Babbit was on my summer reading list for 10th grade. I hated it. It was my original cookie book (read a few pages, reward yourself with a cookie, repeat until done). When I reread it while we discussed it in class, though, I fell in love. Sinclair Lewis was a master at portraying flawed but mostly decent people who quietly chafe against a conformist society, appearing to - or wanting to - fit in but never quite feeling comfortable about it.
I wonder if Carol Kennicott would fit in anywhere. We meet her as a college student, vibrant, enthusiastic, and a bit remote. A judge's daughter from Mankato (neither a small town nor a large city), she has no close friends and isn't close to her only relative, an older sister. It's her sister who introduces Carol, by then working as a librarian in St. Paul, to Dr. Will Kennicott, a country GP who apparently came to town to find a wife (I wonder if he had a shopping list of desired characteristics). He think she's pretty; she's bored and enticed by the chance to Do Good in a Small Town.
Carol quickly realizes that she's the victim of a bait and switch. Main Street Gopher Prairie is populated by narrow-minded, mean-spirited, materialistic conformists. Will is a good doctor, but he's extremely condescending towards the immigrant farmers he treats and more interested in land speculation than healing. His friends are crude and the Jolly Seventeen - the young, fashionable wives - are a catty bunch of cliquish "mean girls." Carol's attempts to improve the town fail, through the scorn of the town and, sadly, Carol's lack of skill or endurance. Her story grows darker as she makes friends who are driven from the town, each one leaving a film of suspicion on Carol's reputation.
Lewis could have made Carol a selfless crusader crushed by the evil town, but he's more subtle. Carol is mostly right (the town is drab, crude, and ugly), but she acts arbitrarily and often without considering the whether her goals are right for Gopher Prairie. She's also not very good at reforming, becoming discouraged and then losing interest at the first obstacle. Will is the wrong husband for Carol, but he's not necessarily a bad person, and while some of the townspeople are vicious others come across as weak and easily led. Carol is trapped, but partially because she took the path of least resistance. I sympathize with her, then look at her short-sighted decisions. And then I wonder, did she have other options?