Main Street

Distribute a guide about Lewis's Main Street that provides an overview as well as questions, vocabulary, quotations for discussion, and activities for each chapter.
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Updated on: November 14, 2000
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Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street

Preface and Chapter 1

1. What is Lewis's purpose in showing Carol as a solitary figure in section I of this chapter? What is your impression of her?
2. Who are Voltaire, Darwin, and Robert Ingersoll? (17) Why would their ideas be thought of as heretical?
3. What influenced Carol while growing up?
4. Why does she abandon her dream in favor of becoming a librarian?
5. Why does she feel unfulfilled in her librarian's job and in her intellectual life? Give examples of her dissatisfaction.
6. What rekindles Carol's dream of small town improvement?

bulwark (17): protector, like a fortress
heresies (17): sinful ideas; ideas that contradict religious doctrine
"twosing" (18): going out in pairs
Bostoned (18): dancing the Boston, a popular dance of the 1920s
mastiff (20): doglike
malevolent (22): evil
ferruginous (23): resembling rust in color
somniferous (25): sleep-inducing, boring
propinquity (27): proximity; nearness

The following may be used as points for discussion, response starters, writing analysis, or other creative assignments.

"What's better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids and knowing nice homey people?" (25)

"No! No! You're a dear, but I want to do things. I don't understand myself, but I want--everything in the world! Maybe I can't sing or write, but I know I can be an influence in library work. Just suppose I encouraged some boy and he became a great artist! I will! I will do it! Stewart dear, I can't settle down to nothing but dish-washing!" (25)

Historical Notes/Allusions
Section V alludes to Sappho and the captains of Zenobia. (25) Research this in Greek literature and relate what you learn to Carol's response.

Section VI contains a "photograph" of the trends of Carol's day. (25-6) References include Studio Parties, beer/cigarettes, bobbed hair, Bohemians, Freud, Romain Rolland, syndicalism, the Confederation Generale du Travail, feminism vs. haremism, Chinese lyrics, nationalization of mines, and Christian Science. Research these in small groups. How are they reflections of the culture, especially the changes in women's roles?

1. Read Lewis' prefatory remarks immediately preceding Chapter 1 (p. xv). Rewrite this in your own words considering the following questions: What governs the ways of the town? How is Main Street (anywhere) the "climax of civilization"?
2. As a continuing exercise throughout the novel, keep a journal logging your impressions of Carol after each chapter. Make sure to cite examples from the novel.
3. View a video of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair." Compare Bernice's lifestyle to Carol's. How is she like Bernice? How does she differ?

Chapter 2

1. What makes Will attractive to Carol?
2. How does Will make Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, appealing to Carol? According to Will, what are the people like?
3. How does the poor quality of the photographs Will brings affect Carol's impression of Gopher Prairie?
4. What convinces her to marry Will and move to Gopher Prairie? Why are Will's persuasive efforts different (and more successful) than Stewart Snyder's?

making love (30): courting, flirting

Historical Notes/Allusions
Section I contains two allusions: nymph and satyr, Elaine and Sir Lancelot. How do they add drama to the meeting of Will and Carol?

Marr'd as he was, he seem'd the goodliest man
That ever among ladies ate in hall,
And noblest, when she lifted up her eyes.
However marr'd, of more than twice her years,
Seam'd with an ancient swordcut on the cheek,
And bruised and bronzed, she lifted up her eyes
And loved him, with that love which was her doom.
--"Lancelot and Elaine,"
from Idylls of the King
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Chapter 3

1. How do the towns along the train ride to Gopher Prairie appear to Carol?
2. How do the people on the train differ from the people in the towns? from each other?
3. What frustrates Carol about these prairiel towns? How does she talk herself out of her irritation?
4. What is Carol's first impression of the townspeople of Gopher Prairie? What is it based on?
5. What do you think is Sinclair Lewis's opinion of small town mentality? Is he being ironic or disdainful? Give examples from the novel to support your opinion.

slatternly (36): sloppy
stolid (37): immovable, unchanging
tumultuous (37): turbulent; agitated
stalwart (37): strong, brave, resolute
florid (39): excessively ornate; showy
vampire costume (39): sexy outfit - from the idea of the movie vamp, a seductive woman from the silent films.
plunks (44): dollars
Frau (44): wife (German)
brown study (44): a dark painting used to illustrate a heavy mood
prosaic (45): dull, mundane
"parking" (45) : driveway
lugubrious (45): depressing; gloomy
quavered (45): trembled; quivered

"They do not read; apparently, they do not think. They wait." (35)

"Isn't there any way of waking them up?..."
"These people? Wake 'em up? What for? They're happy." (37)

"For the first time, she tolerated him rather than encouraged him." (38)

"Here - she meditated - is the newest empire of the world; the Northern Middlewest; a land of dairy herds and exquisite lakes, of new automobiles and tar-paper shanties and silos like red towers, of clumsy speech and a hope that is boundless. An empire which feeds a quarter of the world yet its work is merely begun." (39-40)

1. Write an internal monologue of one of the train's passengers. What is going through that person's mind? Why is this person on the train? Where is he/she going?
2. Write a conversation between a citizen of Gopher Prairie and one of his/her family members about Will Kennicott's new wife. Try to imitate Sinclair Lewis's ear for dialect.
3. Draw a split screen picture of Kennicott's house: half as he sees it, half as Carol sees it.

Chapter 4

1. Note Sinclair Lewis's use of internal monologue in the beginning of this chapter. What purpose does it serve? How does it help define Carol's character? Her struggles?
2. What does Lac-qui-Meurt mean? How does that place name add dimension to Lewis's description of and Carol's thoughts about Kennicott's place?
3. Why does Carol think she can slip through the streets unnoticed in Gopher Prairie? How do the grocer's comments reflect the personality of the town?
4. Note the repetition in the description of the shops of Main Street. What does each description have in common? From whose perspective do we see the town? Carol's, Lewis's, or both? Give reasons for your response.
5. How do Carol's and Bea's views of Gopher Prairie differ? What accounts for the differences? Why does Bea's verbal response seem low-key?
6. What mistakes does Carol make at Sam Clark's party? Why does Carol think it is so dull?
7. What is unusual about Sam Clark's house and its furnishings? Why does Kennicott like them?

nebulous (47): indistinct; cloudy
yourn (56): yours (dialect)
passementeried (58): edged in fancy trim
vociferous (60): noisy
troglodyte (63): a rude beast
flivver (66): slang: small, cheap, usually old automobile

"Which of these people whom she passed - now mere arrangements of hair and clothes - would turn to intimates, loved or dreaded, different from all the other people of the world?" (48)

"They were so small and weak, the little brown houses. They were shelters for sparrows, not homes for warm laughing people." (49)

"She fought herself: `I must be wrong. People do live here. It can't be as ugly as - as I know it is! I must be wrong. But I can't do it. I can't go through with it.'" (53)

"She discovered that conversation did not exist in Gopher Prairie. Even at this affair, which brought out the young smart set, the hunting squire set, the respectable intellectual set, and the solid financial set, they sat up with gaiety as with a corpse." (62)

"She panted, `They will be cordial to me, because my man belongs to their tribe. God help me if I were an outsider!'" (67)

1. Note Lewis's ability to record accents and dialect. Read a passage aloud to hear how Lewis captures the sound of speech. Tape record a conversation from your everyday life using dialect.
2. Tell about a time you felt out of place or describe an awkward situation.
3. Predict what Percy Bresnahan is like based on the boasting of Gopher Prairie citizens.
4. Reread the fable of the country mouse and the city mouse. Rewrite the story to reflect Carol's and Bea's experiences with Gopher Prairie.

Chapter 5

1. Why does Carol want to go hunting with Kennicott?
2. What does Carol find in common with Raymie Wutherspoon?
3. How does the newspaper article about Sam Clark's party differ from Carol's perception?
4. What does Carol find comforting about living in Gopher Prairie? How does this affect the way she sees the town and its inhabitants? What still bothers her?
5. How is Vida Sherwin different from the other women of the town? What makes her attractive to Carol?
6. What are Vida's ideas about how Carol can change the town?

Weltschmertz (72): sentimental sadness
effusively (74): gushily talkative
hwa pollwa (76): hoi polloi; Greek term meaning common folk
dogma (81): conviction or strong belief
Thanatopsis (81): a view or contemplation of death
rest-room (81): slang, a lounge - actually a place to rest and relax, not a bathroom.
jocular (83): witty, humorous

"I'm afraid you'll think I'm conservative. I am! So much to conserve. All this treasure of American ideals. Sturdiness and democracy and opportunity...." (82)

1. Reread Raymie's comments regarding literature and movies. (75) Do you agree or disagree with him? Give reasons for your response.
2. Illustrate Vida drawing upon the description of her. (80)

Chapter 6

1. How does Kennicott react to the renovation? How does the rest of the town?
2. What is Mrs. Bogart's true intention in visiting Carol? List her indirect insults.
3. What irritates Carol about the family finances? How is this a gender issue?
4. How is Carol's party similar to Sam Clark's? How is it different? What do the guests think of the differences (both publicly and privately)? How does her party affect future parties?

gadding (86): being on the go for no real reason
spendthrift (89): one who spends lots of money
calyx (90): green leafy part of a flower
superciliousness (92): scornfulness with an air of superiority
vicarious (92): living or experiencing through another's actions
apoplectic (95): like a stroke; liable to fits of rage

"There are in every large chicken-yard a number of old and indignant hens who resemble Mrs. Bogart, and when they are served at Sunday noon dinner, as fricasseed chicken with thick dumplings, they keep up the resemblance." (85)

"It was twenty minutes later when Mrs. Bogart finally oozed out the front door. Carol ran back into the living-room and jerked open the windows. `That woman has left damp fingerprints in the air,' she said." (86-7)

"Daily she determined, `But I must have a stated amount - be business-like. System. I must do something about it.' And daily she didn't do anything about it." (89)

"Even the dancers were gradually crushed by the invisible force of fifty perfectly pure and well-behaved and negative minds; and they sat down, two by two. In twenty minutes the party again was elevated to the decorum of a prayer-meeting." (91)

1. Plan a party you think the people of Gopher Prairie would enjoy. Include a menu, activities, and decorations.

Chapter 7

1. What is your opinion of Carol's poem? How does Lewis's inclusion of the actual lines shed an objective light on her personality?
2. What are the implications of Carol being a "woman with a working brain and no work"? (101) What are her options? How does she feel about these options?
3. How do the townswomen feel about Scandinavians?
4. What mistakes does Carol make at the Jolly Seventeen meeting? How does she try to make up for those errors? Whom does she offend and how?

lucidity (102): clarity; clearness
guffawed (103): laughed heartily
prodigality (103): reckless extravagance
sirocco (104): a strong, hot wind
supplication (104): apology; begging forgiveness
peroration (107): a lecture; speaking at length

Historical Note
The only acceptable options for an upper-class wife in the Midwest in the 1920s were: "having children; starting her career of reforming; or becoming so definitely a part of the town that she would be fulfilled by the activities of a church and study club and bridge parties." (101)

1. Create a telephone conversation between two of the women present at the Jolly Seventeen meeting about Carol's behavior. What do they think of her? Role play the conversation with a partner.
2. Write a conversation between Bea and one of her friends about Carol and role play it. What is Bea's opinion of Carol?

Chapter 8

1. How does Will respond to Carol's attempts to find out about his work? How does that reflect his opinion of her?
2. According to Vida Sherwin's report, what are some of Carol's faults? Is Vida really Carol's friend?
3. Why isn't Will bothered by Carol's feeling criticized by the town?

debacle (111): sudden downfall or collapse

"I wonder if you understand that in a secluded community like this every newcomer is on test? People cordial to her but watching her all the time." (111)

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