Are these three ways of making life miserable – or are these just three sides of one way?
Anyway, there is also another way.
“Naturally! Please don’t snub me now! Let the old man rave. How old are you, Carol?”
“Twenty-six! I was just leaving New York, at twenty-six. I heard Patti sing, at twenty-six. And now I’m forty-seven. I feel like a child, yet I’m old enough to be your father. So it’s decently paternal to imagine you curled at my feet. . . . Of course I hope it isn’t, but we’ll reflect the morals of Gopher Prairie by officially announcing that it is! . . . These standards that you and I live up to! There’s one thing that’s the matter with Gopher Prairie, at least with the ruling-class (there is a ruling-class, despite all our professions of democracy). And the penalty we tribal rulers pay is that our subjects watch us every minute. We can’t get wholesomely drunk and relax. We have to be so correct about sex morals, and inconspicuous clothes, and doing our commercial trickery only in the traditional ways, that none of us can live up to it, and we become horribly hypocritical. Unavoidably. The widow-robbing deacon of fiction can’t help being hypocritical. The widows themselves demand it! They admire his unctuousness. And look at me. Suppose I did dare to make love to—some exquisite married woman. I wouldn’t admit it to myself. I giggle with the most revolting salaciousness over La Vie Parisienne, when I get hold of one in Chicago, yet I shouldn’t even try to hold your hand. I’m broken. It’s the historical Anglo-Saxon way of making life miserable. . . . Oh, my dear, I haven’t talked to anybody about myself and all our selves for years.”
“Guy! Can’t we do something with the town? Really?”
“No, we can’t!” He disposed of it like a judge ruling out an improper objection; returned to matters less uncomfortably energetic: “Curious. Most troubles are unnecessary. We have Nature beaten; we can make her grow wheat; we can keep warm when she sends blizzards. So we raise the devil just for pleasure—wars, politics, race-hatreds, labor-disputes. Here in Gopher Prairie we’ve cleared the fields, and become soft, so we make ourselves unhappy artificially, at great expense and exertion: Methodists disliking Episcopalians, the man with the Hudson laughing at the man with the flivver. The worst is the commercial hatred—the grocer feeling that any man who doesn’t deal with him is robbing him. What hurts me is that it applies to lawyers and doctors (and decidedly to their wives!) as much as to grocers. The doctors—you know about that—how your husband and Westlake and Gould dislike one another.”
“No! I won’t admit it!”
“Are you by any chance implying that I am not economical?”
“Well, I hadn’t intended to, but since you bring it up yourself, I don’t mind saying the grocery bills are about twice what they ought to be.”
“Yes, they probably are. I’m not economical. I can’t be. Thanks to you!”
“Where d’ you get that ‘thanks to you’?”
“Please don’t be quite so colloquial—or shall I say VULGAR?”
“I’ll be as damn colloquial as I want to. How do you get that ‘thanks to you’? Here about a year ago you jump me for not remembering to give you money. Well, I’m reasonable. I didn’t blame you, and I SAID I was to blame. But have I ever forgotten it since—practically?”
“No. You haven’t—practically! But that isn’t it. I ought to have an allowance. I will, too! I must have an agreement for a regular stated amount, every month.”
“Fine idea! Of course a doctor gets a regular stated amount! Sure! A thousand one month—and lucky if he makes a hundred the next.”
“Very well then, a percentage. Or something else. No matter how much you vary, you can make a rough average for——”
“But what’s the idea? What are you trying to get at? Mean to say I’m unreasonable? Think I’m so unreliable and tightwad that you’ve got to tie me down with a contract? By God, that hurts! I thought I’d been pretty generous and decent, and I took a lot of pleasure—thinks I, ‘she’ll be tickled when I hand her over this twenty’—or fifty, or whatever it was; and now seems you been wanting to make it a kind of alimony. Me, like a poor fool, thinking I was liberal all the while, and you——”
“Please stop pitying yourself! You’re having a beautiful time feeling injured. I admit all you say. Certainly. You’ve given me money both freely and amiably. Quite as if I were your mistress!”
“I mean it! What was a magnificent spectacle of generosity to you was humiliation to me. You GAVE me money—gave it to your mistress, if she was complaisant, and then you——”
“(Don’t interrupt me!)—then you felt you’d discharged all obligation. Well, hereafter I’ll refuse your money, as a gift. Either I’m your partner, in charge of the household department of our business, with a regular budget for it, or else I’m nothing. If I’m to be a mistress, I shall choose my lovers. Oh, I hate it—I hate it—this smirking and hoping for money—and then not even spending it on jewels as a mistress has a right to, but spending it on double-boilers and socks for you! Yes indeed! You’re generous! You give me a dollar, right out—the only proviso is that I must spend it on a tie for you! And you give it when and as you wish. How can I be anything but uneconomical?”
“Oh well, of course, looking at it that way——”
“I can’t shop around, can’t buy in large quantities, have to stick to stores where I have a charge account, good deal of the time, can’t plan because I don’t know how much money I can depend on. That’s what I pay for your charming sentimentalities about giving so generously. You make me——”
“Wait! Wait! You know you’re exaggerating. You never thought about that mistress stuff till just this minute! Matter of fact, you never have ‘smirked and hoped for money.’ But all the same, you may be right. You ought to run the household as a business. I’ll figure out a definite plan tomorrow, and hereafter you’ll be on a regular amount or percentage, with your own checking account.”
They had gone to the “movies.” The movies were almost as vital to Kennicott and the other solid citizens of Gopher Prairie as land-speculation and guns and automobiles.
The feature film portrayed a brave young Yankee who conquered a South American republic. He turned the natives from their barbarous habits of singing and laughing to the vigorous sanity, the Pep and Punch and Go, of the North; he taught them to work in factories, to wear Klassy Kollege Klothes, and to shout, “Oh, you baby doll, watch me gather in the mazuma.” He changed nature itself. A mountain which had borne nothing but lilies and cedars and loafing clouds was by his Hustle so inspirited that it broke out in long wooden sheds, and piles of iron ore to be converted into steamers to carry iron ore to be converted into steamers to carry iron ore.
One and only one
“Essentially, I think, you are like myself, Carol; you want to go back to an age of tranquillity and charming manners. You want to enthrone good taste again.”
“Just good taste? Fastidious people? Oh—no! I believe all of us want the same things—we’re all together, the industrial workers and the women and the farmers and the negro race and the Asiatic colonies, and even a few of the Respectables. It’s all the same revolt, in all the classes that have waited and taken advice. I think perhaps we want a more conscious life. We’re tired of drudging and sleeping and dying. We’re tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists. We’re tired of always deferring hope till the next generation. We’re tired of hearing the politicians and priests and cautious reformers (and the husbands!) coax us, ‘Be calm! Be patient! Wait! We have the plans for a Utopia already made; just give us a bit more time and we’ll produce it; trust us; we’re wiser than you.’ For ten thousand years they’ve said that. We want our Utopia NOW—and we’re going to try our hands at it. All we want is—everything for all of us!
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, published 1920