By Sinclair Lewis (1885-951)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2012
Babbitt is a novel that satirizes the business, social, religious, and family culture of middle-class Americans in the early 1920's. Harcourt, Brace, & Co. published it in 1922.
The action begins in April 1920 and takes place in (1) the fictional city of Zenith, population 362,000, in the American Midwest; (2) the fictional Zenith suburb of Floral Heights, where George Babbitt and his family live; (3) Monarch, a city where Babbitt attends a convention; (4) Catawba, a village where Babbitt was born and where his
mother still lives; (5) New York City, where Babbitt and his best friend, Paul Riesling, spend a few hours before changing trains on a train trip to Maine; (6) Katadumcook and Lake Sunasquam in Maine, where Babbitt and Riesling spend a vacation; (7) Chicago, where Babbitt goes on business trips; (8) Akron, Ohio, where Babbitt sends a postcard on a train stop while he is returning to Zenith from a
George Folansbee Babbitt: Forty-six-year-old real-estate broker who is a member of the inner circle of the local business and social establishment, conforming to prevailing values and standards. Originally from the village of Catawba, which he looks down on, Babbitt lives in prosperous Floral Heights, a suburb of the big city of
Zenith. In Zenith and Floral Heights, he belongs to the right clubs, supports the right politicians, cultivates the right acquaintances and business clients, and plays the right games—bridge and golf. However, he begins to believe that something is missing from his life. Author Lewis describes Babbitt this way: "His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry. His face was babyish in
slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed. . . ."
Babbitt is written in the third-person point of view with the author assuming the persona of an omniscient (all-knowing) narrator—that is, a narrator who is able to report the thoughts of characters as well as their actions, no matter where the characters are, what they are doing, or whether they are alone or with others. However, the third-person omniscient narrator does not take part in the action.
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2005.
Babbitt lives in a green-and-white Dutch colonial home on Chatham Road in Floral Heights, a suburb of the bustling metropolis of Zenith. The home has all the latest appliances, symbols of his success. Even the alarm clock is state of the art: It has a cathedral chime and glow-in-the-dark dial. But on one typical day in April 1920, it is the rumble of the milk truck that awakens him from his recurring dream about a fairy girl who beckons him to a dark hillside. He tries to go back to sleep, but other sounds of the morning—a barking dog, the Advocate-Times thumping against the front door, a neighbor cranking up a Ford, and finally the alarm clock going off—keep him awake.
"Time to get up, Georgie boy," says his plump wife, Myra.
Babbitt begins preparing himself for another day. In the bathroom, he’s annoyed that his daughter, Verona, has left behind the offensive smell of her toothpaste. And no one has left him a dry bath towel. It seems he is the only one in the house who has consideration for others.
While dressing, Babbitt notices that the pants of his brown suit are wrinkled. When his wife, Myra, suggests that he wear his pressed blue trousers with the brown coat, Babbitt says,
"Good Lord! Did you ever in all my life know me to wear the coat of one suit and the pants of another? What do you think I am? A busted bookkeeper?"
He ends up wearing a gray suit. It is well tailored but plain, a standard suit. Then he puts on his standard black boots and transfers paraphernalia from the pockets of the brown suit—including his fountain pen, silver pencil, and key chain holding a penknife, cigar cutter, and Elks Club emblem—to the pockets of the gray suit. Next, he pins on his Boosters’ Club button imprinted with “Boosters—Pep!”
Gunch for Lunch and the Tux Tiff
Babbitt and his wife talk about his diet—she does not serve enough prunes—and about having Vergil Gunch and his wife over for dinner the following week. Gunch is a coal dealer and president of the Boosters’ Club. She then suggests that he wear his dinner jacket for that and other occasions but cautions him not to call it a “tux.” He tells her she is becoming just as fussy as Verona.
Verona, who recently graduated from Bryn Mawr College, can’t make up her mind what to do. One moment she wants to marry a millionaire and live in Europe, and the next she wants to “stay right here in Zenith and be some blooming kind of a socialist agitator or boss charity-worker or some damn thing!”For the time being, she has been working as a file clerk at the Gruensberg Leather Company.
His 17-year-old son Ted—Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt—is just as bad, he says. One day he says that when he gets out of East Side High School he will go to college. The next day he doesn’t want to go to college. The only one in the household who doesn’t irritate Babbitt is his 10-year-old daughter, Katherine, whom the family calls Tinka.
Babbitt eats breakfast, cranks up his car, drives the three miles to work, and enters the Reeves Building, where he has an office on the ground floor. And so another day begins for George Babbitt—another day of wearing standard clothes, eating standard food, and conforming to the standard ideas of a standard society in a standard city.
But something is eating at Babbitt. He’s no longer satisfied with his daily routine. His best friend, Paul Riesling, is also dissatisfied. Paul was George’s roommate at the state university, and they have been bosom pals since that time. They golf together, take car trips on Sundays, and share intimate business and family news. Paul could have been a professional violinist—or maybe even a painter or writer—but instead went into business with his father making and selling roofing material.
After a morning of writing letters and advertisements, Babbitt goes out for lunch with Riesling at the Zenith Athletic Club—an in spot for its 3,000 members—after giving instructions to his stenographer, Miss McGoun, on how to run the office during the hour-and-a-half he will be gone. Babbitt opens his conversation with Riesling by saying he just closed a lucrative real-estate deal. But despite that, he says, he’s been a bit “down in the mouth all day long."
Riesling commiserates with him, saying, “I ought to have been a fiddler, and I’m a pedlar of tar-roofing.” He also complains about his nagging wife, Zilla, who is “so rotten bad-tempered that the cook has quit.” He then suggests that he and Babbitt take a vacation in Maine by themselves so they can “smoke and cuss and be natural.”
The Maine Vacation
Babbitt goes for the idea, and they take the trip in the spring of the next year. The vacation seems to rejuvenate Riesling, and he even begins to think he and Zilla can work out their differences. Although Babbitt enjoys casting his fishing pole and living in the wilds, he can’t quite shake his restlessness and disquietude. However, both men go home with the expectation that things will be better. Of course, when they return, their old monotonous life is still there; it hasn’t gone away. Babbitt plunges into it anyway. He gives a rousing speech at a real-estate convention, helps the establishment-approved candidate—Lucas Prout, a manufacturer of mattresses—win the mayoral election, becomes active in boosting the Chatham Road Presbyterian Sunday School, gets himself elected vice president of the local chapter of the Boosters’ Club, and continues to shine in the real-estate business. It seems there’s no stopping him. All is well with George F. Babbitt.
Meanwhile, Verona rises to the job of secretary to Mr. Gruensberg while taking up with Kenneth Escott, a reporter for the Advocate-Times. Although Verona's and Escott's jobs are conventional and respectable, their conversations center on radical ideas, and their social activities consist mainly of attending lectures by radical authors and philosophers. However, they themselves do not become involved in radical movements.
As for Ted, he gets chummy with an annoying but pretty little thing from next Door, Eunice Littlefield, the daughter of Howard Littlefield, Ph.D., manager of employment and publicity for the Zenith Street Traction Company. When Ted begs for a car but doesn't get one, he and three friends tinker an old Ford chassis into a hot rod, drive it for a while, then sell it at a profit. As a concession to Ted, Babbitt buys him a motorcycle, and Ted and Eunice go on outings every Saturday. One night, when Ted holds a party at the Babbitt home, he and Eunice and their friends whoop it—and occasionally go off to separate rooms or to cars to do who-knows-what. Dr. Littlefield comes in to see how things are going and is shocked to see Ted and Eunice dancing "like one body." He hauls her home. Afterward, Babbitt smells whiskey on Ted's breath and severely reprimands him. Eventually, Ted decides to go to college to study law, a decision he he had considered while he accompanied his father on a business trip to Chicago.
Paul Shoots Zilla
One day, Babbitt receives appalling news. His bosom buddy Paul—after having an affair with a widow—shoots his wife, Zilla, during an argument. Zilla lives, but Riesling gets three years in the state penitentiary. This nasty turn of events desolates Babbitt, for good old Paul is no longer there to commiserate with him. In time, Babbitt begins to reassess his life. One day, he runs into attorney Seneca Doane, the losing candidate in the mayoral election against Proust. Babbitt is suddenly impressed with Doane and his liberal ideas. Doane had attended college with Babbitt and recalls that George was something of a liberal himself, one who espoused the cause of the poor and the downtrodden.
“I've always aimed to be liberal,” Babbitt says. “Now, I always believe in giving the other fellow a chance, and listening to his ideas.”
Seized with zeal, Babbitt begins espousing liberal causes. However, one of his first manifestations of “liberality” is an affair with Tanis Judique, an attractive widow who rents an apartment in a Babbitt building with a leaky roof that she had asked him to repair. While romancing her, he also begins pushing “radical” causes and even takes the side of strikers in a wave of labor disputes involving telephone operators and linemen, workers in the dairy industry, truckers, and employees of the Zenith Steel and Machinery Company. There is violence, and the National Guard is mobilized.
Members of the local Good Citizens’ League—surgeon A. I. Dilling, contractor Charles McKelvey, and the owner of the local newspaper, Colonel Rutherford Snow—confront Babbitt and threaten retaliation unless he joins their organization and changes his ways. Babbitt refuses. On his way home from work, he sees Vergil Gunch on the street and waves to him. Gunch ignores him. At home, his wife urges him to join the Good Citizens’ League. If he doesn’t, she says, “People might criticize you.” The next morning on the way to work, he greets the august banker William Washington Eathorne, but Eathorne just gives him a contemptuous look.
In Babbitt's office, his business partner and father-in-law, Henry Thompson, says, “If folks get an idea you're scatter-brained and unstable, you don't suppose they'll want to do business with you, do you?”
That very afternoon Babbitt fails to make what should have been an easy sale. Later, the Street Traction Company takes its business elsewhere. Then Miss McGoun quits and takes a job with a competing real-estate firm. Next, the Chamber of Commerce does not ask him to speak at the annual dinner, and he is not invited to a big poker game that normally would have included him. Babbitt begins to imagine that people are whispering about him. The only ones who support the new George Babbitt, it seems, are his children Ted and Verona.
Judique Not Unique
Meanwhile, Tanis Judique turns out not to be the fanciful creature he originally thought she was. She certainly is not the fairy girl of his dreams. At the same time, he becomes closer to his wife after she undergoes an operation to remove an inflamed appendix. His attitude begins to change—he becomes the old George once again—and his friends and neighbors notice. One day, when Vergil Gunch invites him into the Good Citizens’ League, a warm feeling flows through Babbitt, he slaps Gunch on the back, and the next day he joins the league.
All is well again. George F. Babbitt is once more a solid citizen—a solid, conforming, standard citizen.
Meanwhile, Verona marries Kenneth Escott, as expected. Then, one day, Ted announces to the family that he has dropped out of college and married Eunice Littlefield in secret. Everyone chastises him for this foolhardy move at his young age—everyone, that is, except Babbitt. Though he failed to break out of his conformist mold, Babbitt now realizes it would be wrong to force his son into the same mold. He tells Ted:
Well, maybe you'll carry things on further. I don't know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell 'em to go to the devil! I'll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don't be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I've been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!
To rise in the business and social world of Zenith—and to maintain good standing—a person must conform to the standards established by the power structure. Anyone who opposes the power structure—anyone who dares to think independently—becomes an outcast, as Babbitt becomes for a brief time after he espouses “radical” causes. Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates devoted his life to challenging established ideas and the power structure that safeguarded them. Although his peers sentenced him to death, they could not halt the spread of his ideas. Today, the world remembers Socrates as one of the greatest thinkers in history, and his ideas live on.
Power of Peer Pressure
When Babbitt conforms to prevailing views in his community, he enjoys the respect of the in crowd. However, when he begins to think independently, his peers snub him and even sabotage his business. This pressure is too much for Babbitt to withstand, and he returns to the fold, stepping back inside his old skin, his old ideas, and his old way of life.
Zenith, of course, is an English word meaning highest point or pinnacle. When Babbitt is in his office in Zenith, or among acquaintances at the Zenith Athletic Club, he believes he ranks with the most eminent men of his society. To reinforce his status, he acquires the latest home appliances and gadgetry, cultivates relationships with the most influential politicians, joins the right organizations, proudly wears his Boosters’ button, and becomes active in church affairs. After he has a change of heart and espouses causes that the local power structure opposes, his acquaintances anathematize him. Fearing loss of status, he quickly reverts back to his old ways.
Babbitt and his cronies believe they are pillars of the community who promote high moral and ethical standards. In reality, they are pragmatic, narrow-minded citizens who play politics, deceive business clients, oppress the working class, womanize, and stifle views that dissent from their own. The following passage from Chapter IV, Part IV, centers on this theme:
But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y. M. C. A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling: "Course I don't mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel. You see—you see it's like this: In the first place, maybe the owner of the property exaggerated when he put it into my hands, and it certainly isn't my place to go proving my principal a liar!Hope
Near the end of the novel, Ted shocks his family when he marries Eunice Littlefield in secret after dropping out of college to work in a factory. Everyone, including the self-styled rebel Verona, condemns his action—everyone, that is, except George Babbitt. He seems to realize that Ted did has developed individuality, independence, and the courage to pursue his own dreams—qualities that George failed to develop in himself.Writing Style............................................................................................................Sinclair Lewis Books at Amazon.com
Lewis wrote his novels mostly in the tidy, straightforward style he carried over from his days as a newspaperman. One of the hallmarks of his journalistic style is active verbs that suggest movement and sound. In the following passages, the active verbs appear in blue type:
Over a concrete bridge fled a limousine of long sleek hood and noiseless engine. . . . Below the bridge curved a railroad, a maze of green and crimson lights. The New York Flyer boomed past, and twenty lines of polished steel leaped into the glare.Lewis also uses repetition, coordinating words and phrases, and parallel structure to write balanced, rhythmic sentences and paragraphs. In the following paragraph, repeated words or phrases appear in red; phrases balanced against one another appear in black, underlined:
Through the building crawled the scrubwomen, yawning, their old shoes slapping. The dawn mist spun away. Cuesof men with lunch-boxes clumped toward the immensity of new factories.
The furnace-man slammed the basement door. A dog barked in the next yard. As Babbitt sank blissfully into a dimwarm tide, the paper-carrier went by whistling, and the rolled-up Advocate thumped the front door. Babbitt roused, his stomach constricted with alarm.
Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priests of the Presbyterian Church determined his every religious belief and the senators who controlled the Republican Party decided in little smoky rooms in Washington what he should think about disarmament, tariff, and Germany, so did the large national advertisers fix the surface of his life, fix what he believed to be his individuality. These standard advertised wares—toothpastes, socks, tires, cameras, instantaneous hot-water heaters—were his symbols and proofs of excellence; at first the signs, then the substitutes, for joy and passion and wisdom.In the following passage, Lewis uses repetition mixed with concrete figures of speech. The repeated patterns are highlighted in red. The figures of speech are identified below the passage:
Zilla's face was wrinkled like the Medusa, her voice was a dagger of corroded brass. She was full of the joy of righteousness and bad temper. Shewas a crusader and, like every crusader, she exulted in the opportunity to be vicious in the name of virtue. "Let it go?Frequently Lewis uses dialogue to reveal the traits of his characters. For example, in the first chapter, he suggests that Babbitt has a bit of a martyr complex by having him talk to himself while going through his morning bathroom routine:
face was wrinkled like the Medusa: simile comparing Zilla to Medusa (in Greek mythology, a monstrous, ugly woman with snakes for hair and a gaze that could turn onlookers to stone)
By golly, here they go and use up all the towels, every doggone one of 'em, and they use 'em and get 'em all wet and sopping, and never put out a dry one for me—of course, I'm the goat!—and then I want one and—I'm the only person in the doggone house that's got the slightest doggone bit of consideration for other people and thoughtfulness and consider there may be others that may want to use the doggone bathroom after me and consider—One fault of Lewis's style—perhaps a serious one—is that it tends to "photograph" events rather than "x-raying" them. In other words, it describes and narrates events, often with generous detail, but typically fails to hint at the causes of the events.
The climax of a novel or another literary work, such as a short story or a play, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Babbitt occurs, according to the first definition, when Babbitt abandons his rebellious ideas and embraces his old ways. This moment comes when Vergil Gunch, the coal dealer, asks invites Babbitt to join the Good Citizens’ League. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Ted Babbitt shocks his family with news that he married in secret but nevertheless receives his father's imprimatur.
American society today—indeed, every modern society—has its Babbitts. They are men and women who subjugate their minds to the collective will in order to gain favors and form relationships that will speed their rise in the local power structure. To think independently—or to reject accepted practices and traditions—is to risk losing social standing,
as Babbitt discovered. In Zenith, which is to say any town or city where men and women follow the herd, conformity is the best policy. It puts a jingle in the pocket and food on the table; it brings esteem, social acceptance, and the opportunity to live in a nice home, give rousing speeches, and wear a Boosters’ button.
Biographies of Sinclair Lewis
Short biographies of Sinclair Lewis appear at the following links: