Summary and Analysis
This is Vida Sherwin's chapter. In a flashback, the reader glimpses Vida's early life in a "hill-smothered Wisconsin village," her high-school teaching career, and her relation to Kennicott before his marriage. Although she had not encouraged Kennicott's few attempts at lovemaking five years before, she feels now that he is a rejected suitor. From the first she takes an intense interest in Carol. Vida discovers, at Mrs. Gurrey's boarding house, that Raymie Wutherspoon is a superior individual, and the two fall in love. She is thirty-nine and he a year younger.
Vida advises her admirer about his clothes and his job. When he is about to dodge the issue, she encourages him into a proposal and they are married in June. She resigns from the high-school faculty except for one class in English. Household chores delight her. Soon she pushes her husband into a one-sixth partnership in the Haydock store, and he becomes a "glorified floorwalker." Vida no longer envies Carol.
Carol is puzzled by Vida's reaction to married life. Carol's disconcerting habit of buying books is in turn an enigma to her husband. As a result of reading stories and seeing modern plays, Carol is more disgusted than ever with the traditions of the American small town. She considers the image of the American village as an abode of friendship and integrity forty years out of date. Even foreigners are affected by small-town dullness, in one generation casting aside their colorful native customs and dress and becoming conformists.
Vida thinks that Ray would have made a wonderful rector, but that it is too late now.
Small towns are not only dull, but they are also infested with curiosity. Such a society produces cheap automobiles, dollar watches and safety razors, and "small busy men" of "the cash register and the comic film." Always west of Pittsburgh and sometimes east of it are "the same railroad station, the same Ford garage . . . the same box-like houses and two-story shops." Carol is a perfectionist who hates mediocrity. Vida has won more by patient persistence, however, than has Carol with her spurts of sudden reform. The school is promised a better ventilation system, and a small park is promised near the railroad station. A new school is to be built as soon as war conditions permit. Vida considers the participation in baby welfare week Carol's best accomplishment in Gopher Prairie. The two campaign for a village nurse to attend poor families. Carol, however, wants results now and is not content with Vida's slower methods of bringing ideas to fruition.
Less than a year after his marriage to Vida, Raymie Wutherspoon is in officers' training camp, coming out as a first lieutenant in the infantry and early being sent abroad. Some members of prominent families are drafted, but most draftees are sons of German and Swedish immigrants. Cy Bogart, now nineteen and a big bully, has not gone to war. Kennicott wants to go when other doctors join the medical corps, but he is encouraged to wait because of the shortage of medical men at home.
Carol and her friends exchange bridge for rolling bandages, but there is no great psychological change. Miles Bjornstam takes a cynical attitude toward the war and its losses.
The great and fabulous Percy Bresnahan returns to Gopher Prairie for a brief visit before becoming a dollar-a-year man in Washington. He calls on the Kennicotts, bringing a toy for the child. Carol is vaguely afraid of his overwhelming vitality and buoyant familiarity. The Kennicotts join the Elders and the Clarks in entertaining Bresnahan with a fishing party at Red Squaw Lake. The "great man come home" claims to have inside information about every phase of the war, though most of his opinions are disproved later.
Bresnahan borrows Jackson Elder's Cadillac and invites Carol to ride with him. He realizes that she considers him a big bluff and that she does not care for Gopher Prairie. She admits a longing for people of her own kind, mostly found in cities. Though she does not admire Bresnahan, her contact with him leads her to study her husband more closely.
Contrast between the two leading women characters is brought out in these chapters. The fact that Vida once regarded Dr. Kennicott as a suitor is revealed for the first time. This information sheds new light on Vida's attitude toward Carol from the beginning of their acquaintance. Naturally, Vida alternately loved and hated Carol. Lewis says that Vida is a reformer, a liberal, and Carol a revolutionist, a radical. Both have been career women; their early home backgrounds were different, but their education less dissimilar, since both had attended "sanctimonious" colleges. Vida, in spite of her academic training and teaching experience, is delighted with home life and its chores; Carol finds them deadening.
Authors in their heyday at the time are also mentioned: Anatole France, Romain Rolland, H. G. Wells, Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and H. L. Mencken. Though not considered subversive now, they were the socialists, the realists, and the philosophers of the World War I period. To be intellectual in Gopher Prairie, however, is to be "priggish and of dubious virtue," and Gopher Prairie, according to Lewis, is typical of all the prairie towns.
World War I provides the background for Chapter 23: its frenzied patriotism, its hates and prejudices, and its disillusionment. Young men all over the nation flocked to the training camps, and typical figures emerge from the non-combatant background, notably Gopher Prairie's favorite and amazingly wealthy son, Percy Bresnahan. His shallowness and self-importance are apparent to Carol, yet she values his admiration of her and mentally compares him with her husband, to the disparagement of Dr. Kennicott.