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They should’ve given me Main Street. It was Babbitt, instead, that they assigned, but it should have been Main Street, with its domestic drudgery and double-crossing and female anxiety. So Main Street didn’t make it on to my exams list, but I read it anyway, unable to resist the clear serendipity of the occasion when I picked up a musty 1948 edition of it in a used book store in Hobe Sound, FL where a bedraggled, strangely docile orange cat fell asleep on the pile of books I had intended to buy. And did buy, including Main Street, after removing the cat and offering him a comparable stack of uncomfortable-seeming books, upon which he immediately, again, fell asleep.

I don’t know now how to properly enact a reading of Main Street, though, without the help of two texts which have proved indispensable to my understanding of it: Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint — itself responsible for many an energetic scribbling in the margins of my copy of Lewis’ novel — and, less directly, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps [Ward]’s The Story of Avis. From Phelps/Avis, I was able to keep in mind that the story Lewis tells of his protagonist, Carol, in Main Street is but one version of a tale all-too-familiar to its time. And from Berlant, I was able to see that someone — either Berlant or Lewis — had got that tale wrong in this particular instance. One might say (indeed, I’ll say it) that Main Street is wholly built on the notion of The Female Complaint, the idea which Berlant succinctly puts as this: “women live for love, and love is the gift which keeps on taking” (1). But building a narrative on this idea, and representing it, are two different projects.

Lewis’ Carol is, I think, an unfortunately sympathetic character — unfortunate for her very ability to make us readers feel sympathy for her since she is, quite unfortunately, doomed to one of a very small array of eventualities. On one level (the most immediate and obvious one), her complaint is the standard Female Complaint, the one which encourages our most facile, and least compelling, kind of sympathy for her. After first asking the question “What do we want?” with a “we” that includes “ten million women, young married women,” “business women,” “grandmothers,” “wives of underpaid miners,”and  “farmwives,” she is eventually bullied into a half-hearted response that comes in the form of “I”: “I want … to curl on the hearth with someone I love” (202-203). And this is the female complaint, sure enough, the desire for romantic love that mirrors everything women have been led to believe constituted such an experience, but it is not really Carol’s complaint in this passage, or in this novel — it is not really the female complaint at all. I would call it, instead, a kind of female ideology, an ideology of distraction, a consciousness of pre-programmed complaint against which Carol unceasingly struggles in Lewis’ narrative, yet stares aghast at the willingness of the women around her to happily wear its colors.

Carol’s real complaint, the one that most women sense but grant only veiled articulation through a more classic line of female grievances, is for work. And this complaint is at once precisely female — women desire access to compensated labor, and style this desire in the terms of agency and “freedom” they believe are associated with such an ability — and at the same time morosely human. For while Carol describes the “discontent in women with eight children and one more coming – always one more coming! And you find it in stenographers and wives who scrub, just as much as in girl college-graduates who wonder how they can escape their kind parents,” she likewise notes that “all of us want the same things — we’re all together, the industrial workers and the women and the farmers and the negro races and the Asiatic colonies” (202) in a speech that expresses the deep human resonance of this need in a way that does not disassociate, but rather includes, women. So the female complaint is for work (Step 1) and the larger human complaint is for fully conscious life that comes from non-alienated work (Step 2). Or, women want what men already have (evolution), and men want something better (revolution). Both of these desires express disassociation and alienation: women like Carol believe that work is an opportunity, a chance to choose your own route through the world instead of blithely washing the dishes that get handed to you; similarly, the larger “industrial cry” articulated by Carol in her speech to Guy Pollock pivots on the notion of becoming conscious of, and responsible for, the work you perform, the money you make and spend, the actions you take. In short, women, and men, get sick of being told what to do — but they do it anyway. Such is the power of ideology, be it a bit different for women than for men. “They [people] don’t know what they miss. And anybody can endure anything. Look at men in mines and in prisons” (284) Carol tells Percy Bresnahan. Bresnahan responds by saying “Humph … my humble (not too humble!) opinion is that you like to be different. You like to think you’re peculiar” (284). And, of course, he’s correct in saying so.

For Carol — as for Avis in Phelps’ The Story of Avis — the project of being “peculiar” is synonymous with that of resisting the forces of ideology. Difference itself is the thing, the quality that both encourages and discourages the struggle for “conscious life,” since it is only when you are painfully aware of your own difference that you feel conscious of your detachment from larger forces.

I’ve gotten going too quick here, and so will have to return to Avis — and Berlant, and everyone else who enters into this conversation — at a later date. For time being, though, a quick expression of love: I loved Main Street, not wanting to, not expecting to, not even being required to. But I loved it. It was painful and harsh and cutting and, in spite of all this, did not manage to ruin my week. 

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