Main Street was originally published in 1920, but owing to Lewis’s powerful gift for observation, the novel truly resonates with the modern reader. Main Street opens with the marriage of its protagonist, Carol, to Dr. Will Kennicott, general practitioner to Gopher Prairie, an archetypal Midwest Small Town (capitals intended). Upon her arrival to “G.P.” Carol is brimming with ideas to “improve” the town but finds herself continually thwarted by the townspeople’s penchant for pettiness and resistance to change.
Unfortunately, Carol does not rise to the challenge. She is unfocused in her efforts to reform Gopher Prairie and lacks the resolve to persist when she encounters adversity. Even worse, she takes each defeat personally, closing herself off from potentially meaningful relationships with her neighbors.
Though I often found Carol’s lack of focus frustrating, I couldn’t help but sympathize with her. Fiction oftentimes deals with the adventures of the exceptional, the go-getters who possess the fearlessness required to accomplish their goals and encourage real progress. While these characters are inspiring and interesting to read about, the real world is full of far more Carol Kennicotts. The rest of us, like Carol, often have a vision of the world we would like to see but find the path to creating it a bit opaque.
One of the chief criticisms plaguing Main Street’s reputation is its allegedly unsatisfying ending. I admit that beginning with Carol’s excursion to D.C., the plot does feel a bit rushed and the conclusion a little hasty. Despite that, I found several points of encouragement. Carol finally seems to recognize where she can be effective and find meaningful purpose: she can provide her children with the resources they need to become open-minded adults and, more impressively, begins to open her own mind to the beauty there is in being an active member of a marriage, family and community. There is a powerful moment at the end of the book when it occurs to Carol that not only is her husband an individual with his own world view, but so is Ethel Clark, a woman she previously dismissed as simply a small town wife in need of a social awakening. Recognizing this is a huge breakthrough in Carol’s development as a character, and a huge relief for me, the sympathetic reader.
The reason I love this book so much is Lewis’s clear representation of what it means to be a human being, whether it’s 1920 or nearly 100 years later in 2012. Lewis gets at the root of why we act the way we do and, to be frank, flays us alive for it. Though it isn’t always pretty, seeing oneself on the page the way one can in Main Street is strangely comforting. We aren’t perfect, but at least we aren’t alone.