Main Street: Notes

Main Street: Notes

Main Street: Notes

Main Street: Notes


The original CliffsNotes study guides offer expert commentary on major themes, plots, characters, literary devices, and historical background.


  • Life and Background of the Author
  • A Brief Synopses
  • List of Characters
  • Critical Commentaries
  • Character Analyses
  • Critical Essays
  • Essay Topics and Review Questions
  • Books by Sinclair Lewis
  • Selected Bibliography

    In writing Main Street, Sinclair Lewis paid little attention to formal plot development. Consequently the narrative presents a series of episodes rather than a tightly constructed plot.

    Carol Milford Kennicott, a graduate of "sanctimonious" Blodgett College, with a year of additional study in a Chicago library school, works as a librarian in St. Paul (Minnesota) for three years before her marriage to Dr. Will Kennicott, of Gopher Prairie. She is a rebel against ugliness and conformity, and one factor in her decision to accept Kennicott is the opportunity to make over a planless middle west prairie town.

    The story proper begins when, after a honeymoon in the Colorado mountains, the Kennicotts approach Gopher Prairie on the train. In the drab town are three thousand dull people, in a social strata ranging from Swede farmer to bank president. Main Street has two-story brick shops flanked by Fords and lumber wagons. There is no park to rest the eyes. The Kennicott family home is outdated and stuffy. The prairie, vast and empty, stretches away on every side.

    Dreams end and realism begins when Carol takes a thirty-minute walk, inspecting the town, north and south, east and west. It is then that she realizes the shabbiness surrounding her. Her first social evening is also a disappointment, for she finds the conversation of both men and women personal and trivial. She tries to introduce something different. On the way home, however, she is lectured by her husband on the danger of shocking ...

  • Excerpt

    Main Street became a household word, both in the United States and abroad, within a few years after the publication of Sinclair Lewis’ widely read novel. The book satirizes the ugliness and conformity found in small Midwest towns during the second decade of the twentieth century and ridicules the uninspired and self-satisfied inhabitants.

    Lewis gives little recognition to the forces contributing to small-town deterioration, notably the advent of the automobile as a common means of transportation and the consequent increase of city buying at the expense of local trade. Connected also with the decline of the American village was the exodus to the cities of many of its brighter and more aggressive young people, in search of more attractive living conditions and better work opportunities.

    Yet the story is absorbing. H. L. Mencken rated it highly, adding:

    It represents characters that are … genuinely human but also authentically American…. It is well
    written, full of a sharp sense of comedy, and rich in observation and completely designed.

    Lewis Mumford maintains that Carol Kennicott’s struggle with the stodgy, self-satisfied society of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere, since the same story could occur in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas, Kentucky, or Illinois.

    Main Street is the Lewis novel best known in the author’s birthplace, Sauk Centre, Minnesota, for in spite of its satire, it reflects the true nature of the town and its inhabitants.


    “Sinclair Lewis, 1885–1951 Author of Main Street

    The above is the inscription on an unpretentious marker in the cemetery of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. It is the middle stone of three, for the famous son is buried between his father, Dr. E. J. Lewis, and his mother, Emma Kermott Lewis, who died when Harry, as he was then called, was six years old. The surmise that the name Sinclair was assumed later while Lewis was connected with the Utopian schemes of Upton Sinclair is incorrect. Dr. Lewis named his son at birth in honor of a friend, Dr. Sinclair, a New Lisbon, Wisconsin, dentist. In adult life, Lewis was known to his friends as “Red.”

    Behind the graves is the granite family monument. There is no mention of Sinclair Lewis’ other twenty novels or of the fact that he was the first American novelist to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet Sauk Centre, scorned by Lewis in his lifetime, now has a Sinclair Lewis Avenue and “The Original Main Street.” The library is collecting manuscripts and relics that were not willed, like his library and his Nobel Prize medal, to Yale University. It was at Lewis’ own request that his ashes were returned to Sauk Centre after his death in Rome, January 10, 1951.

    Main Street began as a story to be called “The Village Virus,” a study which was completed in 1905 but never published. Carl Van Doren says that the novel itself was written years later, in Washington D. C. Although the reaction of Sauk Centre toward the book was at first unfavorable, there is no evidence that it was ever banned from the local library. John Steinbeck, about fifteen years younger than Lewis and an admirer of the older writer, tells in Travels With Charley (1960) of trying to find the way to Sauk Centre from St. Paul. A waitress directed him, adding, “They got a sign up. I guess quite a few folks come to see . . .

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.