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Sinclair Lewis

THE STORY, continued


To ignore his disappointment at the McKelveys' rejection, Babbitt takes refuge in his club meetings. Clubs are important in Zenith, Lewis explains. They promote business contacts. They give people a sense of self-importance.

Still, Babbitt remains irritable, discontented. Even the pleasant evenings at Paul Riesling's house remind him of failed dreams: when Paul plays his violin, he's a lost and lonely man.

Another important part of life in Zenith centers around religion. But the city's devotion to God seems little different from- indeed, almost indistinguishable from- its devotion to business. We've already seen one sorry example of a Zenith religious figure in evangelist Mike Monday. Now we meet the Reverend John Jennison Drew, more pretentious than Monday but hardly more devout- he's proud "to be known primarily as a businessman." Babbitt greatly admires Drew's speaking ability, but his sermon is as full of nonsense as most public speeches in Zenith are.

After the service, Drew asks Babbitt to come to his office. There Babbitt is joined by Chum Frink and by William Eathorne, the seventy-nine-year-old president of the First State Bank of Zenith. Eathorne stands even higher on the social ladder than the McKelveys, for he's had his money longer. Babbitt, in awe of the old man, is delighted when Drew invites him to work with Eathorne on a project to increase Sunday School attendance.

Naturally, Babbitt knows and cares as little about theology as he does about science or art. He believes in Heaven, which he imagines as a good hotel, but he doesn't really believe in Hell. He goes to church mainly because being seen there will help earn him a reputation as a respectable member of the community- an image that's good for business.

In his efforts to increase Sunday School attendance, Babbitt begins investigating the Chatham Road Presbyterian Church as he would a failing company. He approves of the Busy Folks Bible Class because the lessons are as entertaining as a good after-dinner speech. The junior classes, taught by choir director Sheldon Smeeth, embarrass him with their sickly sweet talk of "the perils and glory of sex." Classes in philosophy are dull enough to remind Babbitt of the agonies he suffered attending Sunday School as a youth.

It's with relief that Babbitt discovers the business side of Sunday School- the journals, "as technical, as practical and forever lovely as the real estate columns or the shoe trade magazines." Babbitt has probably never read the Bible (his promise "to read some of it again, one of these days," is a pretty hollow-sounding one), but he can understand talk of pep and of get-up-and-go, and- worst and most hilarious of all- of the "Model for Pupils to Make Tomb With Rolling Door."


The Eathornes are the oldest and wealthiest family in Zenith, their grim, red-brick house symbolizing the power they hold. As much as he dislikes the present Zenith, Lewis is too realistic to romanticize its past. The long-established Eathorne is more polite than the backslapping salesmen at the Athletic Club, but he isn't any less greedy.

Babbitt finds enough courage to offer his suggestions for improving Sunday School attendance- suggestions about as ridiculous and unreligious as we'd expect. Prizes should be awarded to kids who bring in new members, and the prizes shouldn't be "poetry books and illustrated Testaments" but cash or motorcycle speedometers. Other "stunts" include hiring a press agent to plant favorable stories about the church in the local newspaper.

Much to Babbitt's surprise, Eathorne endorses the plans. The two men's styles may be very different, but when it comes to important matters like making money or increasing business, they think very much alike.

As Babbitt drives home, his happiness at impressing Eathorne makes every light in the city seem to glow beautifully. It isn't enough, he tells himself, to be someone like Vergil Gunch. Now he wants to be like Eathorne, powerful but dignified. Lewis hints at the futility of these dreams when Babbitt returns home and Mrs. Babbitt is unable to notice any change in him.

Babbitt hires Kenneth Escott, a reporter on the Zenith Advocate-Times, as press agent for the Sunday School. Today we'd call this arrangement a conflict of interest- reporters should cover the news, not plant favorable stories about people who are paying them to do so. But in Zenith, conflicts of interest are accepted. Babbitt's plan works. The Presbyterian Sunday School becomes the second busiest in Zenith. The Reverend Drew claims it would have reached first place but for the "ungentlemanly and unchristian" tactics of the rival Central Methodist Church. Those tactics probably aren't very different from the Reverend Drew's- Zenith businessmen and men of God both tend to praise competition up until the moment they lose.

Kenneth Escott becomes friendly with Babbitt's daughter Verona. Together they represent the better educated younger generation of Zenith, yet Lewis doesn't leave us feeling they're any more intelligent than their parents. They call themselves radicals, but their views are little more liberal than Babbitt's.

As a press agent, Escott is a success. His articles make Babbitt so well-known that the distinguished William Eathorne accepts his invitation to dinner. This attempt at social climbing, unlike the attempt with the McKelveys, is a success. And because in Zenith social success is always tied to business success, Eathorne later helps Babbitt in yet another shady business deal, quietly lending him money.

The past two chapters have shown that just as real art and literature are almost nonexistent in Zenith, so is real religion. Dr. Drew is indistinguishable from any Zenith businessman, and the magazines that promote Sunday School supplies are indistinguishable from trade journals. When Babbitt advises his son Ted, "I tell you boy, there's no stronger bulwark of sound conservatism than the evangelical church, and no better place to make friends who'll help you gain your rightful place in the community than in your own church home," he's in effect saying he values religion because it's enabled him to form a profitable friendship with William Eathorne.

Compare Lewis's attitude toward religion to yours. Are attempts, like Babbitt's, to popularize it vulgar and out of place, or are they justified because they bring more people into the church? Do you think most people attend church out of a genuine belief in God or because it's the socially respectable (and perhaps profitable) thing to do? What should the relationship between religion and business be?


Babbitt tends to be oblivious to his children until they do something out of the ordinary. Now events force him to pay attention to his son and daughter. Verona Babbitt is spending a lot of time with reporter Kenneth Escott, and Babbitt hopes a romance is developing.

Ted Babbitt disturbs his father more. Like a lot of fathers, Babbitt has hopes for Ted that his son isn't particularly interested in fulfilling. He wants Ted to have the law career he didn't have, but Ted wants only to work on his car and spend time with cute, frivolous, movie-mad Eunice Littlefield.

Throughout the book, Lewis takes pleasure in making fun of Babbitt's many faults. But he doesn't want us to ignore Babbitt's virtues either. Here we see one of those virtues. Babbitt, Lewis says, is an average father, sometimes bullying, opinionated, ignorant. But he has "the eternal human genius for arriving by the worst possible routes at surprisingly tolerable goals." For all his failings, Babbitt genuinely loves his son. We'll see that love playing a part in the book's ending.

Showing Babbitt in his role as sympathetic father is one of the ways Lewis presents him as a well-rounded character, not just a one-dimensional clown or villain. Do you think that Babbitt makes up for his failings by being a well-intentioned father?

Still there is a gap between Ted's generation and Babbitt's, and we see it widen vividly when Ted throws a party for his high school friends. Babbitt hopes the party will be like the ones he remembers from his high school days, but Ted and his friends have different ideas.

Especially in its politics, Zenith may seem to us a very conservative place. But great changes in social custom were occurring in America in the 1920s, notably among the young, and not even conservative, midwestern cities like Zenith were immune. Girls like Eunice, from respectable families, were doing things their mothers never would have dreamed of doing- smoking cigarettes, bobbing their hair, wearing short skirts, and using makeup. Young women and young men both were more open about sex. The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald brilliantly chronicled these changes in stories like "Bernice Bobs Her Hair." Ted's party represents Lewis's attempt to do the same.

You'll notice, though, that Lewis doesn't really want you to think that Ted and his friends are more independent-minded than their parents. Ted's party is "as fixed and standardized as a Union Club hop," for in Zenith the pressures to conform affect even the young.

We've seen the gap between Babbitt and the younger generation. Now when Babbitt's dull, pious mother comes to visit, we see the gap between Babbitt and the older generation. Still living in the small town, Catawba, where Babbitt was born, she understands nothing of modern Zenith and embarrasses Babbitt with her reminiscences of his childhood. Babbitt's half brother, Martin, is another reminder of the older, rural America that Zenith is replacing. As always, Lewis refuses to be nostalgic about that vanishing America: Martin is a crude man who cares only what things cost.

These visits, along with his children's squabbles and demands, feed Babbitt's irritation at family life, and he's pleased when a case of the flu makes him the center of attention. Yet the illness also increases his restlessness, his depression. As he lies in bed, he bleakly realizes what Lewis has made us realize throughout the novel- that almost every aspect of his business, social, and religious life is mechanical and false. He may have wasted his life, he fears. He doesn't want to go back to work. But back he goes.


Earlier in the book we've seen hints of a shady business deal involving Babbitt's realty company. Now we learn about it in detail. For aiding Lucas Prout's campaign for mayor, Babbitt was illegally rewarded with advance information about the Street Traction Company's plans to expand trolley lines and build a repair shop. In chapter 17 we saw him obtaining a secret loan from William Eathorne so he could quietly purchase the land the traction company will need. Now the company finds that Babbitt is demanding an inflated price for the necessary land. They threaten to go to court, until a compromise is reached that seemingly makes everyone happy.

Babbitt benefits from illegally obtained information, but it's clear that the Zenith Street Traction Company hasn't been hurt by the corrupt deal either. Its purchasing agent buys a five-thousand-dollar car; its first vice president builds a home. Who does pay? Babbitt's father-in-law puts it bluntly: It's the public that gets double-crossed. This is the way politics and business work in Zenith- and, since the traction company president is then appointed ambassador to a foreign country, it apparently works this way on the national level as well. Babbitt is only a small part of a large, corrupt system.

Yet hypocritical Babbitt is "overwhelmed to find that he had a dishonest person working for him": Stan Graff. Graff may be dishonest, but he understands that Babbitt isn't any better. "Well, old Vision and Ethics, I'm tickled to death!" he says when Babbitt fires him. He'd rather work where people are more open about their lack of ethics, and he threatens to tell everything he knows about the Street Traction affair if Babbitt prevents him from getting another job.

Babbitt is enraged but disturbed. We can almost hear him thinking- is he really as bad as Graff says he is? No, he reassures himself. He's "never done anything that wasn't necessary to keep the Wheels of Progress moving."

But the strain of the Traction deal and Graff's dismissal have left Babbitt tense. To recover, he makes a trip to Chicago with his son, Ted. On the train the two joke like old friends, Ted trying to imitate Babbitt's air of adult command. In Chicago they enjoy an expensive dinner and laugh at the risque jokes of a musical comedy.

Babbitt is lonely when Ted leaves him and returns to Zenith. This is the underside of the salesman's life, the anonymous hotel rooms, the constant telephoning. Then in the hotel lobby, he spots an equally lonely looking man: Sir Gerald Doak, the British millionaire who was the star of the McKelveys' dinner parties back in Zenith. Babbitt introduces himself, then realizes he has little to say to a British aristocrat. But to his joy he finds that he and Sir Gerald are in fact very much alike. Doak cares no more for culture than does the American realtor, and he's had a terrible time in America because society hostesses like Lucile McKelvey insist on talking to him about museums when he'd rather be talking mortgages.

With Doak, Lewis is making fun of Americans like Lucile McKelvey who have inflated ideas of the British aristocracy, but he's also making fun of the aristocracy itself. George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells were two of Lewis's favorite writers: when Sir Gerald calls them traitors (and calls Shaw by the wrong first name) Lewis wants us to see that the "cultured" English upper class can be as ignorant as the members of the Zenith Athletic Club. Yet Lewis also sees the good side of Sir Gerald, as he does of Babbitt- the unpretentious friendliness.

Babbitt, enormously pleased with himself, plans to let everyone in Zenith know he's a pal of Sir Gerald. But he isn't able to enjoy his success for long. That evening, at the Regency Hotel, he spots his best friend, Paul Riesling- who is supposed to be in Akron, not Chicago- with "a doubtful sort of woman." Paul, embarrassed, introduces his old friend to the woman (May Arnold) merely as an old acquaintance and tries to talk Babbitt out of coming over to his hotel room that evening. But Babbitt insists.


Babbitt apprehensively takes a taxi to Paul's hotel, where he bullies a clerk into letting him into Paul's room. He half fears that Paul has committed suicide and is greatly relieved when he opens the bathroom door and discovers no body.

Paul arrives three hours late, furious that Babbitt has interfered with his private life. Babbitt attacks his friend for having an affair- it will threaten Paul's position in Zenith, Babbitt says self-righteously, and make his marriage to Zilla even worse than it already is. What do you think about Paul? Is his way of rebelling against his life a constructive one or does it reveal his essential weakness?

Paul is too weak willed to maintain his anger for long. Collapsing in a chair, he explains how Zilla has made his life miserable, how May Arnold has comforted him. Babbitt softens when he sees his friend's anguish, and offers his help. On the way back to Zenith he stops in Akron and mails a postcard to Zilla, claiming he ran into Paul there, and when he arrives home, he visits Zilla in person.

If the unhappy marriage has made Paul whining and unfaithful, it's made Zilla lazy and bitter. She knows her husband has a woman in Chicago, she says. Babbitt defends his friend as "the nicest most sensitive critter on God's green earth" and makes Zilla promise to treat him better.

When Paul returns, the Rieslings' marriage does seem to improve. But Paul whispers to Babbitt, "Some day I'm going to break away from her." We'll see in the next chapter just how that break occurs.


Chapter 21 opens with an event that perfectly exemplifies all the noisy, inane activity that Babbitt and Zenith thrive on: the Boosters' Club annual election of officers. Lewis takes great pleasure in showing us this comic side of Zenith life. His language mocks the seriousness with which these foolish businessmen take themselves. Through the Boosters' Club, "you... realized the metaphysical oneness of all occupations," from plumbing to chewing gum manufacture. The Boosters read Dad Peterson's statement on "Service and Opportunity," and even though it makes no sense whatsoever, announce that they understand it perfectly.

This ridiculous world is the world Babbitt feels at home in much of the time, and he's overjoyed when his fellow Boosters elect him vice president. But when in triumph he calls his wife, she gives him shocking news: Paul Riesling has shot Zilla. He's in jail, and she isn't expected to live.


Babbitt drives to City Prison, but the attendant tells him Paul is refusing visitors. He rushes to City Hall, and by reminding Mayor Prout of his campaign work, obtains an order forcing Paul to see him.

Riesling had first refused the visit fearing that Babbitt would be "moral" and disapproving. But when Babbitt says instead that Zilla got what was coming to her, Paul defends his wife. Now- too late- Paul sees that Zilla didn't have an easy time of it either. To cheer up his friend (and himself), Babbitt rambles on about making another trip to Maine, about helping Paul establish a new life for himself out West.

Babbitt goes to the City Hospital, where he learns that Zilla will live. At home Mrs. Babbitt is (in Lewis's cynical but perceptive phrase) "radiant with the horrified interest we have in the tragedies of our friends." Mrs. Babbitt offers moralistic opinions about Paul's crime, but Babbitt is too dazed to respond.

After dinner he visits Paul's lawyer and offers to lie if it will save his friend. He's lied to succeed in business, he says; he can lie to save Paul. For the first time, Babbitt has admitted out loud that his world is a dishonest one. The admission is a sign of his friendship for Paul, but also a sign of his growing desperation.

Babbitt summons up enough courage to go to the Athletic Club the next day. Fortunately, his friends are sensitive enough to avoid discussing Paul's crime. Paul pleads guilty and is sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary.

Babbitt's friendship with Paul was the relationship he most valued. Now it's gone. Paul has acted on his feelings of desperation- feelings that Babbitt to some extent shares. The question is, Will Babbitt act on his feelings too? Certainly his despair is deepening; he realizes that he faces "a world which, without Paul, [is] meaningless."


Babbitt keeps busy to avoid thinking about Paul, but he feels lonely and at loose ends. His wife and daughter Tinka leave on vacation. That night, Babbitt restlessly goes into Verona's room looking for something to read. Verona likes to think of herself as an intellectual, and the books she's collected are to Babbitt's mind difficult, disturbing, improper. Here Lewis is having some fun, for among the books Babbitt skims through disapprovingly are works by writers who were Lewis's friends: Vachel Lindsay, the poet; H. L. Mencken, the essayist who satirized American life even more bitterly than did Lewis; Joseph Hergesheimer, a then-popular novelist. Babbitt reads for escape; these books offer only "discontent with the good common ways." The truth is that the books bother him because he, too, has become discontent with the ways of Zenith.

The night grows foggy. Babbitt thinks of calling Paul, then realizes that Paul is in prison. He steps out into the dark, and now you will see that it isn't only Paul Riesling and Babbitt who feel trapped by their lives in Zenith. Through the fog Babbitt spies Chum Frink, poet and advertising "genius," staggering drunkenly down the street. "There's another fool," Frink shouts. "George Babbitt." But Frink reserves his greatest scorn for himself. He could have been a great poet, he announces, a James Whitcomb Riley or a Robert Louis Stevenson. (Today these nineteenth-century poets are generally considered good but not great; still, their works are masterpieces compared to Frink's.)

Like Paul Riesling, like the convention delegate who had wanted to be a chemist, like Babbitt himself, Chum Frink has abandoned his dreams, sold his talents to the highest bidder. Now he is paying the price.

Babbitt is astonished, but too wrapped up in his own problems to worry about Frink's for long. His work, his family, his life seem meaningless. All the things he's struggled for- wealth, social position, material possessions- seem worthless. What, he asks himself, is a person supposed to live for? All he knows is that he misses Paul Riesling's friendship and that he desires to love his fairy girl in the flesh. Babbitt's rebellion has begun, and so far it seems to be taking the same adulterous shape as Paul's did.

That even the smallest rebellion won't go unnoticed is made clear the next day when Babbitt sneaks out of his office to attend the movies. Over lunch at the Athletic Club he's kidded about being so rich and lazy he can afford to leave work early. On a normal day Babbitt would have laughed along, but today he feels only rage. He longs to escape to his dream woman.

Babbitt first selects Miss McGoun to fill that role, but she is too businesslike to respond. Then he attends a party given by Eddie and Louetta Swanson, hopeful that his past flirtations with Louetta will lead to something more serious. But when he tries to kiss her she turns her head away.


Babbitt visits Paul Riesling in prison. It's a place of death, Lewis says, and Paul himself is in effect dead- pale, meek, defeated. Babbitt, too, is changed. He no longer cares what others think of him, no longer has pride in his worldly success. He's ready to begin his rebellion for real.

One opportunity arises when a Mrs. Daniel Judique appears in Babbitt's office. Slender, elegantly dressed, she impresses Babbitt so much he offers to rent her an apartment he's been saving for his friend, Sidney Finkelstein. On the way to the apartment, the two flirt, but Babbitt can't work up enough courage to make a pass at her.

Soon, Babbitt's thoughts turn from Tanis Judique to the young manicurist at the Pompeian Barbershop. Impatiently he enters this marble palace devoted to the care of businessmen and waits for the girl, Ida Putiak, to be free. She's pretty but not very bright, and Lewis freely parodies her ungrammatical conversation.

When Babbitt asks Ida to dine with him that evening, she accepts, but the date is a disaster. Babbitt's car breaks down, the headwaiter at the restaurant refuses to serve them liquor, and Ida allows him only one brief kiss before refusing him with baby talk. All at once Babbitt feels very foolish.

You've seen Babbitt begin his rebellion. Do you think Lewis wants you to sympathize with Babbitt's desire to lead an exciting life? Or to feel that Babbitt is being foolish? Or both?


The next morning, Babbitt resolves that rebellion has done him no good. But he can't make himself return to his old respectable ways either. Can he find a woman who will make his life better?

That woman isn't Mrs. Babbitt, he realizes when she returns from her vacation. In past years he had missed her when she was gone; now he feels nothing, though he does his best to fake pleasure at her return.

The memory of his trip to Maine with Paul haunts Babbitt, and after much thought he decides to make the same trip this year. Knowing that his wife won't understand what he's about to do, he lies that he must go to New York on business.

All the way to Maine, Babbitt idealizes the woodsmen he met there the year before. To him, guides like Joe Paradise represent a free and brave world that is completely the opposite of conformist Zenith. He half talks himself into abandoning his family to live in the woods. It wouldn't take any more nerve to do that, he tells himself, than it did for Paul to go to prison.

Babbitt arrives in Maine hopeful that Joe Paradise and the other guides will see that he's not just an ordinary tourist but is well on his way to becoming a woodsman. The guides, though, are more interested in their poker game than they are in Babbitt, and the next morning Babbitt greets Joe "as a fellow caveman," but we soon see that Joe isn't nearly as interested in the wilderness life as Babbitt is. Babbitt wants to hike to camp, Joe wants to go by motorboat. After Babbitt insists, the two set out on foot, but it's soon obvious that Joe is as out-of-shape as is the city-soft Babbitt, and as ignorant of nature. The next day, when Babbitt- happy to be living the manly life in the woods- asks Joe what he would do if he had a lot of money, Joe answers that he'd go to a nearby town and open a shoe store. At heart, Joe is no different from any member of the Zenith Boosters' Club.

Babbitt finds himself thinking about his office, the Athletic Club, his family. "I won't go back," he tells himself. But he realizes that in fact he's never left Zenith, because he's never left himself. Four days later he's on the train for home. His attempt at escape has failed, and though he insists that somehow he'll make a different life for himself back home, he knows that the hopes for any real change are slim.


On the train, Babbitt searches for familiar faces, but he sees only Seneca Doane, the radical lawyer defeated by Lucas Prout. Doane represents everything Babbitt and his conservative business friends oppose. In fact, though, he could easily have been one of them, for he was in Babbitt's class in college and started a promisingly lucrative career as a corporate lawyer. Somehow he gave up that career and took what Babbitt considers an almost traitorous path.

Babbitt is hungry enough for companionship that he approaches Doane. The two men talk, a little nervously, Babbitt asking Doane about his political career. Babbitt finds himself warming to Doane. He apologizes for helping Prout's campaign against him, but Doane reassuringly tells Babbitt he understands. And Doane flatters Babbitt by saying that Babbitt makes a good spokesman for "The Organization"- Doane's term for the conservative businessmen who run Zenith- because Babbitt once had a reputation for being a liberal and sensitive young man. In fact, we learn, in college Babbitt wanted to be a lawyer so he could help the poor: he wanted to be the kind of man Seneca Doane eventually became.

Babbitt, proud that someone remembers his past ideals, tries to convince Doane that they haven't entirely vanished. He isn't like other Zenith businessmen, Babbitt claims; he's broad-minded and liberal.

Doane shrewdly takes advantage of Babbitt's sudden "liberalism" by asking Babbitt to help defend Beecher Ingram, a Congregationalist minister removed from his church. Babbitt is flattered enough to agree. Happily he listens to Doane reminisce about a career that by Zenith standards has been daring in the extreme. Doane lobbied for the single tax (a progressive tax measure much debated in the early 1900s) and attended international labor congresses.

We've already seen Seneca Doane to be one of the most intelligent characters in Babbitt, a man who possesses a real understanding of Zenith's problems and who is trying to solve them. His conversation with Babbitt reveals him to be urbane and sensitive. Yet, as Doane says, "But of course we visionaries do rather get beaten." And perhaps he is too urbane and sensitive to be a truly effective fighter against crude, business-mad Zenith.

As for Babbitt, under Doane's influence he convinces himself that he too is daring and idealistic. How much of this is real and how much is self-delusion? On the one hand, he is sick of his life in Zenith. On the other hand, he clearly has little understanding of the movements and the people Doane is talking about.

Babbitt's beliefs are immediately tested. He goes to visit Zilla Riesling, full of vague plans to help her and Paul as well. But Zilla has changed. The plump, lively woman has become old, bloodless, tired; her shoulder seems permanently crippled.

Babbitt begins to babble cheerfully: Why doesn't Zilla ask the governor to pardon Paul? But Zilla isn't interested. She's "gotten religion," she says icily; Paul should stay in prison as an example to all evildoers.

Babbitt had returned to Zenith determined to transform himself into a new, liberal man. But Lewis says society is usually strong enough to change the people who want to change it. Nor is Babbitt the only one who finds it easier to conform to society rather than to change it. Kenneth Escott (now engaged to Verona Babbitt) gains fame for newspaper articles attacking commission houses (companies that buy and sell commodities)- then is hired by a commission house. This is one of the ways Zenith- and society in general- is able to render powerless the people who want to reform it.

Ted Babbitt, in college now, seems more interested in fraternities than in studies, and wants to transfer to engineering school. But Babbitt insists Ted stay where he is. Babbitt does try out his new beliefs on his son, defending Seneca Doane, but the defense only shows how shallow the new beliefs are. Social status is still all- important to Babbitt. The best reason he can give to become a liberal friend of the working class like Doane is so that he'll be invited to parties given by liberal aristocrats like Lord Wycombe.


Labor strife comes to Zenith, as telephone workers go out on strike. Violence is threatened; the national guard is called out. Businessmen who in private life are plump Athletic Club jokesters waddle around with guns. Hysteria mounts- and Babbitt chooses this time to be publicly liberal, to make his rebellion an open one.

Once again Babbitt mirrors the America of the early 1920s. It was an era of great labor unrest and, among conservative businessmen, great worry. Were labor unions getting too powerful? Were they linked to Communism? These fears were strong enough to divide many cities into warring camps.

At first Babbitt agrees with his Athletic Club friends that labor agitators should be shot. But when he reads a pamphlet alleging that workers don't earn enough money to feed themselves, he's troubled. He attends church, hoping to find an answer, but hears the Reverend Drew deliver an attack on unions that is as vicious as it is illogical. (Again, Lewis shows how religion in Zenith is used to keep the poor in their place.)

"Oh, rot," Babbitt says of Drew's sermon. At last he sees the reverend for the smooth-talking hypocrite he is. Chum Frink, sitting nearby, looks at Babbitt doubtfully- and you begin to see that Babbitt's rebellion will not go unnoticed, or unopposed.

The following Tuesday, Babbitt, driving from his office, sees a crowd of strikers. At first he reacts as he would have in his old, conservative days: he hates the strikers for being poor, says they wouldn't be common workmen if they had any "pep." He admires the way the National Guard breaks up the march. But when he sees Seneca Doane and a distinguished professor marching, too, he's forced to admit that perhaps the workers have the same right to the street as anyone else.

At lunch, Babbitt is silent, disturbed. Then, when the officious Captain Drum of the National Guard says he wishes he'd been able to use violence against the crowd, Babbitt does something he's never done before: he takes a public, political stand against his friends. Their reaction is immediate and frightening. Professor Pumphrey angrily accuses him of defending hoodlums. Vergil Gunch, even more ominously, stares at Babbitt like a silent judge. Babbitt backs down, but his apology doesn't seem to satisfy anyone. As he leaves the club, he overhears Chum Frink telling of Babbitt's attack on the Reverend Drew. Later, when Babbitt stands listening to Beecher Ingram, he sees Gunch spying on him.

Babbitt's new views aren't popular at home either. Mrs. Babbitt, astonished at his defense of the strikers, assumes he is joking. His wife doesn't understand the new man he's become, Babbitt realizes. But he doesn't really understand himself either. He feels the forces of conformity, led by Vergil Gunch, massing to attack.


From political rebellion Babbitt switches to romantic rebellion. Mrs. Tanis Judique calls, and Babbitt agrees to inspect her leaking roof. The strike has been crushed, and, on the surface, Babbitt's life is back to normal (though Vergil Gunch seems less friendly than before). But Babbitt feels lonely. After lingering in the office to convince himself he's only interested in business, he drives to Mrs. Judique's apartment, happy to be seeing the lovely woman again.

As Babbitt and Mrs. Judique climb to check the leaking roof, they flirt with each other, flattering each other's love of beautiful views. Babbitt stays for a cup of tea. He enjoys the feeling of security Tanis gives him, and feels so at ease that he complains of things he never mentions to his wife.

Babbitt goes into Tanis's bedroom for an ashtray. When he returns, he finds his contentment with her simple companionship has been replaced by a strong desire to touch her. He insists he be allowed to stay for dinner, and he calls Mrs. Babbitt, lying about a business deal that will keep him late. He and Tanis sit on the couch, talking of their happiness at finding each other, and Babbitt doesn't return home until dawn.


Babbitt's rebellion reaches its peak. Fortified by his affair with Tanis Judique, he no longer cares what his old friends think of him. At the Athletic Club he openly praises Seneca Doane and Lord Wycombe (though we still may doubt he knows who Lord Wycombe really is), and not even Vergil Gunch's rough words make him back down.

At last, Babbitt thinks, he's found the woman who will make him happy. Compared to Mrs. Babbitt, Tanis is young, exotic, carefree. She's also discreet, pretending to be a business client when out with Babbitt in public. Babbitt is afraid his wife will find out about the affair (she already suspects something, he fears), but he finds it impossible even to imitate affection toward her. When, after New Year's, Mrs. Babbitt says she must visit her sick sister, Babbitt doesn't protest the way he once would have. Instead he goes to see Tanis.

Babbitt's entire life changes. The man who had once seemed completely tied to routine now goes wild with sexual desire, whiskey, and new friends- Tanis's friends, who call themselves "The Bunch." They include Carrie Nork, a spinsterish woman who tries futilely to look youthful; Minnie Sonntag, clever and sarcastic; three weak-looking young men; and one man of Babbitt's age, Fulton Bemis. Babbitt dislikes them at first and dislikes Tanis for being with them. But he weakens, and within two weeks is almost a charter member of this gossiping group.

Once Babbitt has undertaken one act of rebellion he finds chances for others. The old Babbitt had disapproved of his neighbors, the Doppelbraus, for their loud, drunken parties. The new Babbitt finds them more interesting than the respectable Littlefields and happily attends the parties he once condemned. The old Babbitt was unsuccessful in romancing Louetta Swanson. The new Babbitt succeeds. He's "a decent and well-trained libertine" now. (That is, of course, an ironic contradiction in terms.)

The libertine Babbitt drives drunkenly, staggers into his house, feels stupid for spending time with people he doesn't like. Every morning he resolves to change, but by noon his resolve is weakening; by four he's drinking from his flask; and by six he's back with the Bunch.

But his friends are growing suspicious, and frustrated at Babbitt's desire to keep their affair secret, Tanis demands to go places with him openly. During lunch at the Hotel Thornleigh her elegant dress brings stares, including- Babbitt is horrified to discover- the stares of Vergil Gunch.

Later that afternoon Gunch appears at Babbitt's office. Babbitt fears that Gunch will make an accusation about Tanis, but the coal dealer wants to discuss something else. Gunch and other conservative Zenith businessmen are disturbed by communism, socialism, and labor unrest. A nationwide organization, the Good Citizens' League, has been formed to combat such evils, and Gunch wants to form a chapter in Zenith. The League will oppose anyone who holds political views that differ from its own. "Social boycotts"- refusing to socialize or do business with nonconformists- will be the first tactic. If that doesn't work, Gunch hints, more severe punishments will be carried out.

Here Lewis is again satirizing politics as practiced in the America of the early 1920s. As we've already seen, the early part of the decade was a time of considerable political unrest. One conservative response to this unrest, which was often viewed as communist inspired, was the formation of groups like the Good Citizens' League. To Lewis, such groups were far worse than the threats they claimed to fight, for they were attempting to crush freedom of speech.

Babbitt is at first noncommittal, and when Gunch cites Seneca Doane as the sort of man the GCL will oppose, he defends Doane as an old friend. But Gunch warns that even friendship mustn't stand in the way of the fight "for decency and the security of our homes."

Now comes the moment Babbitt has been dreading. Gunch announces that everyone knows about Babbitt's suspicious friendship with Doane and about his affair with Tanis Judique. At first Babbitt's old friends blamed his errors on the sorrow he felt for Paul Riesling, but they can no longer be so tolerant. Babbitt had better return to his conservative ways, Gunch warns; he had better join the Good Citizens' League.

Babbitt goes to dinner alone. He senses that his friends are talking about him, spying on him. He tells himself that he won't go to see Tanis. But for now, his desire remains stronger than his cowardice: he does go to see her, late at night.


The previous summer, Mrs. Babbitt had been anxious to return to Zenith. Now she suspects that something is wrong between her and her husband, and she sends wistful letters hinting that she'd like Babbitt to tell her he misses her. Impulsively, he writes to say that he does. He tries his best to give her an eager welcome home, and her gift of a cigar case touches him; he sees again the lonely young girl he married. But he still hopes to maintain his affair with Tanis.

Mrs. Babbitt's suspicions about her husband increase. And though Babbitt finds himself remembering some moments of their marriage fondly, he is irritable with his wife.

At this point, Mrs. Babbitt stages her own small, foolish rebellion. One night a discussion of household finances leads to an argument over Babbitt's drinking. And then Babbitt tells his wife what he thinks of his life in Zenith. He's tired of the routine, the worrying, he says; he regrets that he isn't the great orator he once thought he'd be. But now Mrs. Babbitt voices her own disappointments. "Don't you suppose I ever get tired of fussing?" she asks.

The argument ends with Mrs. Babbitt making her husband promise to attend a lecture on "Cultivating the Sun Spirit," to be delivered by Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge of the American New Thought League, a movement that has won Mrs. Babbitt's enthusiastic support.

Mrs. Mudge's speech is inane, but Mrs. Babbitt finds it inspiring. Babbitt thinks she's ridiculous and says so. Mrs. Mudge's philosophy is, he sees, just another way for people to run away from themselves. And if he's going to run away from himself, he'd rather do it dancing in a bar.

Babbitt's words lead to another argument with his wife, the worst yet. He thinks of separating from her; they drive off in dreadful silence.

With Mrs. Mudge and the American New Thought League, Lewis is satirizing another aspect of American life, our fondness for half-baked philosophical cults- a fondness that was especially strong in the 1920s. Do such groups still exist today? Are we more or less susceptible to them? What do they offer us?


Babbitt is unable to make up his mind. At times he thinks fondly of his wife; at other times he feels trapped by her. He is cool to Tanis; when she writes to ask if she has somehow offended him, he irritably asks himself, "Why can't she let me alone?" Then he decides he must see her.

The following day is tense. At the Union Club, Vergil Gunch discusses the Good Citizens' League but doesn't include Babbitt in the conversation. At the office, Babbitt must listen to the family troubles of a salesman and the health problems of a client, and at home Mrs. Babbitt complains about her maid and Tinka about her teacher. It's with some desperation that Babbitt makes his escape.

When he arrives at Tanis's apartment, he finds her as beautiful as ever. She gives him a drink; she listens to his troubles. But he grows angry when she tells of hers, which he selfishly considers dull and unimportant. After a while, the conversation falters. Babbitt sees that Tanis's elegance can't hide the fact that she's on the verge of unattractive middle age. It's time, he decides, to break off the affair.

As Babbitt so often does, he tries to blame his missteps on someone else. Tanis should not have forced him to visit her when he has so many other worries. He needs to be free, he proclaims. And she agrees. "Thank God that's over," Babbitt cries.


Mrs. Babbitt is annoyed and suspicious when Babbitt returns from his visit with Tanis. Babbitt becomes angry enough to admit that, yes, he has been seeing another woman. It's Mrs. Babbitt's fault that he has, he says; she makes him feel dull and old.

Overwhelmed by this attack, Mrs. Babbitt mournfully concedes that perhaps she has been slightly at fault. Babbitt takes this apology as evidence that he is completely guiltless. Only briefly does he admit that he has been a bully- and as usual, this moment of humility doesn't last. He needs to be free, he tells himself- free of his wife, of Tanis, of everyone.

But Babbitt won't be allowed that freedom. The next day the social consequences of his rebellion become clearer. At the Boosters' Club lunch a congressman speaks against foreign immigration. The speech is a "bunch of hot air," but when Babbitt voices this truth, his friends glare disapprovingly at him. Particularly indignant is the famous surgeon, Dr. A. I. Dilling. As Dr. Dilling glowers, Babbitt backs down.

The next day, Dilling, Charles McKelvey, and Colonel Rutherford Snow, owner of the Zenith newspaper, barge into Babbitt's office. They deliver an ultimatum: Babbitt must join the Good Citizens' League. Babbitt, hardly a sophisticated political thinker, can't even remember why he refused to join the league when Vergil Gunch first asked him. But he doesn't want to be bullied into anything.

Now you can begin to see the full price of refusing to conform in Zenith. Colonel Snow points out that Babbitt and his father-in-law have long been part of the group who profitably (and, we know, not very honestly) ran the city. If Babbitt wants to turn against that group and run with a "loose" crowd, side with "radicals" like Seneca Doane, he is free to do that, Colonel Snow says. But if he does, his old friends will make life very difficult for him.

Soon enough, Babbitt sees the ways in which his old friends can injure him, as they begin the "social boycott" Vergil Gunch warned of earlier. Mrs. Babbitt pressures her husband as well, asking why he won't join the league when "all the nicest people in town belong." Babbitt defends his actions with surprising eloquence: the league stands for suppression of free speech and free thought. But to Mrs. Babbitt her husband's defense of these American ideals sounds as foreign and as dangerous as the socialist opinions of their German furnace man.

Babbitt's feeling of isolation grows. William Eathorne ignores his morning greeting. Henry T. Thompson admits that the Good Citizens' League is a fraudulent group fighting plots that don't exist, but warns Babbitt if he doesn't go along he'll be labeled an unstable crank. The truth of Thompson's warning is proven when Conrad Lyte refuses to do business with Babbitt and when the Zenith Street Traction Company takes its latest corrupt deal to a competing firm.

By now Babbitt is so frightened he'd gladly join the GCL if invited, but no further invitation is extended. He's no longer asked to poker parties; he's ignored by the Chamber of Commerce. Even his secretary, Miss McGoun, quits. In desperation he visits Tanis, but she is cool and aloof to the man who so recently deserted her. Mrs. Babbitt offers no comfort. Only Ted and Eunice Littlefield support him, naively impressed that Babbitt has stood up to Zenith and unaware of the punishment he is suffering.


That night in bed, Mrs. Babbitt wakes up complaining of a pain in her side. Babbitt calls Dr. Patten, who finds signs of appendicitis.

In the face of his wife's illness, Babbitt loses whatever courage he still possessed. Though earlier that evening he had been longing to see Tanis, he now looks at his sick wife and realizes he's tied to her permanently, for better or for worse.

In the morning Dr. Patten returns and tells Babbitt he'll be bringing in another doctor for consultation. Babbitt goes briefly to his office but is too distracted to work. When Dr. Patten returns, the consulting physician turns out to be Dr. Dilling, the surgeon who demanded that Babbitt join the GCL.

Dilling diagnoses the problem as appendicitis and tells Babbitt his wife must be operated on immediately lest peritonitis set in. Mrs. Babbitt is terrified. (An appendectomy was a more serious operation in the 1920s than it generally is today.) Her fear weakens Babbitt: he vows that he loves her more than anything in the world, and when she piteously says it might be a good thing if she did die because she's old and stupid and ugly, he begins to sob.

Babbitt's revolt is over. It was, he sees, doomed from the start. He's too tied to his wife; he's too tied to life in Zenith. All he had enjoyed was a final fling before "the paralyzed contentment of middle age."

Mrs. Babbitt is hurried into the operating room while Babbitt waits and worries. The fear he feels makes him want to completely repent of his rebellion. He swears faithfulness to his wife, to Zenith, to business, to the Boosters' Club, to all the values he abandoned by befriending Seneca Doane and having an affair with Tanis Judique. A nurse announces that the operation has been a success.

Mrs. Babbitt remains in the hospital for seventeen days. Her illness brings the husband and wife together: Babbitt hints that he's had an affair, but Mrs. Babbitt, far from feeling hurt, seems flattered her husband was worthy of a "Wicked Woman's" attentions.

Just as he returns to his wife, Babbitt returns to his old conservative friends. They rally around the Babbitts in this time of need, bringing jelly, novels, and bed jackets to Mrs. Babbitt in the hospital.

Past chapters of Babbitt have amply shown you the cruelties of life in Zenith. This chapter shows you some of the kindnesses. Vergil Gunch and Babbitt's other old friends are fond of Mrs. Babbitt and truly anxious about her health. And they're genuinely concerned that Babbitt return to their side. But Lewis doesn't want you to forget that these are the same people who made Babbitt an exile in his own city. Zenith is a friendly place, but friendship is extended only to those who conform. That's one of the chief ways Zenith guarantees conformity.

At the end of his visit, Vergil Gunch asks Babbitt to join the Good Citizens' League. Joyfully Babbitt agrees. Rebellion has taken more strength than he possesses. Within two weeks he's calling Seneca Doane wicked, denouncing labor unions and immigrants, and praising golf, morality, and bank accounts. Zenith is victorious.


To begin this, the final chapter of Babbitt, Lewis draws back to show you not only Babbitt but the city and country he calls home. The Good Citizens' League has triumphed, especially in Zenith and other midwestern cities. It's popular not only among Babbitt and his middle-class friends, but among the very rich, who use it to keep the lower classes in their place.

This is perhaps Lewis's grimmest, most cynical view of life in Zenith and in America. Not only has Babbitt's rebellion been crushed, but similar rebellions across the country are being crushed as the Good Citizen's League spreads. American democracy has been distorted to maintain class differences but erase difference of opinion; democracy "did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals and vocabulary." Do you think this was an accurate view? And have things gotten better, or worse, since Lewis's day?

Babbitt stays an active member of the GCL just long enough to restore his standing as a respectable citizen. He's more comfortable simply resuming his old routine of Boosters' Club meetings.

One thing that does worry him is the possibility that his fling with Tanis may have imperiled his chances to go to heaven. For that reason he asks the Reverend Drew for advice. As usual, Drew seems less a man of God than a hard-driving business executive. His eyes glisten in hopes that Babbitt will confess some exciting sin, but when Babbitt refuses to go into detail, Drew grows impatient and says he can spare only five minutes for prayer. During the prayer, smirking, unpleasant Sheldon Smeeth offers Babbitt his help, an offer so unnerving that Babbitt rushes to escape.

Slowly Babbitt finds some limited peace. He takes pleasure in his daughter's marriage to Kenneth Escott. And he's once again one of the best-liked members of the Boosters' Club. As the club laughs at his newly revealed middle name- the "F" in George F. Babbitt stands for Follansbee- Babbitt "knows that he [is] secure again and popular" and "that he would no more endanger his security and popularity by straying from the Clan of Good Fellows."

In business, too, he regains his lost stature: Jake Offutt wants to make his next crooked deal with the help of Babbitt-Thompson Realty. Babbitt vows that as soon as he can, he'll break away from Offutt and the Traction Gang, but, as so often before, he loses courage. He begins to think of the money the Traction deals have earned him, of the isolation that will come if he offends the Zenith business community a second time. Perhaps, he tells himself, he can be honest after he retires.

Babbitt is pleased that "the last scar of his rebellion was healed." Yet he isn't quite the same man he was at the start of the novel. Then, despite his vague unhappiness, he was blind to his faults and to the faults of Zenith. Now he sees them in all their depressing detail. He knows he should be honest but realizes he won't be; he admits he isn't strong enough to withstand Zenith's demands to conform. "They've licked me; licked me to a finish!" he whimpers- and he's right. Do you admire Babbitt for gaining self-knowledge or do you condemn him for his weakness?

The following weekend Ted comes home from college. On Saturday night he takes Eunice Littlefield out to a dance. Early the next morning the Babbitts are horrified to find him sleeping with Eunice in his bedroom.

"Let me introduce my wife," Ted announces. The scandal of the elopement brings the Littlefields, Verona and Kenneth Escott, and the Henry T. Thompsons rushing to Babbitt's house to proclaim the couple's immorality.

"I'm getting just about enough of being hollered at," Ted says. And Babbitt, perhaps surprisingly, takes his son's side. He leads Ted into the dining room, where he says that the Babbitt men must stick together. He doesn't approve of early marriages, but he does approve of Eunice and of Ted.

Ted wants to quit college and become a mechanic. Slowly, Babbitt ponders this idea. You can almost hear him thinking about the way his youthful dream- and Paul's and so many others' in Zenith- were crushed. "I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life," he tells his son.

Lewis has given you much to laugh about in Babbitt, but he's also given you much to consider. George Babbitt is in many ways a comic figure, but now, at the end of the novel, he's also a pathetic one. His rebellion is crushed. He's gained self-knowledge- in that way, at least, he has grown over the course of the book- but he hasn't really gained courage. He knows he needs to change but he also knows he doesn't have the strength to change. All he can hope is that Ted will avoid making the mistakes he made- of being afraid of the family, afraid of Zenith, afraid of himself.

Given what you know of Zenith, do you think Ted will be able to fulfill his father's hopes? Lewis doesn't answer the question. For the moment, at least, Babbitt speaks loudly and optimistically to his son. "The world is yours!" he encourages, and the two of them march into the living room to face the rest of their family.



ECC [Babbitt Contents] []

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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