The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (1920)

Chapters 1-25:

When is this book set? How can you tell? What are some social movements and changes of the time mentioned in the novel?

What framing comments does the author provide in the preface and opening sections? Why are Carol and the small towns of Minnesota significant?

To what extent is the novel told from Carol’s point of view, and to what extent does the narrative consider or credit the opinions of others?

What are some ways in which the novel creates humor? Some instances of humor? (154)

Would you describe these as ironic, caustic, kindly, or some mixture of all these?

What are some features of the novel’s style and tone?

What do we learn about Carol’s background and parents? Their attitudes in raising her? Her distinctive traits of character?

What kind of education does she receive? How does she differ, if at all, from her fellow students?

What does she want to do with her life? Which of Carol’s early opportunities/decisions are dependent on expectations and possibilities for women at the time? (librarianship, etc.)

Why doesn’t she study to become an architect or a town planner?

Why is she not attracted to the idea of marriage to Stewart Snyder?

What causes her to accept a proposal of marriage by Will Kennicott? To what does the narrator ascribe her decision? (31)

What topics do he and she discuss which seem relevant to their future life? Do any of his responses to her seem to presage a happy future? Do any of his opinions bode ill for their happiness?

In particular, what is his opinion of his home town?

Will his plea that she should help the children of ignorant and poor farmers be realized in their shared later interests?

To what extent do you think Carol and Will are suited for each other? If not, are they well drawn as characters to represent the ideas and conflicts of the novel?

To what extent does each accept the gender conventions of their world? What does Carol expect of Will? What does he expect of her?

Why will they live in Gopher Prairie rather than, say, another town of larger size, even if smaller than Minneapolis-St. Paul?

What feminist themes are raised by this novel? What does the author believe are some of the forces and conventions which limited the lives of women in 1910 (and presumably later)? What specific changes might have made Carol’s life happier?

What do we learn about Will’s past and family? How is the book affected by the fact that neither Will nor Carol are presented as having many family members?

What political views does Will express? Views on architecture? Recreation? Modesty and decorum?  What values are shown by his descriptions of his fellow townspeople? (33) Are these consistent with his invitation during courtship to Carol to “shake up” Gopher Prairie?

What does Carol notice first on her move to Gopher Prairie? Which things bother and depress her, and what does she hope to do about them?

How does she respond to those she meets at her first party, and how do they respond to her?

What are some of the people she will encounter, and what are some of the traits and/or foibles of each? E. g., what do we learn about Sam Clark, the Dawsons, Vida Sherwin, Mrs. Warren, Professor Mott, Guy Pollock, Lym Cass, Juanita and Harry Haydock, Dave Dyer, Ella Stowbody, Raymie Wutherspoon and Mrs. Bogart?

What aspects of their conversation does Carol find difficult or reprehensible? Are any of her neighbors likeable, and to what degree?

Who is left off the list of Gopher Prairie worthies to whom Carol is introduced, and why are they excluded? With whom does Carol get on well?

What qualities are represented by Bea Sorenson and Miles Bjornstam?

How may Bjornstam have recognized that he and she have some things in common? What advice does he give her?

How does she respond to hunting with her husband? What does it seem to represent for her?

What are some of Carol’s plans for improving the town? Does her party succeed? How does she attempt to gather support for her views on how Gopher Prairie might be improved? Were there other methods she could have adopted as a woman in 1910?

Why cannot she garner more support for her idea of building a new town hall or community center? For introducing new forms of architecture? For providing better facilities for the school or farm workers?

What class divisions underlie the town? How are these upheld?

What evidence does the narrator give of the social conditions of the different strata? (E. g., how much does a servant make as opposed to Dr. Kennicott?) 

What characterizes the conversation of the town’s women? Their behavior at Jolly Seventeen gatherings?

Are some of Carol's problems specifically caused by the social behavior of her fellow women? Had she moved to Gopher Prairie as a man would her difficulties have been slightly different?

Is Carol always honest in her own conversation? Would you describe her language as "womanly" in certain circumstances? If so, does this undercut the sincerity of her character?

What does Carol find dispiriting about the meetings of the Thanatopsis club?

Chapters 25 to end:

How has the subject of the war been introduced? How do Main Streeters first react, and what are some later effects? What form does their patriotism take? Who actually goes to war?

Chapter 25:

What resentments surface in Will Kennicott’s mind before he is visited by Maud Dyer? What does she at first ask for? Why does he refuse to prescribe a change of scene for her?

What circumstances/incidents lead up to the beginning of his affair with Maud? How is the reader supposed to respond to Maud? To his action?

How does Carol respond to her neighbor’s hints that her husband is not to be trusted?

Chapter 26:

How does Hugh respond to Miles Bjornstam and Olaf? What causes Bea and Olaf to contract typhoid? Why haven’t they gone earlier to the doctor?

How do Carol and Will Kennicott respond to their sickness? Who attends their funeral?

What interpretation of their deaths is given by Juanita Haydock? What attitude toward medical causation does this seem to reveal?

Chapter 27:

Under what circumstances does Miles leave town? What kind of farewell do he and Carol give one another? Does this surprise you?

What does Carol learn had been Mrs. Westlake’s ambition? What message does she take from the latter’s confession?

What do we make of the fact that Kennicott has an evening appointment with Maud Dyer? Should Carol have asked why this was necessary?

What experience overcomes Carol as she sits on her porch in the darkness? (345)

Chapter 28:

What changes in Maud Dyer’s behavior toward Carol, and to what does Carol attribute these? To what does the reader attribute these? What may this incident reveal about Carol’s character?

How do the gossips of the town, men and women, respond to the new, artistically dressed, rather androgynous tailor? What are reportedly his opinions? How does Carol respond to this gossip?

What are Will’s views on religion? Carol’s? (348) What content fills the sermon which they attend?

What thoughts fill her mind as she suffers through the sermon? How does she react to Erik’s presence in the church?

How do Kennicott and the Smails react to reports about Erik Valborg? What are Carol’s reactions?

What new woman friend does she meet? Which of her traits appeal to Carol?

Why is she ambivalent about speaking to Erik Valborg? What are her responses to her social status?

On what basis does she consent to make his acquaintance? What does she find interesting and unusual about him?

What play does Erik suggest they perform?! Who are Cook and Glaspell? Why can’t Carol, Erick, Will and Fern agree on a play to perform?

Chapter 29:

What do we learn about Erik’s background and schooling during his talk with Carol by the railroad tracks? What does he advise her?

What rather personal question does he ask her?

What attitude does he reveal toward what she perceives as constant sneers and bullying by townspeople?

What happens when Erik tries to organize a tennis tournament? How does Kennicott react when Carol refuses to change venue to where Harry Haydock wishes to hold it?

In what ways does she express solidarity with Erik, and how do others react? In your view, is she behaving wisely? On what grounds does she visit the tailor’s shop? Of whom does Erik remind her?

What change does all this create in Carol’s mood? In her attitude toward herself? Which town member seems more tolerant than the others toward Erik? Is this surprising?

Chapter 30:

What is ironic about the fact that Carol suggests Maud Dyer as a chaperone for their picnic? Who suggests that Erik accompany them?

What are some important moments at the picnic?

How does Carol react to Mrs. Dyer’s conversations with Erik and others? To his conversations with Myrtle Cass? Why do you think the author includes evidence of her jealousy and failure to see parallels with herself?

What emotions does Erik express toward Carol? Why does she suggest a trip to her husband, and how does he respond?

What happens at the church party attended by the Kennicotts, Erik and others?

What prospects have opened up for Erik? How does she respond to his request for advice? Do you think she is being fair? What is his protest?

Afterwards, what does she give as her reason for staying in Gopher Prairie? (386, IV)

Chapter 31:

On what occasion does Carol invite Erik into her house? What happens/doesn’t happen? What does she ask of him? 

What does Kennicott report that Mrs. Westlake has said? Is he angry? What does he suggest that she do? Do you think he is overreacting?

What new emotions does Vida Sherwin bring into the story? What has motivated her to visit Carol and weep over her past attraction to Carol’s husband?

How does she respond to Vida’s view that to reform the world one must conform to it? (393, II)

Are there ironies to her refusal to heed Aunt Bessie’s comments that Kennicott may have his own affairs?

Why does she not mention Aunt Bessie’s obtrusiveness to her husband? Is this a lost moment?

We see throughout the novel that Carol’s romantic friendships/out-of-class friendships are subject to constant scrutiny. Why do you think a similar treatment isn’t given to Maud Dyer’s affair with Kennicott?

Were this to have been exposed, would it have changed the novel?

What is important about the fact that Carol is unable to accept Fern’s request to chaperone her attendance at a barn dance? What does this request reveal about Fern’s intentions?

Chapter 32:

What charges does Mrs. Bogart make against Fern? What evidence does she have? How do Kennicott and Carol respond to her accusations?

How do others respond? (e. g. Sam Clark) What seems ironic about Maud Dyer’s interest in the case?

Why doesn’t the fact that everyone knows Cy to be an unreliable liar prevent Fern from being fired? On what grounds is she dismissed?

What is Fern’s account of the barn dance and its aftermath?

How does Fern respond to her dismissal? Carol? What connection does she see between the charges against Fern and her own attachment to Erik?

What do we later learn of Fern’s future? Will this incident have mattered?

Chapter 33:

Under what circumstances do Erik and Carol have their final meeting, and how does it end?

In his response to her walk with Erik, do you think Kennicott’s behavior towards his wife is reasonable?

What does he describe as his emotions toward her, and on what grounds does he praise himself? (416)

Are his remarks about Erik fair? Should Erik be blamed for his occupation as a tailor? For the fact that as an artist he will not be prosperous? Are Kennicott’s attacks partly class-based?

What does Carol complain about in return? (416-417, I)

To what extent does Carol internalize and accept Kennicott’s remarks about Erik? Does this seem consistent with her attitudes earlier in the novel? How does her reaction change the book?  

What prompts Eric to leave, and how does he do this? What problems has he helped her avoid?

What is Mr. Valborg’s reaction to the departure of his son? How do the Kennicotts respond to neighborly prying?

Chapter 34:

For how long and where do they travel? How do their neighbors respond to their return, e. g. the Haydocks?

How do Kennicott and Carol differ in their reactions on returning to Gopher Prairie? On returning to their home?

What has happened to Hugh during their absence? What household fixture is Kennicott pleased to see again?

Chapter 35:

What are Carol’s contributions to the war effort? Has Raymie been changed by his war experience?

What new trends are shown in the presence of Mr. Blausser in town? What attitudes and ventures does he advocate? To what extent are these successful?

How does Carol respond to all this? What does she yearn to do? (438, III)

Chapter 36:

When a Nonpartison League speaker is thrown out of Gopher Prairie, how do Carol and Will each respond?

What are his reactions to the “Watch Gopher Prairie Grow” campaign, to the war, and to “free speech”?

In reaction, what does she find the courage to say? What is his reaction to her assertion that she must find her proper work?

Why doesn’t housework satisfy her? What does she claim to want? On what grounds might she be willing to return? (442, II)

On what basis do they arrange for her to depart? Will she take Hugh with her? What will outsiders be told?

Why does she choose to live in Washington, D. C.?

What are ironies of the conversation she and her son have on the train east?

What happens back in Gopher Prairie in her absence? (445, IV)

Chapter 37:

What are some features of Carol’s life in the city? Her roommates? Her job? Her friends?

What differences does she find in Washington society?

Which of her attitudes are shared by her new friends?

What reflections does she make on her former attitudes toward the residents of Gopher Prairie?

Chapter 38:

How does she react to encountering the Haydocks in Washington?

What does she learn about the fate of Erik Valborg?

At what point does Will Kennicott visit her? What is the tenor of their visit? His response to their son? What new recognition does he claim to have reached? (458, 460, VI)

What insights about the significance of her restlessness, and about Will’s life, does she gain? (460, VI)

Chapter 39:

On what basis does she agree to return? What advice/comments does she receive from an older woman suffrage activist? (VIII)

What has made her less anxious about returning?

How long has she been away? Back in Gopher Prairie, have things changed for Carol? Has she changed in order to cope with her situation?

What seems revealed in the final scenes in which she joins her husband in hunting and she and Kennicott retire for the night?

What favor does Sam Clark do for her?

What are her hopes for her son and newborn daughter?

What is her final declaration about her views of Gopher Prairie? (471, sect. 8)

Are you satisfied with this ending? Is it appropriate to convey the novel’s themes?

Can you imagine alternate endings, and if so, would they have avoided/resolved the problems represented in the novel?

At the time, Ibsen’s The Doll’s House would have been the best known drama on the restrictions of married women’s lives at the time. What are some ways in which the plot of Main Street resembles that of The Doll’s  House? Some contrasts? Is Lewis more cautious than Ibsen had been?

At the time of publication, some critics objected that the novel’s portrayal of 1910 small town attitudes was exaggerated. Do you think Lewis is likely accurate? To what extent does the novel’s value depend upon its accuracy?

What seem some of the novel’s messages? How might a hypothetical Lewis update its settings were he to revisit the United States today?

Page numbers are from Signet edition, 1961 and 1968.

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