Carol Milford, escaped for an hour from Blodgett College, stands in relief against the "cornflower blue" of the Minnesota sky. Two generations ago, Chippewas camped on this hill overlooking the Mississippi. Today one sees the flour mills and skyscrapers of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Sharply etched against the sky, the girl is thinking not of the past but of present problems connected with her life in college.
Blodgett College, on the edge of Minneapolis, a religious institution, protects its students from the wicked teachings on the larger universities. Yet Carol's four years there are not wasted, for she acquires a good formal education. She is interested in the arts and in general culture, particularly sociology. A classmate, a law student named Stewart Snyder, wishes to marry her, but she does not care for him. She wants most of all to participate in village improvement, to make some prairie town beautiful. Since she is an orphan, Carol is free to follow her own bent.
Carol's father had come originally from Massachusetts, and in her childhood he had been a judge in Mankato, not a prairie town but similar in appearance to the towns in New England. Judge Milford chose to educate his children by letting them read whatever they pleased. Her mother died when Carol was nine, and her father four years later. At an early age, therefore, she had learned independence, both physical and mental.
On the advice of her English professor, Carol decides to study professional library work in a Chicago school. At commencement time at Blodgett, Stewart Snyder proposes to her, but she rejects his offer because she feels that a person with a college education should use it for the world, and that she can have great influence in library work. After graduation the two never meet again.
Carol's year in Chicago includes some Bohemian friends and much reading. She becomes informed on such diverse topics as syndicalism, feminism, Christian science, Chinese lyrics, and Freudian philosophy. In the autumn she is in the public library of St. Paul, where she remains for three years. There she finds little public interest in serious or advanced reading, however. None of her several suitors makes an impression on her until at a friend's home she meets Dr. Will Kennicott.
The Johnson Marburys' Sunday evening supper brings Carol and Dr. Kennicott together. An established doctor of thirty-six or thirty-seven, he had received his B.A. and M.D. degrees at the University and spent his internship in a hospital in Minneapolis. Yet his heart and his practice are in Gopher Prairie, his native town, because he believes that it will have a great future. It needs only women like Carol to transform it. He asks for her address before they part.
The romance proceeds in routine fashion. Carol is disappointed because of her suitor's devotion to money-making but is sure of the honesty and up-to-dateness of his practice. They go for a walk together from St. Paul down the river to Mendota one September afternoon and return engaged. Already Carol is looking forward to meeting his friends and his Swedish patients. First of all, however, she is interested in remaking Gopher Prairie.
Sinclair Lewis introduces his heroine, Carol, a rebellious girl representing the spirit of the American Middlewest, as typical of "the eternal aching comedy of expectant youth."
The Lewis satire appears early in Main Street. The small denominational college with its inhibitions, the ugliness of the prairie towns, and the uninspired thinking of most of Carol's contemporaries are all mentioned or implied in these introductory chapters. Carol stands out from the rest of the Blodgett student body because of her originality of thought and her interest in reform. Her family background is brought in to explain her intellectual freedom, her early developed reading tastes (Balzac, Rabelais, Thoreau, Max Müller), and her interest in a career of town-planning. As in the case of many of Shakespeare's leading characters, the parents are removed from the plot in order to give the young person more freedom of thought and action. (Examples: Rosalind and Orlando in As You Like It; Olivia and Viola in Twelfth Night; and Portia in The Merchant of Venice.) Carol, too, stands out more vividly because of this device.
The basic struggle between domestic life and a career outside the home is introduced. In the teen years of the twentieth century, woman suffrage had not yet become a law, and women had far fewer choices of occupation than they do today. The novel, published in 1920 but written earlier, contains several references to suffragettes.
Sinclair Lewis has introduced his principal character in this chapter and has provided a background for her marriage and her subsequent life in Gopher Prairie. Dr. Kennicott wins Carol by appealing to her long-time desire, now almost latent, for improving a town. The author is now leading up to the main part of the novel, Carol's life in Gopher Prairie and the conflicts involved.