When Main Street first appeared, women had just gained the right to vote. The shift from a largely agricultural economy to an industrial one was accelerating, and the ideal of small-town living was being replaced by the promise of exciting possibilities to be found in large urban centers. Sinclair Lewis, who had a painful history in his small-town birthplace of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, was a product of the time, and Main Street has been construed as both an expression of his complicated personal history and a scathing attack on the constraints of small-town life. A contemporary reading, however, reveals how the novel gets beneath the surface of women’s lives to illustrate the conflicting pressures they faced.
Most critics agree that Carol Kennicott, the central figure in Lewis’ satiric treatment of small-town life in America from 1912 through World War I, represents the author in his uneasy relationship to his home town. Lewis’ reconstruction/transformation of his own experience aptly captures the role of the marked other, a role familiar to women. As the “other,” Kennicott struggles to see the ugly town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, through her husband’s loving eyes, while also experiencing what Betty Friedan later analyzed, in the case of white middle-class women in the 1950s, as “the problem that has no name” (11). This emotional emptiness of women who are expected to live their lives through another, usually a husband or a child, is an added dimension of Kennicott’s discomfort with her life in Gopher Prairie.
Carol struggles to express herself within the limited options offered by small-town life and the gendered role assigned to her by marriage as Dr. Kennicott’s wife. Dutifully carrying out household tasks and social obligations and seldom revealing her inner concerns, Carol chafes against the repetitive routine expected of her and other women of her class who are seen as appendages of