As a potent symbol of escape, trains come to symbolize for Carol the world beyond Gopher Prairie and the confines of Main Street. This facet of the train is underscored by the fact that she first arrives in Gopher Prairie on a train and so it makes sense that the same method will one day convey her away. She muses upon the significance of the trains in Chapter 19 when, while at the lake cottage, she laments that she cannot hear the sound of the locomotives: “Some day she would take a train; and that would be a great taking.” Before she and Hugh can finally take the train and escape to Washington, D.C., however, several others make their escape via rail – most notably Miles Bjornstam who rides the train out of town a broken man. For him, at least, escape equates with defeat.
Sinclair Lewis goes to great rhetorical lengths to impart to the reader his intention that the Main Street of Gopher Prairie in his novel should be taken to symbolically represent the Main Street of all small towns and their common characteristics. “Its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere,” writes Lewis in the prefatory note to the novel. As such, Lewis uses the phrase “Main Street” not simply to refer to the specific road but to a cultural nexus of the time that placed the values of small town society at a premium and eschewed any outside views. In Lewis fiction, the values of small town America are encapsulated within the world of “Main Street” and those who seek to challenge those values are doomed to face extreme censure. With a characteristic note of cynicism Lewis concludes his preface: “Would he not betray himself an alien cynic who should otherwise portray Main Street, or distress the citizens by speculating whether there may not be other faiths?”
The world of drama symbolizes an escape for Carol. That this method of escape ultimately fails her does not prevent her from trying at several points in the novel to realize an escape via the stage. Carol first realizes that the theater can serve as a means to evade the vagaries of Main Street when she travels to Minneapolis with Will to see several experimental plays as a precursor to staging her own production in Gopher Prairie. She is transported by the Yeats piece in particular: she was “transported from this sleepy small town husband and all the rows of polite parents to . . . the ancient gods.” Carol resolves to make the theater her way of improving and enlightening Gopher Prairie but on the opening night of her play she realizes that the material and the cast are terrible.She later tries to find some solace in the purportedly uplifting and intellectually mollifying theater of the Chatauqua but finds only vaudeville amusement instead. Finally, she and Erik Valborg initially connect based on their mutual interest in the theater but this shared interest proves comical when he winds up as a bit part actor in a shabby film. In every case, Carol tries to use the theater as a means of escaping the realities of small town life only to find herself mired in that which she seeks to escape.