A friend of mine once read Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and said with unbridled awe, "This. This is the sort of book that makes me shiver to the core of my being, and say, this, this is what life is all about." After reading Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, I feel much the same. This is what writing is all about. Reading is all about. And life is all about.
Main Street may not be the greatest American novel. Heavens no! It is far from it. It was certainly one of the most popular of its time though. Lewis' satirical portrayal of small-town American society has no plot to speak of, but there is much here in this novel to enjoy, to understand and to empathize. And Main Street showed just how universal human traditions, conservatism and pettiness can be. I felt Carol Kennicott's despair at living in that small village called Gopher Prairie as mine, finding parallels in it to the aching emptiness I sometimes feel living here in India, bound by tradition and yoked by convention. But Carol is not entirely a pathetic figure - Sinclair Lewis admitted that he was fond of Carol, her husband Will and some of the other type characters in Gopher Prairie. That is what elevates her character, I feel, from being the object of satire to being a sociological and psychological study of a woman who ceaselessly questions, and does not submit to the discontent in her soul as the fate of all women.
And there is the masterful portrayal of a marriage - Carol and Will are not the romantic, happily-married-ever-after couple. They are married. That's it. Sinclair Lewis draws his satirical pen through the flimsy web of their married life, shreds the pretense and give us in the process a love that is at once frustrating yet touching, unfathomable yet realistic and as tiresome as it is uplifting. Carol herself is shown at once to be a rebel yet a wimp - scared at times to go against the town, and yet wallowing in the misery of not being able to be 'free.' She tries to run away, she tries to stay. She tries to love, she tries to detest. She is all that I feel I am yet better than I because there is a wider spirit in her as evident in this quote towards the end:
"But I have won in this: I've never excused my failures by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith."
And Carol keeps the faith. As for me, I only wish I can do the same. For now, reading this book was faith enough.
Verdict : Satirical work of genius.
Rating : 6/5