Thursday, January 15, 2009

I have to return some videotapes.

Current book: Main Street
Pages read: 259-406 (end)

Well, I'm officially done with Gopher Prairie forever, and I only wish I could say the same for our poor heroine. In this last part of the book there are some rather momentous events, including the declaration of World War I and the death, from typhoid, of Carol's former maid Bea and her son. The major crux of the plot, though, rests on two new people coming into town - a schoolteacher named Fern and a tailor named Erik. Fern acts neatly as a new and enlightened friend for Carol and Erik as a new and enlightened love interest. Through various machinations of the townsfolk, Fern is sent away in disgrace on suspicion of having committed indiscretions with one of the local hooligans (who is not, of course, punished in any way). Carol fights hard on her behalf, but ends up disgusted by the injustice that results. The town and school board are very "Well, she was asking for it," which is not unexpected, but it's funny to me that Lewis implies that Gopher Prairie is somehow remarkable in its attitude. I think he might be idealizing the city a little, to think that things somehow would have been different elsewhere. Maybe in fifty years. And maybe not.

Anyway, Erik the tailor ends up falling in love with Carol, and she with him, but running off to the city after Carol's husband discovers them taking a walk one evening...and all that that implies. It is, to be fair to Carol's husband (which is difficult for me to do, since he's a stultifying, controlling, moron), a real affair that has simply not yet become physical, but in comparing Carol to Fern and then threatening her with the same fate, he seems finally to add the proverbial last straw. There's an excellent interlude in here where Carol is incredibly bitter and her internal monologue goes all Patrick Bateman on you:

"Carol reflected that the carving-knife would make an excellent dagger with which to kill Uncle Whittier. It would slide in easily. The headlines would be terrible." (300)

I almost died. (When you think about it, actually, Patrick Bateman and Carol are not entirely unalike. They just express themselves differently. Very differently.)

As a result of her husband's verbal censure and her resulting anger with him, Carol ends up moving to Washington D.C. for two years with her son. There she rents an apartment with some other young women and takes in all the culture and conversation she's been missing for the past five years. I admit to being relieved that the city lived up to her expectations once she got back to it. I was afraid that Lewis's point would turn out to be that society is the same everywhere and there's simply no escape. Instead it seems to be that happiness is a matter of personal freedoms and finding one's kindred spirits in the world.

To my later chagrin, however, Carol ends up returning with her husband to Gopher Prairie. The ending of the novel is somewhat ambiguous: she seems to have found herself, and is no longer bothered by the pettiness of the townspeople or their constant viciousness, but she simultaneously realizes the futility of trying to change them. She's told herself she can be happy because she knows who she is and that her surroundings don't matter, and Lewis seems to support that idea, but we saw that the pinnacle of her happiness and freedom came when she left Gopher Prairie. Why can't she simply stay away? Maybe Lewis is saying that the trap is inescapable, but you have to realize that it can't make you into one of those whom you so greatly despise. Still, it's an ending haunted by melancholy and futility. I respect Lewis's choice to make it that way, but the romantic in me wishes Carol had thrown off the yoke of her marriage and stayed in Washington D.C. with her circle of friendship and culture.

Overall, I have to say it passes muster for the List. It is almost certainly one of the best 100 novels I've ever read, and I expect to continue to think about it and what it had to say for days, months, even years to come. It's particularly impressive that I'm so fond of a novel that's this bleak, since I generally reject books that I find overly pessimistic about the human condition. Bravo, Mr. Lewis. Bravo.

Also, good for a Twin Cities-dweller's ego that we're the pinnacle of culture and object of many a country girl's fantasy life. We do, after all, have all those experimental theatres and soda fountains.

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