0390 | Main Street | Sinclair Lewis

0390 | Main Street | Sinclair Lewis

Context: Finished this off while out on a day walking around Brisbane. New mp3 player so a new way of capturing images for the blog.

REVIEW

Babbitt was a book that very much resonated with me, showing me that despite the popularity of Updike’s Rabbit, he was beaten to it by over 50 years. With Main Street, Lewis actually predates Babbitt and casts a female in the protagonist role. In essence though, and with the same wry humour, the book explores the same themes of small-mindedness, middle-age crises and the futility of the American Dream.

Carol marries an older man who she hopes will help her realise her dreams. Instead, she finds herself trapped in the claustrophobic, life-sucking banality that is small-town USA. As she settles into the town and meets the rather narrow spectrum of its inhabitants, she does her best to make the best of it.

But her initial efforts lead to further frustration. Like many of us confronted by cultures we do not understand, Carol attempts reformation without taking the time to learn the motivations and reasons behind the way things have been done for generations.

That’s not to say that the reasons are worthy of esteem. But Lewis does an excellent job of showing that the very narrow-mindedness Carol criticises forms just as much a part of her character as those she is attempting to change.

There are a number of strong characters apart from Carol in the novel. No more so than Will Kennicott, her kind but unutterably boring husband. There are rare moments of intimacy between them, but by and large their marriage and the home that results are rather joyless. This lack of joy leads her, for a time, to reconsider her marital ties. I’ll leave you to find out whether she or the town win in the end.

Written two years before Babbitt, I felt that the later novel had a stronger protagonist, but perhaps this was because Babbitt, like me, is male, and I just related more to him. But whichever book you pick up out of these two, be prepared for scathing satire of middle-class values which is just as applicable today as it was nearly 100 years ago.

OPENING LINE

This is America—a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves.

99TH PAGE QUOTE

Carol crept back to her chair. In the fervor of discussing the game they ignored her. She was not used to being a wallflower. She struggled to keep from oversensitiveness, from becoming unpopular by the sure method of believing that she was unpopular; but she hadn’t much reserve of patience, and at the end of the second game, when Ella Stowbody sniffily asked her, "Are you going to send to Minneapolis for your dress for the next soiree—heard you were," Carol said "Don’t know yet" with unnecessary sharpness.

She was relieved by the admiration with which the jeune fille Rita Simons looked at the steel buckles on her pumps; but she resented Mrs. Howland’s tart demand, "Don’t you find that new couch of yours is too broad to be practical?" She nodded, then shook her head, and touchily left Mrs. Howland to get out of it any meaning she desired. Immediately she wanted to make peace. She was close to simpering in the sweetness with which she addressed Mrs Howland: "I think that is the prettiest display of beef-tea your husband has in his store."

"Oh yes, Gopher Prairie isn’t so much behind the times," gibed Mrs. Howland. Some one giggled.

Their rebuffs made her haughty; her haughtiness irritated them to franker rebuffs; they were working up to a state of painfully righteous war when they were saved by the coming of food.

CLOSING LINE

Say, did you notice whether the girl put that screwdriver back?"

RATING

0390 | Main Street | Lewis | 76% | Very Good

Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | Style Read more about how I come up with my ratings

  • Melissa November 20, 2012, 8:11 pm

    This one is high on my list. Last month I visited Lewis’ hometown in Minnesota and got to see the house he grew up in. In the town they have a Main Street where all the street signs say “The Original Main Street.”

    Reply

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