopsis club which is comprised of the towns most distinguished women is one of the places where Carol turns to improve the town (Grebstein 66).  This study club disposes of many authors because facts about their life were considered and not their poetry itself.  The women censor themselves and other from reading authors that might affect the town (125).  Carol decides that she wants to join the other club called the Jolly Seventeen which is a middle-class club for younger married women.  They play bridge and are offended by any new ideas or differing opinions brought up by Carol (76-80)

She decides that she wants to leave this club also so she takes matters into her own hands by making her own club to put on plays.  She takes members in to act in a play, but of the fifteen that are interested, only a few of them are actually on time for rehearsals and care about that play.  The play ends up to be horrible and no one seems to enjoy it (186).  Then she tries to go to City Hall and look for ways to change and reform the town.  She suggests an improvement project, but she is confronted with people without any desire for improvement (113-116).  Every organization that Carol turns to does not appeal to her ideals because none want change.

She is the only one in the town who believes change is good and can have benefits. In addition, Will Kennicott also fits in with the town because of his conformity and desire to stay the same.  Because of this, Carol and Will are set on a collision course.  Carols conflict with the town has a counterpoint in another conflict involving her husband (Grebstein 67).  She eventually separates from Will, but learns that there are worse towns.  On her return to Gopher Prairie, Carol finds the town somehow easier to accept.

She participates in a number of concrete reforms and is herself finally accepted by the town.   Carol feels that she may not have won the battle against mediocrity but that she has at least kept fighting (Maglin 112).  The long, episodic, and almost plotless story of Carol Kennicott and her struggles with Gopher Prairie finally ends without solving many of her problems, but through the novel, Lewis satirizes the lives of small town people and their fight to conform and not let anyone change their morals or values.

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