I truly anticipated my stroll down Main Street would be a joyous one, but alas, it was not. Like Carol, the novel’s central character, I was bored with the pace and seemingly closed mindedness of its inhabitants.
A young college graduate, Carol Milford, is ready to change the world and believes she will succeed at that, in the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. She marries Dr. Will Kennicott and they begin their life in a town wary of strangers and unreceptive to new ideas.
Small town America does not welcome outsiders and Gopher Prairie is no exception. The wealthy want to stay that way and don’t believe “those red foreigners” deserve an equal life. Women are not to be taken too seriously and everyone’s business is everyone’s business. Such is the life on Main Street.
Carol has grand ideas about revitalizing Gopher Prairie, but is quickly looked upon as a judgmental snob by the unenlightened townsfolk. She eventually realizes she is not accepted so seeks out others considered outsiders. Perhaps she reflected a realistic woman from the 1920’s, but her surrender to Gopher Prairie was a disappointment.
Dr. Will Kennicott accepts his life and sees no reason to change it. After being married for a very short time, his predictability has allowed his wife to hear his words before they are uttered. This is one boring man.
The town pariah, Miles Bjornstam, is referred to as The Red Swede. A handyman by trade, he despises the town’s upper class and is not shy about letting his feelings be known. He befriends Carol, but his brash approach intimidates her. Miles is eventually so alienated by Gopher Prarie’s citizens, that he is the sole mourner at the funeral of his wife and child.
Bea Sorensen arrives in Gopher Prairie the same day as Carol and their contrary perspectives are amusing. Where Bea sees numerous shops and a movie theater showing current films, Carol sees limited choices for shopping and a run down cinema. Bea becomes Carol’s maid and confidante and marries Miles.
The Kennicott’s neighbor, Mrs. Bogart is the most amusing character in the book. She is quick to criticize a person’s choice of clothing, food, church attendance, etc. yet has three sons whose bad reputations she is in deep denial of. This is a person we’ve all known, whose comments have left us incredulous and exasperated.
Carol was shuddering with the vicarious shame which sensitive people feel when they listen to an “elocutionist” being humorous, or to a precocious child publicly doing badly what no child should do at all.
She could not escape asking (in the exact words and mental intonations which a thousand million women, dairy wenches, and mischief-making queens, had used before her, and which a million million women will know hereafter), “Was it all a horrible mistake, my marrying him?” She quieted the doubt–without answering it.
From the two days at Lac-qui-Meurt Carol drew confidence in herself, and she returned to Gopher Prairie in a throbbing calm like those golden drugged seconds when, because he is for an instant free from pain, a sick man revels in living.
There are two insults which no human being will endure; the assertion that he hasn’t a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble.
She had her freedom, and it was empty. The moment was not the highest of her life, but the lowest and most desolate, which was altogether excellent, for instead of slipping downward she began to climb.
I’m sure I’d enjoy a stroll with Mr. Lewis in a rural Minnesota town (what would he make of Mall of America?). I’m sure the outcasts in Main Street were all reflections of himself, struggling to fit in where acceptance would never come to be. That is the insight I’d love to discuss with him over a small picnic lunch, of fine fare, of course.
My rating for Main Street is a 7 out of 10.
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Next up, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth…