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George Babbitt is a typical middle-class businessman. He has a conventional home in a good neighborhood, a successful job in his father-in-law's business, a large circle of casual friends. He has the latest appliances in his home, three lovely children, a faithful wife. But he is discontent. His wife is not attractive, his children are greedy and lazy. His son Ted does not want to go to college, and Babbitt struggles to convince him that college is necessary, even if just for appearances. His circle of friends are uninteresting and dull. He has one close friend, Paul Riesling, with whom he shares many of his feelings of discontent. Paul, too, is dissatisfied with his wife and job. The two men depend on one another for comfort and friendship.
Babbitt's friend Paul seems more depressed than he, so the two men go on a short vacation ahead of their families. When they return to Zenith, Paul continues to sink into his own depression and dissatisfaction. Babbitt enjoys increasing success in his business, but finds the success only makes him want more success and more stature in the community. He continues to collect honors in the community and becomes quite well known and respected. On one particularly successful business trip, Babbitt discovers Paul is having an affair and also drinking heavily. Babbitt is concerned, but comforts Paul.
A short time later, Paul shoots his wife and is sent to prison. His wife recovers, but is bitter and unforgiving. Paul's drastic downfall causes Babbitt to fall into his own deep depression, and he begins to think of ways to break out of his boring and conventional life. He espouses some liberal views totally opposing his previous ones, and begins to flirt with other women. He has an affair and begins to alienate his old friends with his liberal politics and vocal opinions. His wife is faithful but miserable. His friends try to win him back, but he is steadfast in his rebellion. However, he finds that his life of rebellion is no better than his life of convention. In fact, he is losing the few joys he had in life because he is alienating everyone.