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Babbitt
Sinclair Lewis


THE NOVEL

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 Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

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.

MAJOR CHARACTERS

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?"

  • 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.

OTHER CHARACTERS

  • MAY ARNOLD

    May Arnold is a middle-aged widow with whom Paul Riesling is having an affair. Babbitt sees the pair together in Chicago.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • DR. A. I. DILLING

    Dr. Dilling is Mrs. Babbitt's surgeon and the leader of the Good Citizens' League.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • SIDNEY FINKELSTEIN

    Finkelstein is a clothing buyer and a member of the Athletic Club.

  • STANLEY GRAFF

    A salesman for Babbitt-Thompson Realty, Graff is fired for dishonesty but accuses Babbitt of being just as dishonest.

  • HEALEY HANSON

    Hanson is a saloon owner who sells Babbitt illegal liquor.

  • ORVILLE JONES

    Jones is a laundry owner who is invited to the Babbitt's dinner party.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • CONRAD LYTE

    Lyte is a greedy speculator who is one of Babbitt's best clients.

  • THERESA MCGOUN

    Theresa McGoun is Babbitt's highly efficient secretary. He briefly considers having an affair with her.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • MIKE MONDAY

    Monday is a prizefighter turned famous evangelist. He's based on a real evangelist of the 1920s, Billy Sunday.

  • 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.

  • CARRIE NORK

    Carrie Nork is a spinsterish member of the Bunch.

  • JAKE OFFUTT

    Offutt is a crooked political boss. He plots shady business deals with the help of Babbitt's father-in-law.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • LUCAS PROUT

    Prout is a conservative mattress manufacturer, who with Babbitt's help is elected mayor.

  • PROFESSOR JOSEPH K. PUMPHREY

    Professor Pumphrey is the owner of the Riteway Business College and a member of the Athletic Club.

  • IDA PUTIAK

    Ida Putiak is an empty-headed, teenaged manicurist, whom Babbitt takes out on a disastrous date.

  • SHELDON SMEETH

    Smeeth is the choir director at the Presbyterian Church. He annoys Babbitt with his constant smile and embarrassing lectures about sex.

  • COLONEL RUTHERFORD SNOW

    Colonel Snow is the owner of the Advocate-Times and one of the leaders of the Good Citizens' League.

  • MINNIE SONNTAG

    Minnie Sonntag is a sarcastic young member of the Bunch.

  • EDDIE SWANSON

    Babbitt's neighbor, Swanson is a sales agent for Javelin Motors.

  • LOUETTA SWANSON

    Louetta is Eddie Swanson's bored, flirtatious young wife. She first ignores Babbitt's advances, later responds to them.

  • 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 Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

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.

THEMES

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.

STYLE

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.

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.

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.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


ECC [Babbitt Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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