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The Innocents (1917): A Synopsis by Sinclair Lewis

The Innocents (1917): A Synopsis by Sinclair Lewis

The Innocents (1917) is a novel by Sinclair Lewis that explores the themes of small-town life, conformity, and the struggle for individuality. In this article, we will provide a brief synopsis of the novel, highlighting its key characters and plot points. Through this synopsis, readers will gain a deeper understanding of the novel’s central themes and the ways in which Lewis uses his characters to explore them.

Plot Summary

The Innocents (1917) is a novel by Sinclair Lewis that tells the story of young protagonist, Carl Ericson, who is a small-town boy with big dreams. Carl is determined to make something of himself and escape the confines of his small town. He sets his sights on attending a prestigious university and becoming a successful lawyer. However, his plans are derailed when he falls in love with a local girl, Maud Dyer. Maud is from a wealthy family and her father disapproves of Carl. Despite this, Carl and Maud continue to see each other in secret. When Maud becomes pregnant, Carl is forced to confront the consequences of his actions and make a difficult decision about his future. The novel explores themes of love, ambition, and the consequences of our choices.

Main Characters

The Innocents (1917) by Sinclair Lewis is a novel that revolves around the lives of two main characters, young lovers Milly Theale and Martin Wade. Milly is a wealthy American heiress who is suffering from a terminal illness, while Martin is a struggling artist who is trying to make a name for himself in the art world. Despite their different backgrounds, the two fall in love and embark on a journey that challenges their beliefs and values. Milly’s illness becomes a central theme in the novel, as it forces the characters to confront their mortality and the meaning of life. Martin’s artistic pursuits also play a significant role in the story, as he struggles to balance his passion for art with his desire to provide for Milly. The relationship between Milly and Martin is complex and nuanced, and their journey is one that will leave readers captivated until the very end.


The setting of “The Innocents” is a small town in the Midwest during the early 1900s. The town is described as being “provincial” and “conservative,” with a strong emphasis on traditional values and social norms. The main character, young Milly Theale, is a wealthy heiress from the East Coast who comes to the town to visit her aunt and uncle. Milly’s arrival disrupts the town’s quiet routine and causes a stir among the locals, who are both fascinated and intimidated by her wealth and sophistication. As the story unfolds, the setting plays a crucial role in shaping the characters’ actions and attitudes, highlighting the tensions between tradition and modernity, wealth and poverty, and individualism and conformity.


One of the main themes in “The Innocents” is the struggle between tradition and modernity. The novel is set in a small Midwestern town where the old ways of life are being challenged by new ideas and technologies. The protagonist, young Miles Bjornstam, is torn between his desire to embrace the future and his loyalty to his family and community. Another important theme is the tension between individualism and conformity. Miles is a free spirit who wants to explore the world and make his own way, but he is constantly held back by the expectations of those around him. The novel also explores the theme of social class and the ways in which it shapes people’s lives and opportunities. Miles comes from a working-class background and struggles to find his place in a society that values wealth and status above all else. Overall, “The Innocents” is a powerful exploration of the human condition and the forces that shape our lives.


Symbolism plays a significant role in “The Innocents” by Sinclair Lewis. The title itself is symbolic, representing the innocence of the young soldiers who were sent to fight in World War I. The story is set in a small town in Minnesota, which symbolizes the isolation and detachment of the American heartland from the rest of the world. The characters in the story also represent different symbols. For example, Clark, the protagonist, represents the innocence and naivety of the young soldiers who were sent to fight in the war. His father, on the other hand, represents the older generation who have experienced war and understand its horrors. The story also uses symbolism to represent the futility of war. The soldiers are sent to fight a war that they do not understand, and their sacrifice is ultimately meaningless. The story’s use of symbolism adds depth and meaning to the narrative, making it a powerful commentary on the human cost of war.

Historical Context

The Innocents, a novel by Sinclair Lewis, was published in 1917, during a time of great social and political change in the United States. The country was in the midst of World War I, and many Americans were grappling with issues of patriotism, nationalism, and the role of the government in society. At the same time, the Progressive Era was in full swing, with reformers pushing for changes in areas such as labor rights, women’s suffrage, and child welfare. Against this backdrop, Lewis’s novel explores themes of innocence, corruption, and the struggle for power and control. As readers delve into the story of young protagonist Clark Gifford and his experiences in the small town of Zenith, they are transported to a world that is both familiar and foreign, a world that reflects the hopes and fears of a nation on the brink of transformation.


The cinematography in “The Innocents” is notable for its use of close-ups and medium shots to convey the emotions of the characters. Director John S. Robertson also employs a variety of camera angles to create a sense of tension and unease, particularly in the scenes involving the mysterious stranger who arrives in town. The use of lighting is also effective in setting the mood, with dark shadows and stark contrasts adding to the film’s eerie atmosphere. Overall, the cinematography in “The Innocents” is a key element in creating a haunting and suspenseful story.


The soundtrack of “The Innocents” is a crucial element in creating the film’s emotional impact. Composed by Carl Davis, the score perfectly captures the mood of each scene, from the lighthearted moments to the more dramatic ones. The use of strings and piano creates a sense of nostalgia and melancholy, reflecting the film’s themes of lost innocence and the passing of time. The soundtrack also features popular songs of the era, such as “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” adding to the film’s authenticity and immersing the audience in the time period. Overall, the soundtrack of “The Innocents” is a masterful work of art that enhances the film’s emotional depth and resonance.

Reception and Criticism

The Innocents (1917) by Sinclair Lewis received mixed reviews upon its release. While some praised the novel for its satirical take on small-town America and its exploration of the hypocrisy of religious institutions, others criticized it for its controversial themes and Lewis’s perceived lack of sympathy for his characters. Despite the criticism, The Innocents went on to become a bestseller and cemented Lewis’s reputation as a leading voice in American literature. Today, the novel is still widely read and studied for its insights into American society and culture.

Legacy and Influence

The Innocents (1917) may not be as well-known as some of Sinclair Lewis’s later works, such as Main Street or Babbitt, but it still holds an important place in American literature. The novel explores themes of conformity, individuality, and the struggle to find one’s place in society. Its portrayal of small-town life and the pressures to conform to societal norms would go on to influence many writers in the years to come. In fact, some have even argued that The Innocents paved the way for the modernist movement in American literature. Its legacy can be seen in works such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Despite being over a century old, The Innocents remains a relevant and thought-provoking read for anyone interested in the complexities of human nature and the societal pressures that shape us.

Comparisons to Other Works

When discussing “The Innocents” by Sinclair Lewis, it is impossible not to draw comparisons to his later works, such as “Main Street” and “Babbitt.” Like these novels, “The Innocents” explores the themes of conformity and the pressures of society on the individual. However, “The Innocents” stands out for its focus on the experiences of young people, particularly the protagonist, Clark. This coming-of-age story is a departure from Lewis’s later works, which tend to focus on middle-aged characters. Additionally, “The Innocents” is notable for its portrayal of small-town life, which would become a recurring theme in Lewis’s writing. Overall, “The Innocents” is a fascinating precursor to Lewis’s later works, and a must-read for fans of his writing.

Adaptations and Remakes

The Innocents (1917) has been adapted several times for both stage and screen. In 1961, the story was adapted into the film The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr. The film received critical acclaim for its atmospheric and haunting portrayal of the story. In 2018, the story was adapted into a stage play by playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, which premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in London. The play received positive reviews for its exploration of the themes of repression and sexuality. The enduring popularity of The Innocents speaks to the timeless nature of its themes and the power of its storytelling.

Trivia and Fun Facts

Did you know that “The Innocents” was originally a play written by William Vaughn Moody? It was first performed in 1911 and was later adapted into a silent film in 1917. The film starred Marguerite Clark and was directed by John S. Robertson. Interestingly, Sinclair Lewis, who wrote the synopsis for the film, was not yet a famous author at the time. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. “The Innocents” is a story about a young woman who is forced to choose between her love for a man and her duty to her family. It is a timeless tale that still resonates with audiences today.

Analysis of Lewis’s Writing Style

Lewis’s writing style in The Innocents (1917) is characterized by his use of vivid imagery and descriptive language. He paints a detailed picture of the small town of Zenith, where the story takes place, and its inhabitants. His use of irony and satire is also prominent throughout the novel, as he critiques the societal norms and values of the time. Additionally, Lewis’s use of dialogue is effective in conveying the personalities and motivations of his characters. Overall, his writing style in The Innocents is engaging and thought-provoking, making it a classic piece of American literature.

Significance of the Title

The title of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, “The Innocents,” holds great significance in understanding the themes and characters of the story. The term “innocents” refers to the young and naive characters who are caught up in the corrupt and materialistic world of the wealthy elite. These characters, such as protagonist Emily Dodsworth, are innocent in their beliefs and values, but are forced to confront the harsh realities of society as they navigate their way through the novel’s plot. The title also speaks to the larger societal issues of the time, as the innocence of America was being lost amidst the greed and corruption of the early 20th century. Overall, the title of “The Innocents” serves as a poignant reminder of the dangers of losing one’s innocence in a world that values wealth and power above all else.

Political and Social Commentary

Sinclair Lewis’ The Innocents (1917) is a powerful commentary on the political and social issues of its time. Set in the small town of Zenith, the novel explores the corrupting influence of money and power on American society. Through the character of young businessman Clark Williams, Lewis exposes the hypocrisy and greed of the upper class, as well as the struggles of the working class to make ends meet. The novel also touches on themes of gender inequality and the role of women in society, as seen through the character of Clark’s wife, Fran. Overall, The Innocents is a thought-provoking and timely work that continues to resonate with readers today.

Religious and Moral Themes

The Innocents (1917) by Sinclair Lewis is a novel that explores religious and moral themes. The protagonist, young and idealistic protagonist, Clark Gifford, is a devout Christian who struggles to reconcile his faith with the harsh realities of the world around him. Throughout the novel, Gifford grapples with questions of morality, justice, and the nature of God. He is forced to confront the hypocrisy of those around him, including his own family, and to question the validity of the religious beliefs that he has always held dear. Ultimately, The Innocents is a powerful exploration of the human condition and the struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world that often seems cruel and indifferent.

Interpretations and Debates

The Innocents (1917) by Sinclair Lewis has been the subject of much interpretation and debate since its publication. Some critics argue that the novel is a scathing critique of American society and its values, while others see it as a celebration of individualism and the American Dream.

One interpretation of the novel is that it is a commentary on the hypocrisy of American society. The characters in the novel are portrayed as being obsessed with money and social status, and are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve these goals. However, their actions often lead to tragic consequences, and the novel suggests that the pursuit of wealth and status can be a destructive force.

Another interpretation of the novel is that it is a celebration of individualism and the American Dream. The protagonist, Clark, is a self-made man who rises from poverty to become a successful businessman. His success is portrayed as a result of his hard work and determination, and the novel suggests that anyone can achieve success if they are willing to work hard enough.

Despite these differing interpretations, one thing is clear: The Innocents is a powerful and thought-provoking novel that continues to resonate with readers today. Whether you see it as a critique of American society or a celebration of individualism, it is a novel that is sure to spark debate and discussion.