- For Better or for Worse . . .
Sinclair Lewis, in the Novels of his most satisfactorily productive decade, the 1920s, looks critically but often with incisive clarity at American life. In portraying the vulgarity and stultifying narrowness of the small town as exemplified by Gopher Prairie, the essential emptiness of the life of George F. Babbitt, or the yearnings and self-searchings of Sam Dodsworth as he measures the American experience against the European, Lewis was also portraying marriages—occasionally happy marriages, many humdrum marriages, and some utterly wretched marriages—and in the process he made some telling comments about what marriage meant to American wives in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
If it is true, as Daniel Aaron has said, that Main Street is "a work of historical importance . . . not merely as a reflection partly unconscious, of American tastes and assumptions, but also because it helped Americans to understand themselves" (177); if The New York Times saw the central character in Babbitt as "real, alive and [End Page 555] recognizable as a known, familiar, and abundant type" (Schorer 345); and if in Dodsworth Lewis presented once again a representative type of American, "the American boy-man, the 'mythical' archetype" (Moore 160), it then seems fair to use these three novels as a means of seeing into a time now gone and of examining the lives of women in that vanished time. Happy wives are not much seen in Main Street, Babbitt, and Dodsworth. Occasionally, there are wives who at least appear to enjoy their lives and their marriages; and there are two, Vida Sherwin Wutherspoon and Bea Sorenson Bjornstam (both in Main Street), who are most definitely, most radiantly married.
It may be, of course, that some of the wives who appear to be happy are simply not unhappy, an entirely different thing; but there is a quality of enjoyment of life in women such as Juanita Haydock (Main Street) and Matey Pearson (Dodsworth) that seems to argue that they find their days, their husbands, and their own roles satisfactory enough.
Juanita is described as "acidulous and shrewd and cackling" (242). Her home, carefully detailed by Lewis, is new, an over-heated concrete bungalow furnished to a pitch of Gopher Prairie fashion, and she herself is "highly advanced in the matters of finger-bowls, doilies, and bath mats" (90). That she sees herself as having achieved distinction as the leading light of the Young Married Set, Lewis assures us; that she sees any reason to question the absolute significance of that achievement, we are nowhere led to believe. She accepts the limitations of Gopher Prairie because she does not recognize it as having limitations. She enjoys the summers at the lake, the squabbles with the grocer, and the social eminence of the Jolly Seventeen. She is, in short, satisfied.
Matey Pearson, the wife of Sam Dodsworth's longtime friend Tub, is, in almost every particular, vastly different from Juanita Haydock; but Matey, like Juanita, has apparently found happiness in an acceptance of things as they are. Fran Dodsworth may dismiss Matey as "dreadfully uninteresting. And fat!" (257), but Matey plays "a rare shrewd game of poker" (263), dances lightly, grows Zenith's most admirable dahlias, and shows herself cheerfully affectionate toward her husband, whom she says, with apparent truth, she adores. Lewis does not show us many details in the lives of Juanita and Matey or of other women who appear to find their lives and their marriages satisfactory, but the glimpses [End Page 556] he does reveal are of pleasures enjoyed, not of dull boredom or lonely pain.
Lewis goes much further, however, in showing the possibilities for wives' finding happiness when, in Main Street, he describes the marriages of Vida Sherwin and Bea Sorenson. And because, Tolstoy's remark to the contrary, all happy families are not alike, it is worthwhile to explore in some detail the reasons why Vida and Bea are so happily married.
Vida is thirty-nine years old when she marries Raymie Wutherspoon, and she has behind her long years of struggling with sexual "fears, longing, and guilt" (244), of knowing she is perceived as plain, the stereotypical old maid...