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Arbeit: If you go to any large dictionary and open it to the "B" section, you'll find two definitions that didn't exist before 1922: Babbitt--an uncultured, conformist businessman; Babbittry--smugness, conventionality, and a desire for material success. These words have become part of our vocabulary, thanks to Sinclair Lewis. Few authors in American literature have done what Lewis did in his novel about a middle-aged realtor: in George F. Babbitt he gave the world a character so vivid and indestructible that the name has come to stand not just for a single fictional character but for many American businessmen of that era as well. In some ways Sinclair Lewis was himself much like Babbitt--midwestern, ambitious, occasionally loud, sometimes obnoxious, and insecure.
Harry Sinclair Lewis was born on February 7, 1885, in the small town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. His father was a physician, devoted but rather harsh to his son. In later years, Lewis would describe his childhood in the prairie town as a happy series of Tom Sawyer adventures, but others remembered his life there differently. He was a homely boy, too skinny, with bright red hair and bad skin. He was no good at sports. Worse, he lived in the shadow of an athletic older brother who could do all the things Harry couldn't. Perhaps it was the insecurity Lewis felt that made him begin to write not the fiction that would one day bring him fame, but verse modeled after the works of the British poet Tennyson, full of the romance and adventure Lewis could not find in Sauk Centre.
Anxious to escape, at seventeen he convinced his father to send him to Yale, rather than to the nearby University of Minnesota. He found, though, that he didn't fit in any better there than he did in Sauk Centre. His talent as a writer earned him a place as editor of the college literary magazine, but he had few friends. His classmates, by and large, were Eastern aristocrats who had little to say to a small-town doctor's son. By his junior year, Lewis was fed up enough to quit school and join a socialist commune being formed by writer Upton Sinclair. But his interest in socialism was at best lukewarm (though you can clearly see a lingering distrust of business and an admiration for labor unions in Babbitt). After six months he left to board a ship for Panama, where he hoped to find work building the canal. No jobs were to be had, and he returned to Yale, graduating a year late. Now came nearly a decade of dead-end jobs and constant traveling. Lewis knew he wanted to be a writer. But what would he write and how would he earn a living while writing it? He tried journalism in Iowa, in New York, in California. While in California he sold ideas for adventure stories to an already established young author named Jack London. He returned to New York and worked for various publishing companies. He married. Wherever he was, whatever job he held, he was writing--first, short stories that he began to sell to magazines, and next, in 1912, a boy's adventure book called Hike and the Aeroplane. Then came novels: Our Mr. Wrenn (1914), The Trail of the Hawk (1915), The Innocents and The Job (both 1917), and Free Air (1919). None of these attracted much attention at the time, nor are they read much today. But they were preparation for the books that would make Lewis world famous.
The first of these was published in 1920. Main Street told the story of Carol Kennicott, a doctor's wife in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, who longed for the culture and sophistication she thought existed in the glittering cities of the East. Gopher Prairie bore a strong resemblance to Sauk Centre, and--as Lewis himself later admitted--except for her sex, Carol Kennicott bore a strong resemblance to the young Sinclair Lewis. Both felt trapped among people who cared little for music or art or literature--or for anything except gossip and money.
Main Street created a sensation. Traditionally, Americans liked to believe their small towns were the centers of national virtue. But here was a book saying that small-town folk were mostly ignorant bigots, the small town itself a trap few could escape. All across the country, people asked themselves, Are we really this bad? Main Street was praised and attacked--and was purchased by the tens of thousands. Lewis became America's best-known author.
The stage was set for Lewis's second triumph. He wrote his publisher that his next novel would be "the story of the Tired Businessman, the man in the Pullman smoker, of our American ruler, of the man playing golf at the country club, in Minneapolis, Omaha, Atlanta, Rochester." His main character would be "all of us Americans at 46, prosperous but worried, wanting--passionately--to seize something more than motor cars and a house before it's too late."
To write the story of this businessman, Lewis went to Cincinnati, which became the model for the medium-sized American city that is Babbitt's setting. He worked much as a sociologist or reporter might work, traveling, interviewing, filling notebooks with his observations. He visited athletic clubs, attended lodge meetings, went to church services, all to become familiar with the life that a George F. Babbitt might lead. Before Lewis had begun to write a word of his story, he had already created complete biographies of his fictional characters and drawn maps of his imaginary city of Zenith. This thoroughness insured that his book would become a portrait not just of one man but of an entire society in that era.
Babbitt was published in September of 1922, and it became the most talked-about book of the year. Once again, Lewis had struck a sensitive nerve.
Lewis saw that America was changing in the 1920s. It was, in fact, well on its way to becoming the urban, industrial nation it is today. The small towns he had written about in Main Street were dying. Americans were moving to the cities, working in offices rather than on farms, driving automobiles, going to the movies. They were proud of being modern. But to Lewis the new America was even more of a nightmare than the old one had been. Zenith, "the zip city," is full of pep but empty of intelligence. Instead of art, it has advertising. Instead of religion, it has boosterism--loud, mindless self-promotion. Worst of all, as Babbitt to his sorrow learns, in Zenith everyone must conform. Not only do its residents buy the same davenports (sofas) and automobiles, but they think the same thoughts. They're terrified of radicals, foreigners, different ideas in general.
Lewis wasn't the only literary figure of the 1920s critical of American life. Writers like Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were making some of the same attacks, and many readers believe they made them with more skill and intelligence. But no other writer seemed to know the American business world and American middle-class life as intimately as Lewis knew it. This knowledge was one of the main reasons for Babbitt's success. As many readers have noted, Babbitt is not at its heart a realistic novel. Lewis frequently selects his evidence to make Babbitt and Zenith appear as bad as possible. Because he portrayed the surfaces of middle-class American life so accurately, however, he convinces us that his exaggerated satiric attack on that life is accurate. If some of Lewis's readers protested that Babbitt's world was too horrible to be true, far more feared that Lewis's portrait was too correct in all its details not to be true.
Another reason for Babbitt's success is its humor. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, Babbitt is a very funny book. Lewis was a satirist--he wanted us to laugh as he went on the warpath. Like one of his favorite writers, Dickens, he created characters that were often humorous caricatures, and like Mark Twain he depended on exaggerated everyday speech to make those caricatures live. (In fact, Lewis was so good at imitating Babbitt and so fond of performing his imitations that one friend complained that being with him was like being with a tape recorder you couldn't turn off.) Of course, Lewis could have written a bitter and humorless attack on Babbitt and all he stood for. But he didn't want to do that, because, as he later admitted, he liked Babbitt--at least in part. He was fully aware of Babbitt's absurdity but he couldn't bring himself to be utterly harsh with him. After all, Babbitt represents not just one man but much of what Lewis felt was middle-class America; and Lewis was too much the child of that America to be able to condemn Babbitt completely.
The 1920s saw Lewis at the pinnacle of his career. He followed Babbitt with Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929), all widely praised best-sellers. In 1926 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, but he refused it, possibly out of annoyance that he hadn't received it earlier for Main Street or Babbitt. In 1930 he won and accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first American ever to receive the honor.
But the years following the Nobel Prize were not happy ones. He had divorced his first wife and married the well-known journalist Dorothy Thompson; he would divorce her as well. He began to drink heavily. His reputation as a writer declined as critics began to favor younger authors like Ernest Hemingway, and as Lewis published a string of novels inferior to his earlier works. His last years were filled with hectic traveling. He was in Rome, Italy, when he died on January 10, 1951.
Sinclair Lewis's greatest creation, however, has lived on. Today's Babbitt might be selling computers rather than houses, and no doubt the automobile he now worships is sleeker than the 1920 model. But he still worries about keeping up with the neighbors, and he gets much of what he thinks from advertisements and newspaper headlines. (Today he can also watch television.) He remains a symbol of all that is stupid, ridiculous, and funny--and, occasionally, sad and noble--about many of us in America.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THE PLOT
It's April 1920. Above the morning mist rise the towers of Zenith, a city of 360,000 somewhere in the American midwest. In a suburban house, a forty-six-year-old realtor named George Babbitt wakes, shaves, eats breakfast. Every object he owns is a symbol of his prosperous, respectable life. Yet Babbitt is filled with a discontent, which he takes out on his patient but dull wife, Myra, and on his children, Verona, Ted, and Tinka.
As we follow Babbitt through his day, we see his many--often very funny--failings. Loud, smug, backslapping, he boasts of business ethics but doesn't really know what they are. Yet he's capable of sensitivity, as when he explains his unhappiness to his best friend Paul Riesling. Paul, a once-promising violinist who now sells roofing, says that Zenith's cutthroat competitive ways make people unhappy. He suggests a week in Maine away from businesses and families.
Babbitt's day ends. As Babbitt goes to sleep, Lewis shows us other scenes of Zenith life: the city's idle rich and its struggling poor, its would-be reformers and its cynical politicians. Zenith is modern and prosperous, but it's full of conformist citizens like Babbitt and his friends, who all buy the same products and think the same thoughts.
Social success is as important as business success in Zenith, and when the Babbitts hold a dinner party they invite their most "highbrow" friends, including Boosters' Club president Vergil Gunch and famous poet T. Cholmondeley Frink. But Frink's dreadful verse and the deadly dull dinner conversation prove how little genuine art or wit there is in Zenith. Babbitt persuades his wife to let him go to Maine. The Babbitts then visit the even more unhappily married Rieslings, where Babbitt bullies clever, bitter Zilla Riesling into letting Paul go with him.
The Maine woods make Babbitt and Paul feel young again, and Babbitt vows he'll change his life. But as soon as he's back in Zenith, he's avidly chasing business success and making crooked deals he refuses to admit are dishonest. He aids conservative Lucas Prout's campaign for mayor against the "radical" lawyer Seneca Doane and addresses the Zenith Chamber of Commerce, where in a speech that is unintentionally hilarious but at the same time disturbing, he claims Zenith is the finest city in the world because it contains so many Standardized American Citizens who think and act alike.
Anxious to improve their social standing, the Babbitts invite the wealthy Charles McKelveys to dinner, but the McKelveys aren't interested in acquiring middle-class friends. The Babbitts, for their part, behave equally snobbishly to the lower-class Overbrooks. Zenith, we see, claims to be a place of equality, but its social barriers are impossible to cross. Zenith also claims to be religious, but its religion is more a high-powered business than a faith.
Babbitt seems to go from success to success. But he still worries about business and about his family. While on a business trip to Chicago, he sees Paul Riesling dining with a strange woman. He tries to get Paul to end the affair, but a few weeks later, as Babbitt is glorying in his election as Boosters' Club vice president, he gets word that Paul has shot his wife, Zilla. She survives, but Paul is put into prison, and Babbitt has lost his only friend.
Adrift, Babbitt thinks of having an affair himself. He's attracted to an elegant client, Mrs. Tanis Judique, but instead turns his attentions to a teenaged manicurist--unsuccessfully. He goes to Maine, hoping to find the happiness he found there the year before, but this time sees only the same greed and conformity he sees in Zenith. On the train home, Babbitt bumps into Seneca Doane. This much-hated man surprises Babbitt by seeming intelligent, rational, and humane. Babbitt begins to express sympathy with Doane's liberal views, though without really understanding them.
His new beliefs are soon tested when Zenith is hit with labor strife. While Babbitt's conservative friends demand the strike be halted, Babbitt sides with the workers. Now Babbitt begins to see firsthand the price of any kind of nonconformity in Zenith: his friends grow deeply suspicious of him.
The strike is crushed. Babbitt, still looking for something or someone to give meaning to his life, begins to visit Tanis Judique. Tanis is part of a wild set who call themselves "The Bunch," and when Babbitt is seen with them, his old friends grow more hostile. Then Babbitt commits another "crime": he refuses Vergil Gunch's invitation to join the Good Citizens' League, a group dedicated to stifling opinions it considers too liberal.
Mrs. Babbitt, confused and unhappy about her husband, seeks comfort in the half-baked philosophy of the American New Thought League. Babbitt feels trapped; even after he ends his affair with Tanis, pressure from Gunch and his other conservative friends increases. Join the Good Citizens' League, they demand, and when he again refuses they make him an outcast in his own city, whispering, spying, denying Babbitt both friendship and business.
One night Mrs. Babbitt complains of a pain in her side: appendicitis. The illness terrifies her and Babbitt as well. As they rush to the hospital, he realizes he's too weak to continue his rebellion. Zenith has licked him. He vows loyalty to all the false values he briefly fought: to business, to success, to Zenith.
Mrs. Babbitt recovers. At the end of the book, Babbitt is almost the same man he was at its start--except that now he has no illusions about his dishonest, empty life. When his son Ted shocks the family by eloping, and asks permission to quit college and become a mechanic, Babbitt takes him aside and gives his approval. Perhaps the younger generation can make up for Babbitt's failure--if, unlike Babbitt, Ted can remain unafraid of his family, unafraid of Zenith, unafraid of himself. Then disillusioned father and still-hopeful son march in to greet their family.
Babbitt is a satiric look both at one man and at an entire society. As such, it's crowded with characters. Some of them, notably George Babbitt, are well developed, possessing the mixture of good and bad qualities that human beings possess. But many others are flat and simple--not flesh-and-blood people so much as representatives of the various social classes and occupations that Lewis wants to satirize.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: GEORGE F. BABBITT
George F. Babbitt, the forty-six-year-old realtor who gives the novel its title, is a figure so vivid he's come to represent the typical prosperous, middle-aged American businessman of the 1920s--conservative, uncultured, smug, conforming, and loud.
Babbitt has dozens of faults, and Lewis the satirist wants you to laugh at every one of them. Babbitt's a booster, loudly promoting his city even when he doesn't understand what he's promoting. He takes pride in being modern, but he knows nothing of the science and engineering he salutes. He praises business ethics, but he isn't above making shady deals with the Zenith Street Traction Company; he talks about leading a moral life but goes to a brothel and indulges in an adulterous affair. Music and art are threatening mysteries, great literature is a letter promoting cemetery plots, and education and religion are merely means of getting ahead in real estate.
And yet Lewis doesn't want us merely to sneer at Babbitt. In fact, as he wrote to a friend, he liked Babbitt--and he wants you to like Babbitt (at least a little) too. At his best, Babbitt is a sympathetic character. He may not understand his children, but he loves them. And his friendship with Paul Riesling is a genuine one.
Most important of all, Babbitt is able to see--though dimly--that his life has serious flaws and that he could be a better man than he is. Much of the book is devoted to showing Babbitt trying to become that man. He flees with Paul Riesling to the woods of Maine, which symbolize for him a masculine world, free and brave. He supports Seneca Doane's political crusade. Unfortunately, he isn't intelligent enough to choose really effective ways of rebelling. (When his attempt at politics fails, he enters into a rather foolish affair with the sophisticated Tanis Judique.) Nor is he strong enough to make his rebellion last.
Babbitt is a comic figure, and Lewis with his gift of parody will have you laughing at each of his absurd business letters, each of his boneheaded speeches. But at the end of the book Babbitt emerges as a pathetic figure as well. He's in the terrible bind of knowing that he needs to change but isn't courageous enough. Is he a more or less hapless victim of the Zenith mentality and morality? Or is he really responsible for his own plight, a man suffering only because he's now forced to follow the standards he demanded of everyone else? That's for you to decide. All Babbitt can hope for as his story ends is that the next generation, represented by his son, Ted, will somehow manage to lead a better life.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: MYRA BABBITT
Plump, matronly Myra Babbitt has been married to George Babbitt for twenty-three years. She is no more a traditional heroine than her husband is a traditional hero. No better educated than Babbitt, she's both a victim of and a willing participant in Zenith's demands for conformity. Her main worries seem to revolve around social status. She wants to give successful dinner parties; she longs to be invited to the home of the wealthy Charles McKelveys.
The Babbitt marriage is a good one by Zenith standards, but as Lewis paints it, it's completely devoid of passion or romance. Babbitt feels trapped by his wife's dullness and turns first to dreaming of the fairy girl of his youth and then to pursuing Mrs. Tanis Judique.
Yet Mrs. Babbitt isn't an unsympathetic character. She is kind. And she deserves credit for having spent twenty years listening to Babbitt's irritable complaints. She can't understand his desire to rebel, but she too sees dimly that her life might have been better.
At the end of the book Mrs. Babbitt suffers an attack of appendicitis that brings the couple together. You may still be having mixed feelings about her. On the one hand, she's one of the forces making Babbitt abandon his rebellion and return to safe, conformist Zenith life. On the other hand, she's been a victim of that conformist life as well. When in the ambulance she suggests it might be better if she did die because no one loves her, you may see, as Babbitt sees, that she hasn't had an easy time of it in Zenith either.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT BABBITT
Like some seventeen-year-olds, Babbitt's son, Ted, is caught up in a rebellion against his father. Babbitt wants Ted to go to college and then on to law school to have the legal career he was denied. Ted would rather be a mechanic. Yet despite these warring goals, father and son are more alike than different. Both are one hundred percent products of Zenith, mistrusting education, valuing material success above all else, more than willing to conform to Zenith's standards. Ted's high school party may seem wild to Babbitt, but it's exactly like every other high school party in the city.
Yet, like Babbitt, Ted has his good side. He does love his father. Away from home--as on their trip to Chicago--they act more like two friends than like father and son. When, at the end of the novel, Ted rebels by eloping with Eunice Littlefield and asking family permission to quit college, Babbitt gives his approval. He hopes that Ted will be strong enough to avoid the mistakes Babbitt made--that he won't be afraid of family, of Zenith, of himself.
From what you've seen of Ted and of Zenith, do you think Babbitt's hopes are justified? Will Ted be able to maintain his honest independence? Or is he destined to become as much a victim of conformity as his father?
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: VERONA BABBITT
Babbitt's twenty-two-year-old daughter considers herself superior to everyone around her. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she reads "genuine literature" (books by Joseph Conrad and H. L. Mencken), thinks of herself as an intellectual, and has vague plans to do social work.
Yet for all her education, Verona may not seem to you much different from the rest of her family or from the rest of Zenith. Her arguments with her brother are petty and childish. Instead of becoming a social worker, she takes a job as a secretary. Though in her political discussions with her fiance, reporter Kenneth Escott, she calls herself a radical, her ideas are only slightly more liberal than Babbitt's. And at the end of the novel, when Ted has eloped with Eunice Littlefield, the now-married Verona strongly disapproves. What can you conclude about Verona when you see she's become such a staunch defender of Zenith's values?
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: SENECA DOANE
This lawyer and reformer (whose first name comes from a noble Roman statesman) is perhaps the one person in Babbitt who makes an intelligent, persistent rebellion against the forces of corruption and conformity in Zenith. He runs, unsuccessfully, for mayor; he supports striking workers; he tries to aid a minister condemned for his liberal views. In a way, Doane and Babbitt have switched places in life. When they were in college together, Babbitt had wanted to become a lawyer who helped the poor, and Doane had wanted to become rich. Babbitt gave up his dream to chase business success, and Doane gave up a lucrative career in corporate law to work with labor unions and other reform movements. What point do you think Lewis was making with the Babbitt/Doane reversal? Is it to show how youthful dreams can change?
Doane understands Zenith more clearly than does any other person in the novel. In fact, Lewis uses Doane to voice many of his own thoughts about the city. Zenith is to be admired for its economic efficiency and for the comfortable life of its middle class, but condemned for its crooked politics and for the conformity it demands.
T. CHOLMONDELEY FRINK
One of Lewis's funniest creations is this poet and advertising "genius" known to his friends as "Chum." Frink, the author of "Poemulations," a newspaper idea column, and "Ads that Add" is Zenith's idea of a great writer. His writing is, of course, terrible, and Lewis has a great deal of fun showing just how bad his work really is. Verses like "I sat alone and groused and thunk, and scratched my head and sighed and wunk" are all the evidence we need of the low level of literature in Zenith.
Yet Frink, like so many others in Babbitt, may win at least a little sympathy from you because he is a victim of failed dreams. One foggy night Babbitt observes Frink staggering drunkenly down the street. "I'm a traitor to poetry," Frink shouts--and it's the truth. He thinks he could have been a serious writer; instead he sold his talents to the highest bidder. It's a sadly common fate in Zenith.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: VERGIL GUNCH
Vergil Gunch, coal dealer, president of the Boosters' Club and potential Exalted Ruler of the Elks, is at the start of Babbitt everything Babbitt himself would like to be. Gunch is Babbitt at his most extreme--loud, full of jokes, financially successful--but he is not plagued by any of the doubts that burden Babbitt. But because those doubts make Babbitt in many ways a sympathetic character, without them Gunch is in many ways a monster. Once Babbitt begins to rebel against Zenith by supporting Seneca Doane and by having an affair with Tanis Judique, it's Gunch he most fears. And for good reason--Gunch is always whispering about him, spying on him. Gunch's ugly name signals his moral ugliness.
Gunch does have his good side, as Zenith has its good side. His hospital visits to the ailing Mrs. Babbitt show that friendliness does exist in Zenith, and that it can be a comfort. But Lewis never lets us forget that Gunch's friendliness is basically shallow, because it extends only to people who are exactly like himself. Gunch represents Zenith at its meanest. When at the end of the book Babbitt once again becomes his friend, it's another token of Babbitt's final defeat.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: TANIS JUDIQUE
A pretty, elegantly dressed widow of not-quite middle age, Tanis Judique enters Babbitt's life when she comes to look for an apartment. Babbitt is immediately attracted to her, but not until he makes an unsuccessful pass at a young manicurist, and fails as a political rebel, does he take the enormous--and in Zenith, dangerous--step of having an affair.
Compared to Babbitt, Tanis is cultured and well educated. But in some ways she isn't that superior to the rest of Zenith. She snobbishly hopes that Babbitt belongs to the elite Union Club. Her friends, who call themselves "The Bunch," like to believe they're brave rebels against Zenith society, but in fact they're as flighty and thoughtless, and probably as foolish, as any member of the Booster's Club.
Eventually, Babbitt begins to think of Tanis as dull and unattractive, little better than his wife, and he breaks off the affair. When, in a moment of desperation, he returns to see her, she is cool and distant toward him.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: ZILLA RIESLING
Zilla Riesling, Paul Riesling's wife, is another of the unhappy, would-be rebels in Babbitt. An intelligent, witty woman, she sees Zenith for the dull, conformist place it is and isn't afraid to say so. Yet just as her husband Paul's insight becomes self-pity, Zilla's becomes bitterness. She and Paul turn on each other, making their lives more miserable than they already were.
Paul first deals with Zilla by having an affair; then, enraged, he shoots her. She survives, but when some months later Babbitt visits her, she's a changed woman. Once blowsy, though lively, and attractive, she's now "bloodless and aged," and "dreadfully still." She's become a devout follower of the Pentecostal Communion Faith, but religion, far from teaching her Christian charity, has only increased her bitterness. She claims she's found peace, but Babbitt gives an accurate analysis: "Well, if that's what you call being at peace, for heaven's sake just warn me before you go to war, will you?"
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: PAUL RIESLING
Paul Riesling is Babbitt's best--perhaps his only true--friend. In some ways, he's the most extreme example of the damage Zenith inflicts on its citizens, of the crippling disappointments they suffer when their personal dreams are sacrificed to Zenith's demands for commercial success. Once a promising violinist, Riesling had hoped to study music in Europe. Instead, he's a roofing manufacturer, unhappily married, playing his violin only for friends.
Riesling is one of the most intelligent characters in the novel. His thoughts about Zenith--that it is a place of cutthroat competition and conformity, where one-third of the people are openly miserable and another third secretly unhappy--are similar to Lewis's own views. Still, some readers have found him an unsympathetic character in some ways. Paul blames his wife, Zilla, for all his suffering and seems to ignore the fact that he has made her suffer too. When at last his rage and depression lead him to shoot Zilla, he realizes too late she deserved his understanding more than his anger. Intelligent critic of Zenith, or self-pitying weakling? Victim or criminal? How do you see Paul?
After Paul is sent to prison he virtually disappears from the novel. With him goes the one relationship Babbitt truly valued. That loss sets the stage for Babbitt's own open rebellion.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: MAY ARNOLD
May Arnold is a middle-aged widow with whom Paul Riesling is having an affair. Babbitt sees the pair together in Chicago.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: KATHARINE "TINKA" BABBITT
Tinka is Babbitt's ten-year-old daughter. Because she's too young to have been spoiled by life in Zenith, she gives Babbitt comfort when the rest of his family irritates him.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: FULTON BEMIS
Bemis is a railway clerk; he and Babbitt are the two male, middle-aged members of the Bunch, Tanis Judique's group of friends.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: DR. A. I. DILLING
Dr. Dilling is Mrs. Babbitt's surgeon and the leader of the Good Citizens' League.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: SIR GERALD DOAK
A visiting British millionaire, Sir Gerald is much entertained by society hostesses like Lucile McKelvey, who assume he's interested in art and culture. In fact as Babbitt happily discovers when he befriends Doak in Chicago, Doak is as concerned with profits and as ignorant of art as any Zenith businessman.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: SAM DOPPELBRAU
Doppelbrau is Babbitt's neighbor. Babbitt dislikes him for his drunken noisy parties. Later, the rebellious Babbitt becomes a participant in those parties.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THE REVEREND JOHN JENNISON DREW
Reverend Drew is the pastor of the Chatham Road Presbyterian Church. Drew represents the way religion in Zenith has been corrupted by business. He runs his church like a successful corporation, and he invites Babbitt to use business techniques to increase Sunday School attendance.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: WILLIAM WASHINGTON EATHORNE
Eathorne is the head of Zenith's oldest and richest family. Banker Eathorne is to Babbitt an awe-inspiring figure. His somber, dignified manner is very different from the backslapping joking of Babbitt and his Boosters' Club friends, but he's just as profit-hungry and unethical as the rest of the Zenith business community.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: KENNETH ESCOTT
Escott is a young reporter on the Zenith Advocate-Times. Escott is hired to promote Reverend Drew's Presbyterian Church. Like Verona Babbitt, he considers himself a "radical," and their shared beliefs lead to romance and marriage. But Escott is hardly more liberal than Babbitt, and no more honest: he abandons his journalistic ideals to take a high-paying job.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: SIDNEY FINKELSTEIN
Finkelstein is a clothing buyer and a member of the Athletic Club.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: STANLEY GRAFF
A salesman for Babbitt-Thompson Realty, Graff is fired for dishonesty but accuses Babbitt of being just as dishonest.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: HEALEY HANSON
Hanson is a saloon owner who sells Babbitt illegal liquor.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: ORVILLE JONES
Jones is a laundry owner who is invited to the Babbitt's dinner party.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: EUNICE LITTLEFIELD
Eunice is the seventeen-year-old daughter of Howard Littlefield. Eunice is a carefree, movie-mad girl who represents some of the ways America's youth was changing in the 1920s. At the end of the novel she elopes with Ted Babbitt.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: HOWARD LITTLEFIELD
One of Babbitt's neighbors, Littlefield has a Ph.D. in economics and delights in showing off his knowledge. Yet most of what he knows is petty and dull, and his opinions are no more thoughtful than the opinions of any other Zenith businessman.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CONRAD LYTE
Lyte is a greedy speculator who is one of Babbitt's best clients.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THERESA MCGOUN
Theresa McGoun is Babbitt's highly efficient secretary. He briefly considers having an affair with her.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHARLES MCKELVEY
A college classmate of Babbitt, McKelvey is now a wealthy, powerful, not very honest contractor who represents the rising American aristocracy. The Babbitts invite the McKelveys to dinner only to discover that the McKelveys are not interested in having middle-class friends.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: LUCILE MCKELVEY
Lucile is Charles McKelvey's wife. She considers herself superior to the middle-class Babbitts, preferring to entertain English aristocrats like Sir Gerald Doak.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: MIKE MONDAY
Monday is a prizefighter turned famous evangelist. He's based on a real evangelist of the 1920s, Billy Sunday.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: OPAL EMERSON MUDGE
Opal Mudge is a field-lecturer of the American New Thought League. She gives a ridiculous speech on "Cultivating the Sun Spirit" to an audience that includes the enthusiastic Mrs. Babbitt and the irritated Babbitt.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CARRIE NORK
Carrie Nork is a spinsterish member of the Bunch.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: JAKE OFFUTT
Offutt is a crooked political boss. He plots shady business deals with the help of Babbitt's father-in-law.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: ED OVERBROOK
Overbrook is an unsuccessful college classmate of Babbitt. He and his wife are prevented by class barriers from becoming the Babbitts' friends, just as those barriers prevent the Babbitts from becoming the McKelveys' friends.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: JOE PARADISE
Paradise is a wilderness guide in Maine. He disappoints Babbitt by showing himself to be as lazy, profit hungry, and ignorant of nature as any Zenith businessman.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: LUCAS PROUT
Prout is a conservative mattress manufacturer, who with Babbitt's help is elected mayor.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: PROFESSOR JOSEPH K. PUMPHREY
Professor Pumphrey is the owner of the Riteway Business College and a member of the Athletic Club.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: IDA PUTIAK
Ida Putiak is an empty-headed, teenaged manicurist, whom Babbitt takes out on a disastrous date.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: SHELDON SMEETH
Smeeth is the choir director at the Presbyterian Church. He annoys Babbitt with his constant smile and embarrassing lectures about sex.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: COLONEL RUTHERFORD SNOW
Colonel Snow is the owner of the Advocate-Times and one of the leaders of the Good Citizens' League.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: MINNIE SONNTAG
Minnie Sonntag is a sarcastic young member of the Bunch.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: EDDIE SWANSON
Babbitt's neighbor, Swanson is a sales agent for Javelin Motors.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: LOUETTA SWANSON
Louetta is Eddie Swanson's bored, flirtatious young wife. She first ignores Babbitt's advances, later responds to them.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: HENRY T. THOMPSON
Thompson is Babbitt's father-in-law and partner. His continued dealings with Jake Offutt prove that the older generation in Zenith is no more honest than are Babbitt and his peers.
Babbitt takes place in Zenith, an imaginary city of 360,000 in the American Midwest. Zenith is more than just the novel's setting, though. Because Lewis wanted Babbitt to portray not just one man but an entire society, Zenith is in some ways as important a character as Babbitt himself and is presented in as much satiric detail. And just as Lewis wanted the character Babbitt to stand for many conformist, success-hungry Americans, he wanted Zenith to stand for all that is admirable and dreadful about a large segment of America--not the biggest cities or the small towns but the places in between where so many of us live. And although on the surface Babbitt may seem to be a realistic novel, at its heart it really isn't that; instead it's a comic attack. As you read the book you'll want to ask yourself in what ways Babbitt is an accurate portrait of America in the 1920s. What do you think has been exaggerated and what left out of Lewis's portrait? In what ways is the portrait still accurate today?
Our first view of Zenith is a stirring one. It seems a city made for giants, fully worthy of its name, which means "highest point." It's one of the engines pulling America into the industrialized twentieth century. The products it manufactures are sold around the world. Its laboratories make it a center of science and engineering. Its prosperity has insured a comfortable life for its middle class.
Yet we see Zenith's failures in even more glaring detail. Zenith lives for business profits; everything else is unimportant. It calls itself religious, but the religion of Mike Monday and John Jennison Drew mainly keeps the working class under the thumb of the rich. Its literature is the hack poetry of T. Cholmondeley Frink. Its municipal government is manipulated by crooked politicians like Jake Offutt and by crooked businessmen like Henry P. Thompson. It calls itself a land of equality, but the lines between social classes--between the rich McKelveys and the middle-class Babbitts, for example--are impossible to cross. It calls itself a democracy, but its most respectable citizens refuse to tolerate views different from their own.
This standardization is probably the worst of Zenith's flaws. On a minor level, it means that downtown Zenith resembles every other downtown in America, and that Babbitt's living room resembles every other living room in Floral Heights. But more importantly, it means that Babbitt's opinions are the opinions of every other member of the Boosters' Club--and that any one who dares to think differently is considered a threat.
Here are the major themes that Lewis treats in Babbitt. They're explored in greater detail in The Story section of this guide.
1. THE TYRANNY OF BUSINESS
In Zenith, business is all important, and the hunger for business success corrupts every part of life. Zenith politics are manipulated for personal gain. Friendships are used to advance careers. Education and culture have no value if they can't earn you money. Even religion has less to do with God than with profits.
Lewis's attacks on the tyranny of business in America are harsh indeed. Do you think they were valid at the time he wrote? Do you think they're still valid now? How important is material success to Americans today? And what are Americans willing to do to achieve it?
2. STANDARDIZATION OF THOUGHT
Zenith has become admirably prosperous because its industries churn out standardized products. Unfortunately, Zenith also churns out standardized citizens, who not only buy the same cars and living room furniture, but get their information from the same sources and think the same thoughts. Worse, they oppose anyone who dares to be different. As you read Babbitt, you'll want to look at the ways Lewis portrays standardization in Zenith. And you'll want to compare Zenith to your world. Where do you get your opinions? What do you think of people whose views differ greatly from yours?
3. THE HYPOCRISY OF RESPECTABLE AMERICANS
Babbitt and his friends think of themselves as highly respectable businessmen. Yet their honesty is limited at best. They praise Prohibition but like to drink. Babbitt preaches business ethics but seldom practices them. He claims to lead a strictly moral life but visits a brothel and begins an affair with Tanis Judique.
4. AN OBSESSION WITH STATUS
Babbitt and most of the other characters are obsessed with social status, in large part because the barriers between classes in Zenith are so difficult to cross. The middle-class Babbitts are denied friendship by the upper-class McKelveys. The Babbitts in turn deny it to the lower-class Overbrooks. Such snobbery goes against the ideal of America as a democratic, classless society. You'll want to ask yourself if such class division still exists in America today.
5. AN OBSESSION WITH MATERIAL POSSESSIONS
Babbitt's world worships things: alarm clocks, cigar lighters, automobiles. What does this say about people when they must depend on material possessions for their sense of self-worth?
6. A LACK OF CULTURE
Zenith is ignorant and intolerant of genuine art and literature. Great poets like Dante and Shakespeare go unread, while business letters, advertisements, and newspaper poetry columns are hailed as works of genius. Lewis vividly condemns Zenith's upside-down cultural values, but some readers have felt that he shares them in part--that he must in part like the literary garbage he parodies to be able to parody it so effectively.
7. THE CORRUPTION OF RELIGION
Religion too has been corrupted by the Zenith business mentality. Evangelist Mike Monday is brought in to fight labor unions, and the Reverend John Jennison Drew runs his church like a highly competitive business. Zilla Riesling's Pentecostal Faith teaches only bitterness.
8. A FAILURE OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS
Most of Babbitt's relationships are, he admits, mechanical, empty, unfulfilling. Though he jokes with his friends at the Athletic Club, he can't reveal his true feelings of restlessness to them; only with Paul Riesling can he really be himself. Babbitt's marriage, too, seems at best a comfortable but passionless routine.
Probably no aspect of Babbitt has prompted so many different opinions as has Lewis's literary style. At its best, it's vivid, fast moving, and funny. One favorite technique is to use overly grand language (often capitalized) to show that Babbitt's life isn't nearly as heroic as Babbitt thinks it is--as when Lewis tells us that Babbitt feels his underwear represents the God of Progress.
Lewis's greatest gift, perhaps, is his ability to mimic his characters' slang-filled speech and parody their ridiculous writings. Babbitt's business letters--"I know you're interested in getting a house, not merely a place where you hang up the old bonnet but a love-nest for the wife and kiddies"--are strings of enthusiastic, incoherent cliches. And there are equally effective parodies of correspondence school advertisements, T. Cholmondeley Frink's dreadful poetry, John Jennison Drew's syrupy sermons, and the mystical nonsense spouted by Opal Emerson Mudge of the American New Thought League.
Despite Lewis's gifts as a parodist, however, many readers have criticized his writing. Even at its most effective, Lewis's satire is seldom subtle. And too often, some readers feel, his strengths become his weaknesses. He skillfully mimics the speech of the 1920s, but dialogue so dependent on the slang of one era can seem out-of-date to later generations. And Lewis is so adept at imitating Babbitt and his friends that he tends to let the imitations go on too long, running the risk of boring the reader just as Babbitt himself bores his audiences with his speeches.
Another flaw, some readers feel, is that Lewis is so eager to give us a broad look at life in Zenith that much of Babbitt--the discussions of the importance of automobiles, for example, or the role of women--reads more like journalism or sociology than like a novel; we get the accurate but superficial acquaintance a newspaper or magazine article might give us, not the depth of understanding a great novel would provide.
Still, Lewis's style reflects his familiarity with Babbitt, Zenith, and a part of America that really hadn't been set down in fiction until he came along. And if Lewis's novel occasionally reads like something his main character might have written, that may help us know George Babbitt all the better.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: FORM AND STRUCTURE
Babbitt is a loosely structured novel. There is a plot--Babbitt's growing discontent with his life in Zenith, and his attempt to change by supporting Seneca Doane and engaging in an affair with Tanis Judique. There are subplots as well: Paul Riesling's desperation, which leads to a shooting; Ted Babbitt's romance and elopement with Eunice Littlefield; the growth of the Good Citizens' League. But many critics have noted that Lewis is really more interested in exploring Babbitt's world in all its variety than he is in creating a tightly woven plot and moving that plot forward. One thing doesn't always lead to another. You could reverse the order of many of the episodes in the book--say, Babbitt's speech to the real estate convention and his church work for the Reverend Drew--without any harm.
Still, Babbitt does possess a structure. Chapters 1 through 7 show a typical day in the life of George Babbitt. Then comes a long middle section--chapters 8 to 19--that examines Babbitt's growing restlessness but also examines various aspects of life in Zenith. We see important social institutions like dinner parties, leisure activities, business conventions, political campaigns, and churches. In a sense, not much happens in this middle section to move the plot forward, but you come away from it with a much greater understanding of the society George Babbitt lives in, the society against which he's about to rebel.
The last section of the book deals with rebellion, Babbitt's and others'. Paul's affair and its aftermath are treated in chapters 20, 21, and 22. Babbitt's first efforts to change his life--by dating Ida Putiak, going to Maine, and supporting Seneca Doane--occupy chapters 23 through 27. His open revolt and its failure are recounted in chapters 28 to 34.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: POINT OF VIEW
Babbitt is an example of a third-person, omniscient narrative. For the most part we experience the story from Babbitt's point of view: We're with him as he wakes up, as he drives to his office, as he has lunch with Paul Riesling. But the opening scene of the novel demonstrates that Lewis the narrator is reserving for himself the right to be omniscient, to show us scenes that Babbitt (who is asleep) couldn't possibly see: a speeding limousine, workers leaving a factory. He'll use the same tactic at the end of Babbitt's day, taking us from Babbitt's house to Lucile McKelvey's parlor, to a Mike Monday revival meeting, to the room where Jake Offutt and Henry T. Thompson are plotting a crooked business deal.
These narrative techniques are very useful for Lewis. The third-person narrative lets him satirize Babbitt's failings more easily than if he had chosen (for example) to have Babbitt narrate the story in the first person. And by making the narrator omniscient he's able to smoothly portray not just one man but an entire society.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 1
Babbitt opens with a view of Zenith, the imaginary midwestern city that is the novel's setting. It's a sweeping, panoramic view--if this were a movie you could imagine the camera gliding from Zenith's business district to its suburbs, moving along the highways and railroad tracks, then zooming in on specific locales: a speeding limousine, an immense new factory.
This opening scene tells you much about what Lewis hopes to do in his novel, and about the way he hopes to do it. Babbitt isn't just a portrait of a single man, but of an entire community. You can get a clue to the way Lewis wants you to understand that community by studying his opening paragraphs. The name of the city itself, Zenith, is significant. Zenith means the highest point, the greatest achievement--surely a proud name for a city to have. And Zenith is proud. It isn't like older cities whose buildings are citadels devoted to war or cathedrals devoted to religion. Zenith's shining towers are devoted to business, devoted to the new.
This new city has art, represented by the limousine full of Little Theater actors speeding home from a rehearsal. But the fact that their rehearsal was a drunken one makes you wonder how seriously this city takes art. (The sorry state of art and literature in Zenith will be a theme repeated throughout Babbitt.)
Zenith also has economic power. Its telegraph wires connect it to Peking and Paris; the goods it manufactures are sold in the Middle East and in Africa. Modern, successful Zenith seems a city fit for giants, Lewis says. We'll soon see if those giants really exist.
NOTE: BABBITT AND MODERN AMERICA In his first success, Main Street, published two years before Babbitt, Lewis satirized life in the typical American small town. Now, in the opening paragraphs of Babbitt he announces he's going to deal with the post--World War I America that has replaced the small town. This typical new America is urban, industrial, and prosperous. It's the America, indeed, that many of us still live in today--a fact you should keep in mind as you read the book.
Lewis takes you inside one Zenith residence, the home of realtor George F. Babbitt. Babbitt is above all a comic, satirical work, and as Lewis begins to describe his main character, his satire grows sharp. Zenith from a distance may look like a city made for giants, but Babbitt is anything but a giant. He's pink, plump-faced, well-off--not because he's creative but because he knows how to sell houses to people for more than they can pay.
But Babbitt himself isn't entirely comfortable with his life. He dreams of a fairy girl who'll see him not as a middle-aged realtor but as a heroic youth.
Grumpily Babbitt gets out of bed. He's suffering from a hangover, but he's also suffering from a deeper discontent. That discontent will become the major theme of the novel. Babbitt looks out at his yard, then goes into his bathroom and shaves. These actions are simple, everyday ones, but through them we see one of Lewis's main criticisms of Babbitt's life. It's a life that puts enormous importance on things. Babbitt's alarm clock represents all that is modern, advertised, and expensive. His yard is the neat yard of every successful Zenith businessman. His bathroom is glittering. In all these careful descriptions, Lewis is making fun of America's passion for material objects. It's a passion that certainly continues today. If Babbitt were set in our time, George Babbitt would probably be the proud owner of a video cassette recorder and a home computer.
If Babbitt is an unlikely hero, the dull and matronly Myra Babbitt is just as unlikely a heroine. Still, you may find it hard not to feel a little sympathy for her this morning. Not only must she apologize to Babbitt for his headache, but she must pretend to listen to his discussion of suits that--it's clear--has been repeated every morning for the last twenty years.
Mrs. Babbitt goes down to breakfast and Babbitt lingers upstairs, gazing out at downtown Zenith. His irritation disappears as he sees the city skyline. The tall buildings represent the business prosperity that is his religion, and he hums an inane song--"Oh by gee, by gosh, by jingo"--as if it were a hymn.
NOTE: BABBITT The first chapter of Lewis's novel gives you a good look at George F. Babbitt and introduces themes you'll see repeated later on. One of the things Lewis wants you to do is laugh at this real estate salesman's irritable boneheaded ignorance. Babbitt knows little about art and literature. (That's shown when he calls William Shakespeare by the name James J.) He and his wife both seem mainly concerned with material possessions and with what other people think of the Babbitts.
Yet there's another side to Babbitt, too, and Lewis wants us to sympathize with this side, at least a little. Babbitt's dream of the fairy child may seem ridiculously sentimental, but it shows that he hopes for a world better than the one he lives in. His plaid blanket reminds him of a camping trip, planned but never made, that represents a chance for freedom. These are the signs that Babbitt may have some rebellious feelings growing within him. We'll see those feelings grow stronger as the book progresses.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 2
Mrs. Babbitt has been married too long to feel any real sympathy for her husband's complaints, Lewis says, but long enough to know she must fake such sympathy. And like the Babbitts' marriage, the Babbitts' house is more fake than genuine, designed more to impress than to be lived in. The rooms are acceptably modern, but nothing in them is quite real--the furniture is "very much like mahogany," and Mrs. Babbitt's toilet articles are "almost solid silver." But the Babbitt house, the narrator comments, is not a home.
The restlessness that Babbitt felt upon awakening stays with him at breakfast. He grows annoyed with his daughter, Verona, just graduated from Bryn Mawr and very sure of her intellectual abilities. Verona wants to do charity work, which to Babbitt is almost socialism--a forbidden belief. Meanwhile, Ted Babbitt is fighting with his sister for use of the car. Their squabble is an exaggerated version of arguments every family has but it makes you wonder if the younger Babbitts are any more intelligent than their parents.
Babbitt now turns his attention to the morning newspaper.
NOTE: STANDARDIZATION OF THOUGHT One of the most important themes in Babbitt is the way American society, though supposedly free and democratic, tells its citizens what they should think. It's able to do that, in large part, because citizens like Babbitt are too lazy to think for themselves. Just as Babbitt's furniture is little different from his neighbors', his ideas too are echoes of the accepted norm.
You'll want to compare Babbitt's world to yours. Do you think most middle-class Americans still tend to share the same political opinions--for example, on relations with the Soviet Union, on taxation, on minorities and women? Do the newspapers and magazines and television of today give you a truer picture of the world than the Zenith Advocate-Times gives Babbitt? Are Americans today better informed, or just as smugly ignorant?
In a gooey, overwritten society column (the first of many newspaper parodies in Babbitt), Babbitt reads about his wealthy college classmate, Charles McKelvey. Though he calls McKelvey a snob, it's clear that he and Mrs. Babbitt both want to be invited to a McKelvey party. We'll see that worries about social status are common in Zenith. Babbitt so sympathizes with his wife's social aspirations that he feels a moment of genuine sympathy. "You're a great old girl, Hon!" he says. But it's a brief moment, and Babbitt covers it up with more characteristic behavior: a complaint.
NOTE: DIALOGUE IN BABBITT When Babbitt talks about having "a lot liver [livelier] times" than a bunch of "plutes" (short for plurocrats, or rich people), it's an example of one of Lewis's favorite literary techniques--that of imitating, and exaggerating for comic effect, the slang-filled speech of ordinary 1920s Americans. Some readers have felt that Lewis overdoes this kind of dialogue. But for other readers, Babbitt's dialogue is responsible for much of the book's vitality and humor.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 3
Babbitt's motor car "was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism." Lewis's inflated language shows that Babbitt's life in fact lacks the poetry and heroism he thinks it possesses. But of course Babbitt isn't alone in idolizing his automobile--sixty years later, many Americans still feel the same way. Lewis wants us to see Babbitt for the shallow man he is, but he also wants us to remember that there may be more than a little Babbitt in each of us, too.
Babbitt has as neighbors the Sam Doppelbraus and the Howard Littlefields. Babbitt dislikes the Doppelbraus. They're Bohemian--a word that usually describes artists who disregard society's standards, but that Babbitt uses to criticize anyone who has fun in a way he doesn't approve of. (Later we'll see his attitude toward the Doppelbraus, and Bohemians, change.) Babbitt admires Littlefield, even though he is an intellectual, a member of a group Babbitt normally distrusts. But even with a Ph.D., Littlefield is as dull and conventional and devoted to business as Babbitt is--no wonder Babbitt likes him.
NOTE: NAMES IN BABBITT Like one of his favorite authors, Charles Dickens, Lewis often uses names that hint, sometimes broadly, at the nature of his characters. Because "doppel" in German means "double" and "brau" means "brew," Doppelbrau is a good name for a heavy drinker. Similarly, Howard Littlefield's last name reflects the fact that, for all his education, his field--his area of competence and interest--is small, petty, unimportant. Later we'll meet Vergil Gunch, whose unpleasant-sounding last name is a clue to his personality, and Seneca Doane, whose first name is intended to remind you of the noble Roman statesman. And "Babbitt" itself carries connotations of "rabbit" (timid, mindless), "baby," and "babble." What other names in this book do you find particularly interesting? Why?
Babbitt drives from Floral Heights toward downtown Zenith, stopping for gas and grandly telling the mechanic that what the country needs "first last and all the time is a good, sound, business administration." Howard Littlefield spoke the same words only minutes before--another reminder that Babbitt possesses few ideas that are his own.
Babbitt picks up a rider. Their conversation is strained: in fact, we'll see that many conversations in Babbitt are strained, because in Zenith only certain opinions are permissible. You can gripe mildly about the street car company, but to complain seriously is forbidden--that might be advocating socialism. The only really safe topic is the weather. What is Lewis really doing when he has Babbitt think to himself that his rider "has no originality, no wit"?
As Babbitt approaches downtown Zenith, he's cheered by the fine spring day and by the bustling city. But his upbeat feeling disappears by the time he enters the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company, which he owns with his father-in-law, Henry P. Thompson. Not even the new "right-thinking" watercooler (Lewis's adjective again mocks the importance that material objects have in Babbitt's mind) can cheer him up.
Babbitt dictates a letter to his stenographer, Miss McGoun. Though, of course Babbitt doesn't admit his failings as a writer, any letter actually sent the way he dictated it would be thrown into the trash on arrival. It takes Miss McGoun to make Babbitt's prose intelligible. Next Babbitt turns his attention to a form letter that will be mimeographed by the thousands and sent to customers. Such letters and advertisements are vital to the world of Babbitt. They take the place of genuine literature, and when Babbitt is writing them he becomes in his own mind a Poet of Business.
NOTE: PARODY Just as Lewis enjoys imitating his characters' speech, he takes pleasure in parodying their literary efforts--in exaggerating their faults for comic effect. We already saw one such parody in the society column Babbitt read in chapter 1; Babbitt's advertisements provide other hilarious examples of Lewis's skills as a parodist. Parody is a technique used today by humor magazines such as National Lampoon. You might ask yourself: are today's advertisements any better? How?
His dictation finished, Babbitt lets his mind wander to his pretty stenographer, thinking of her with "a longing indistinguishable from loneliness." The restlessness he feels is turning him toward thoughts of an affair--though it seems he still prefers his fairy child to the flesh-and-blood women around him.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 4
"It was a morning of artistic creation." By now we know Lewis is being ironic--this morning's "masterpiece" is an advertisement for cemetery plots. Babbitt enjoys a similarly ironic moment of "heroism" when he discovers a new way of quitting smoking. As you'll see, Babbitt is always trying to quit smoking, without ever succeeding. In fact, this pattern of failed good intentions holds true in other ways as well.
Babbitt telephones his best friend, Paul Riesling. (Throughout the novel you'll see that this friendship is one of the truly fulfilling relationships Babbitt has.) Paul Riesling manufactures roofing, but Babbitt still thinks of him as the promising violinist and poet he was in college, and treats him as a younger brother.
Babbitt spends the rest of the morning working, as Lewis shows us in great detail his moral and intellectual limitations. A real estate salesman might be expected to understand something about architecture, landscape gardening, and economics. Babbitt understands nothing about these subjects. He knows little about Zenith except its real estate prices. The political opinions he reflects on now are as unthinking and inconsistent as those he spouted while reading the morning newspaper: no one should be forced to join a labor union, but everyone should be forced to join the Chamber of Commerce. He supports Prohibition but likes a drink. He preaches ethics but isn't sure what they really are, and he's not so ethical he won't do business with an out-and-out crook, Jake Offutt.
These "ethics" are at work in Babbitt's dealings with the speculator Conrad Lyte. (In a wonderful bit of description, we see that Babbitt isn't the only one in Zenith greedy for material success. Below Lyte's eyes are hollows, "as though silver dollars had been pressed against them and left an imprint"--a superb image of the way Lyte's eyes and mind are focused on money.) Lyte has followed Babbitt's advice to quietly buy land a butcher needs to expand his shop. When the butcher comes to Babbitt and Lyte, they demand for the property twice the going price--and get it. Lewis doesn't want us to feel sorry for the butcher, who will make up his loss by overcharging his customers. He does want us to understand that this is the way "honest" businessmen in Zenith work.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 5
When Babbitt leaves his office, we get a close-up view of the downtown Zenith we saw earlier at a distance. The city represents Lewis's view of the new, modern, industrial America. Everything is standardized, bigness is more important than beauty, and a person's worth comes from the material objects he possesses--in Babbitt's case, expensive ties and an electric cigar lighter (for the cigars he has given up smoking).
Babbitt enters the Zenith Athletic Club, which like so many things in Zenith is an example of false advertising: "It isn't exactly athletic, and it isn't exactly a club." It's a gathering place for businessmen like Babbitt who are prosperous but not members of the city's true elite. That elite belongs to the more exclusive Union Club.
NOTE: CLASS DIVISION Lewis's discussion of the Athletic and Union Clubs picks up a theme that we encountered earlier in Babbitt and that we'll encounter again. Zenith (and by extension, all of America, as Lewis views it) calls itself a democratic and egalitarian society, where everyone from washerwoman to bank president is equal. But in fact the divisions between classes are almost impossible to cross, and Babbitt and his family and friends are always conscious of their social status, always anxious to improve it.
Babbitt greets his friends, Vergil Gunch, Sidney Finkelstein, and Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey (whose position as instructor of