Winter comes and the town digs in for the season. Miles Bjornstam, the jack-of-all-trades handyman, hires himself out to anyone who needed help. Most people in town either laugh at Miles or hate him; he is a true democrat who calls everyone by their first names. He is known as "The Red Swede" due to his suspected communist leanings. Although many of the inhabitants eschewed winter sports as "old fashioned" in the age of autos, Carol manages to organize a mid-November skating party but a bobsled expedition proves less successful. A skiing party also fails to inspire a follow-up. Still, she enjoys tramping through the countryside with Will on his hunting trips and she glories in the pristine beauty of the season. One night while Will is out on a house call and Bea is off she discovers that she has nothing really to do.
It is taboo for a doctor's wife to have a job, but Carol is a woman with a working brain and nothing to do with it. She had three choices: children, reform the town, or become part of the town by joining a church and all the societies. She wants children someday but not yet, the reforms are on hold but she vows to renew her efforts and, as for becoming part of the town, she isn't sure if the people really like her.
She resolves to attend a meeting of the Jolly Seventeen - the female social center of Gopher Prairie - bridge once a week, supper and bridge with husbands once a month, a dance twice a year. She attends a bridge game at Juanita Haydock's but, unable to play the game, she is marginalized. When she proffers her opinion that the Swede farmers are hard working and brave people the icy derision of the group is immediate. They are shocked to learn that she pays Bea six-dollars a week. Carol meets the town librarian whom she realizes is more interested in preserving the books than lending them. At home she runs to the bedroom and weeps in terror of the matrons.
Carol decides to take an interest in her husband's business, but when she questions him at dinner she finds him uncommunicative and uninspired by his cases. Several days later Vida Sherwin explains, with good intentions, that the town perceives Carol as patronizing and showy. Carol is deeply affected and offended by the realization and barely appreciates Vida's assertion that the town would react the same way to anyone new. That evening Carol cautiously questions her husband as to whether or not she is accepted and he suggests that she should temper her critiques. Also, after proclaiming that in a small town a person is free to do what they want suggests, he suggests that she concentrate her business on his clients.
In the days that follow Carol realizes that the town is watching her. She unconsciously alters her behavior to please them. She dresses more conservatively. The boys who linger outside the drug store, smoking cigarettes and catcalling girls, anger her more than anyone else. They play pool and shoot dice, eat too many sweets and hoot at the romantic parts of movies. They are loud and surly and they are aware of her. Cy Bogart, the worst of the lot, frightens her the most. One evening she hears him and a friend discussing her husband and realizes that Will chewed tobacco before he married. She also learns that the widow Bogart and Juanita Haydock dislike her. Most horrifying she hears the boys discussing her clothes and her body and Cy tells his friend that he once watched her arrange a picture through the window of her house. She flees to her home and closes the drapes.
She resolves to forgive Will for having once been a tobacco chewer and is amused to notice that he chews on the end of his cigar. She briefly wonders if it was a mistake to marry him.
After a brief but happy visit to Will's mother in Lac-qui-Mert, Carol is somewhat renewed and ready to face the denizens of Main Street. She wonders how they can all be so satisfied with the status-quo. Carol comes to increasingly rely upon Bea as a friend. Without disrupting the servant/employer relationship they become close and Bea's admiration for Carol is like that of a freshman for a junior.
Carol socializes only minimally. When Kennicott leaves for three days to perform an operation Carol refuses to budge from her lonely house on the evening of the Jolly Seventeen. She decides to prepare a tea party in case someone visits. After the tea gets cold she lies upon the couch sobbing from loneliness.
That evening she resolves to take up the aborted plan to reform Gopher Prairie, she muses that Guy Pollack might be less drab if a girl kissed him and wishes she could combine Pollack's artistic impulses with her husband's confidence. She decides to begin reading poetry to Will.
The second day of Will's absence Carol takes a walk in the frigid weather. She hikes to a hillside and looks down on the lonely, snowbound town. She wishes there were whimsical lights and wise chatter. She starts home through the slum part of town known as "Swede Hollow" where Miles Bjornstam, who sits in front of his tarpaper shack smoking a pipe, hails her. He criticizes the Jolly Seventeen and explains that he is the town pariah because he is poor and doesn't envy the rich. She accepts his invitation to warm up inside his shack and she is flattered by his assumption that she can do whatever she wants. She stays an hour in his simple but cozy dwelling. He tells her how he recently turned down the rich banker Ezra Stowbody's order to saw some woo. Miles admits that he is foolish but he's proud of his independence. Renewed by Bjornstam's suggestion that she kick the town in the face, Carol returns home and plays Tschaikowsky loudly on the piano.
Kennicott returns that night and the next day the townspeople are nice. Raymie sells her a dainty pair of patent leather slippers he had saved especially for her. Guy Pollack stops by that evening for a cribbage game. Carol is happy again. Several nights later she tries to read poetry to her husband but when she notices him suffering she relents and suggests they go to the movies where she laughs heartily and honestly with the rest of the crowd at the buffoonery on the screen.
She learns bridge and returns to the Jolly Seventeen.
Carol attends a meeting of the Thanatopsis Society and is disappointed to find that the women, instead of exploring English poetry as promised, do nothing more than offer opinionated summaries of the poet's lives. Carol does her best not to be patronizing and, after offering some suggestions, is elected a member. At the meeting she realizes that Gopher Prairie has a City Hall and decides that that edifice will be the basis of her reform movement.
The next day she examines the dilapidated City Hall and then goes to the small library where she flatters the librarian, Miss Villets, into showing her the magazines. She pores through the magazines for images of beautiful small towns. Her plan is to use the Thanatopsis society to reform the appearance of the town beginning with the City Hall. Carol enthusiastically presents her idea to Mrs. Leonared Warren the Congregational Church's minister's wife and influential member of the Thanatopsis Club. Mrs. Warren suggests that a new church building as a more worthy project. Two days later Carol presents the idea to the school superintendent's wife, Mrs. George Edwin Mott, who suggests that a new school building would be best. Carol admits that the town needs a new school building but Maud Dyer shoots down the idea in favor of her husband's scheme for an armory.
One spring day Carol visits the poorly furnished room maintained by the Thanatopsis club for the wives of farmers to use while their husband's conduct business in town. She is horrified and her reforming zeal returns. At the next Thanatopsis meeting she approaches Mrs. Champ Perry who explains the hardships that she and her husband endured crossing the prairie. Mrs. Perry declares that the town is fine the way it is. Mrs. Lyman Cass, the wife of the flour-mill owner, observes that the town has no money for a new town hall and taxes are already too high.
Spring brings rain and mud. Carol approaches the Dawsons, the richest people in town, and suggests that they put up the money for a new town hall. They are, of course, not interested. She meets Miles Bjornstam on the street and he agrees that the town needs improvements. He explains, however, that he doesn't want any of Dawson's money as a gift since it rightfully belongs to the workmen who have made him rich. At the next Thanatopsis meeting the group ridicules Carol's suggestion that the club should do something for the poor.
One pleasant day Carol walks into the countryside and encounters Miles Bjornstam cooking over a fire at a gipsy camp. Miles and his partner Pete are leaving for a summer of horse trading to the west and Miles humorously extends an invitation for her to join them. She says goodbye and returns to town. The summer arrives with stifling heat and Carol and Will escape to their newly purchased summer cottage (which is little more than a comfortable shack) by the lake. Carol swims and gossips with the ladies by day and in the evenings their husband's motor out from the town. Carol is happy that summer but in September the families return to the drab town. Carol develops an enthusiasm for the spirit of the pioneers and decides that if she can't push the town into the future perhaps she can resurrect some of its noble past. She calls on the two pioneers that she knows - Mr. and Mrs. Champ Perry. She is initially charmed but their opinionated proselytizing about society's problems wears thin. Miles Bjornstam returns from Montana.
These chapters alternatively chronicle Carol's failed attempts to change Gopher Prairie - whether trying to convince her husband to like poetry, erecting a new city hall, uplifting the women's study group or trying to convince the matrons to engage in winter sport - which backfire when Vida Sherwin exposes the town's disdain for her impulsiveness. Her subsequent attempt to adopt the personae of the Nice Married Woman backfires when she realizes that her views are at loggerheads with those of the town's matrons. Her attempt to retreat from the town leaves her feeling lonely. She interviews the Perry's hoping to reinvigorate her passion by discovering the town's past but finds their perspective as biased and petty as the rest of the town. Though Carol is unable to commit to the radicalism of Miles Bjornstam's socialism she recognizes in him a true, unbiased friendship. During this section the narrator lambasts the denizens of Gopher Prairie for the abhorrence of change as expressed through a thinly veiled cynicism of civic improvement, the working class and aesthetic improvement.
Ironically, the town folk readily embrace technology such as the telephone and practically enshrine the automobile even as they eschew "old fashioned" pursuits like skiing and ice skating. During the course of these chapters Carol begins to feel isolated and recognizes the dreadful presence of death in the moral poverty of the small town. Here too are the her first allusions to escape, particularly when Miles Bjornstam facetiously invites her to travel with him that summer and she replies that one day she just might do it.