BARRON'S BOOK NOTES
^^^^^^^^^^SINCLAIR LEWIS: THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
If you go to any large dictionary and open it to the "B" section, you'll
find two definitions that didn't exist before 1922: Babbitt--an
uncultured, conformist businessman; Babbittry--smugness, conventionality,
and a desire for material success. These words have become part of our
vocabulary, thanks to Sinclair Lewis. Few authors in American literature
have done what Lewis did in his novel about a middle-aged realtor: in
George F. Babbitt he gave the world a character so vivid and
indestructible that the name has come to stand not just for a single
fictional character but for many American businessmen of that era as
well. In some ways Sinclair Lewis was himself much like Babbitt--
midwestern, ambitious, occasionally loud, sometimes obnoxious, and
Harry Sinclair Lewis was born on February 7, 1885, in the small town of
Sauk Centre, Minnesota. His father was a physician, devoted but rather
harsh to his son. In later years, Lewis would describe his childhood in
the prairie town as a happy series of Tom Sawyer adventures, but others
remembered his life there differently. He was a homely boy, too skinny,
with bright red hair and bad skin. He was no good at sports. Worse, he
lived in the shadow of an athletic older brother who could do all the
things Harry couldn't. Perhaps it was the insecurity Lewis felt that made
him begin to write not the fiction that would one day bring him fame, but
verse modeled after the works of the British poet Tennyson, full of the
romance and adventure Lewis could not find in Sauk Centre.
Anxious to escape, at seventeen he convinced his father to send him to
Yale, rather than to the nearby University of Minnesota. He found,
though, that he didn't fit in any better there than he did in Sauk
Centre. His talent as a writer earned him a place as editor of the
college literary magazine, but he had few friends. His classmates, by and
large, were Eastern aristocrats who had little to say to a small-town
doctor's son. By his junior year, Lewis was fed up enough to quit school
and join a socialist commune being formed by writer Upton Sinclair. But
his interest in socialism was at best lukewarm (though you can clearly
see a lingering distrust of business and an admiration for labor unions
in Babbitt). After six months he left to board a ship for Panama, where
he hoped to find work building the canal. No jobs were to be had, and he
returned to Yale, graduating a year late. Now came nearly a decade of
dead-end jobs and constant traveling. Lewis knew he wanted to be a
writer. But what would he write and how would he earn a living while
writing it? He tried journalism in Iowa, in New York, in California.
While in California he sold ideas for adventure stories to an already
established young author named Jack London. He returned to New York and
worked for various publishing companies. He married. Wherever he was,
whatever job he held, he was writing--first, short stories that he began
to sell to magazines, and next, in 1912, a boy's adventure book called
Hike and the Aeroplane. Then came novels: Our Mr. Wrenn (1914), The Trail
of the Hawk (1915), The Innocents and The Job (both 1917), and Free Air
(1919). None of these attracted much attention at the time, nor are they
read much today. But they were preparation for the books that would make
Lewis world famous.
The first of these was published in 1920. Main Street told the story of
Carol Kennicott, a doctor's wife in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, who longed
for the culture and sophistication she thought existed in the glittering
cities of the East. Gopher Prairie bore a strong resemblance to Sauk
Centre, and--as Lewis himself later admitted--except for her sex, Carol
Kennicott bore a strong resemblance to the young Sinclair Lewis. Both
felt trapped among people who cared little for music or art or
literature--or for anything except gossip and money.
Main Street created a sensation. Traditionally, Americans liked to
believe their small towns were the centers of national virtue. But here
was a book saying that small-town folk were mostly ignorant bigots, the
small town itself a trap few could escape. All across the country, people
asked themselves, Are we really this bad? Main Street was praised and
attacked--and was purchased by the tens of thousands. Lewis became
America's best-known author.
The stage was set for Lewis's second triumph. He wrote his publisher that
his next novel would be "the story of the Tired Businessman, the man in
the Pullman smoker, of our American ruler, of the man playing golf at the
country club, in Minneapolis, Omaha, Atlanta, Rochester." His main
character would be "all of us Americans at 46, prosperous but worried,
wanting--passionately--to seize something more than motor cars and a
house before it's too late."
To write the story of this businessman, Lewis went to Cincinnati, which
became the model for the medium-sized American city that is Babbitt's
setting. He worked much as a sociologist or reporter might work,
traveling, interviewing, filling notebooks with his observations. He
visited athletic clubs, attended lodge meetings, went to church services,
all to become familiar with the life that a George F. Babbitt might lead.
Before Lewis had begun to write a word of his story, he had already
created complete biographies of his fictional characters and drawn maps
of his imaginary city of Zenith. This thoroughness insured that his book
would become a portrait not just of one man but of an entire society in
Babbitt was published in September of 1922, and it became the most
talked-about book of the year. Once again, Lewis had struck a sensitive
Lewis saw that America was changing in the 1920s. It was, in fact, well
on its way to becoming the urban, industrial nation it is today. The
small towns he had written about in Main Street were dying. Americans
were moving to the cities, working in offices rather than on farms,
driving automobiles, going to the movies. They were proud of being
modern. But to Lewis the new America was even more of a nightmare than
the old one had been. Zenith, "the zip city," is full of pep but empty of
intelligence. Instead of art, it has advertising. Instead of religion, it
has boosterism--loud, mindless self-promotion. Worst of all, as Babbitt
to his sorrow learns, in Zenith everyone must conform. Not only do its
residents buy the same davenports (sofas) and automobiles, but they think
the same thoughts. They're terrified of radicals, foreigners, different
ideas in general.
Lewis wasn't the only literary figure of the 1920s critical of American
life. Writers like Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest
Hemingway were making some of the same attacks, and many readers believe
they made them with more skill and intelligence. But no other writer
seemed to know the American business world and American middle-class life
as intimately as Lewis knew it. This knowledge was one of the main
reasons for Babbitt's success. As many readers have noted, Babbitt is not
at its heart a realistic novel. Lewis frequently selects his evidence to
make Babbitt and Zenith appear as bad as possible. Because he portrayed
the surfaces of middle-class American life so accurately, however, he
convinces us that his exaggerated satiric attack on that life is
accurate. If some of Lewis's readers protested that Babbitt's world was
too horrible to be true, far more feared that Lewis's portrait was too
correct in all its details not to be true.
Another reason for Babbitt's success is its humor. Despite the
seriousness of its subject matter, Babbitt is a very funny book. Lewis
was a satirist--he wanted us to laugh as he went on the warpath. Like one
of his favorite writers, Dickens, he created characters that were often
humorous caricatures, and like Mark Twain he depended on exaggerated
everyday speech to make those caricatures live. (In fact, Lewis was so
good at imitating Babbitt and so fond of performing his imitations that
one friend complained that being with him was like being with a tape
recorder you couldn't turn off.) Of course, Lewis could have written a
bitter and humorless attack on Babbitt and all he stood for. But he
didn't want to do that, because, as he later admitted, he liked Babbitt--
at least in part. He was fully aware of Babbitt's absurdity but he
couldn't bring himself to be utterly harsh with him. After all, Babbitt
represents not just one man but much of what Lewis felt was middle-class
America; and Lewis was too much the child of that America to be able to
condemn Babbitt completely.
The 1920s saw Lewis at the pinnacle of his career. He followed Babbitt
with Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929), all
widely praised best-sellers. In 1926 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize
for Arrowsmith, but he refused it, possibly out of annoyance that he
hadn't received it earlier for Main Street or Babbitt. In 1930 he won and
accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first American ever
to receive the honor.
But the years following the Nobel Prize were not happy ones. He had
divorced his first wife and married the well-known journalist Dorothy
Thompson; he would divorce her as well. He began to drink heavily. His
reputation as a writer declined as critics began to favor younger authors
like Ernest Hemingway, and as Lewis published a string of novels inferior
to his earlier works. His last years were filled with hectic traveling.
He was in Rome, Italy, when he died on January 10, 1951.
Sinclair Lewis's greatest creation, however, has lived on. Today's
Babbitt might be selling computers rather than houses, and no doubt the
automobile he now worships is sleeker than the 1920 model. But he still
worries about keeping up with the neighbors, and he gets much of what he
thinks from advertisements and newspaper headlines. (Today he can also
watch television.) He remains a symbol of all that is stupid, ridiculous,
and funny--and, occasionally, sad and noble--about many of us in America.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THE PLOT
It's April 1920. Above the morning mist rise the towers of Zenith, a city
of 360,000 somewhere in the American midwest. In a suburban house, a
forty-six-year-old realtor named George Babbitt wakes, shaves, eats
breakfast. Every object he owns is a symbol of his prosperous,
respectable life. Yet Babbitt is filled with a discontent, which he takes
out on his patient but dull wife, Myra, and on his children, Verona, Ted,
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
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
The strike is crushed. Babbitt, still looking for something or someone to
give meaning to his life, begins to visit Tanis Judique. Tanis is part of
a wild set who call themselves "The Bunch," and when Babbitt is seen with
them, his old friends grow more hostile. Then Babbitt commits another
"crime": he refuses Vergil Gunch's invitation to join the Good Citizens'
League, a group dedicated to stifling opinions it considers too liberal.
Mrs. Babbitt, confused and unhappy about her husband, seeks comfort in
the half-baked philosophy of the American New Thought League. Babbitt
feels trapped; even after he ends his affair with Tanis, pressure from
Gunch and his other conservative friends increases. Join the Good
Citizens' League, they demand, and when he again refuses they make him an
outcast in his own city, whispering, spying, denying Babbitt both
friendship and business.
One night Mrs. Babbitt complains of a pain in her side: appendicitis. The
illness terrifies her and Babbitt as well. As they rush to the hospital,
he realizes he's too weak to continue his rebellion. Zenith has licked
him. He vows loyalty to all the false values he briefly fought: to
business, to success, to Zenith.
Mrs. Babbitt recovers. At the end of the book, Babbitt is almost the same
man he was at its start--except that now he has no illusions about his
dishonest, empty life. When his son Ted shocks the family by eloping, and
asks permission to quit college and become a mechanic, Babbitt takes him
aside and gives his approval. Perhaps the younger generation can make up
for Babbitt's failure--if, unlike Babbitt, Ted can remain unafraid of his
family, unafraid of Zenith, unafraid of himself. Then disillusioned
father and still-hopeful son march in to greet their family.
Babbitt is a satiric look both at one man and at an entire society. As
such, it's crowded with characters. Some of them, notably George Babbitt,
are well developed, possessing the mixture of good and bad qualities that
human beings possess. But many others are flat and simple--not flesh-and-
blood people so much as representatives of the various social classes and
occupations that Lewis wants to satirize.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: GEORGE F. BABBITT
George F. Babbitt, the forty-six-year-old realtor who gives the novel its
title, is a figure so vivid he's come to represent the typical
prosperous, middle-aged American businessman of the 1920s--conservative,
uncultured, smug, conforming, and loud.
Babbitt has dozens of faults, and Lewis the satirist wants you to laugh
at every one of them. Babbitt's a booster, loudly promoting his city even
when he doesn't understand what he's promoting. He takes pride in being
modern, but he knows nothing of the science and engineering he salutes.
He praises business ethics, but he isn't above making shady deals with
the Zenith Street Traction Company; he talks about leading a moral life
but goes to a brothel and indulges in an adulterous affair. Music and art
are threatening mysteries, great literature is a letter promoting
cemetery plots, and education and religion are merely means of getting
ahead in real estate.
And yet Lewis doesn't want us merely to sneer at Babbitt. In fact, as he
wrote to a friend, he liked Babbitt--and he wants you to like Babbitt (at
least a little) too. At his best, Babbitt is a sympathetic character. He
may not understand his children, but he loves them. And his friendship
with Paul Riesling is a genuine one.
Most important of all, Babbitt is able to see--though dimly--that his
life has serious flaws and that he could be a better man than he is. Much
of the book is devoted to showing Babbitt trying to become that man. He
flees with Paul Riesling to the woods of Maine, which symbolize for him a
masculine world, free and brave. He supports Seneca Doane's political
crusade. Unfortunately, he isn't intelligent enough to choose really
effective ways of rebelling. (When his attempt at politics fails, he
enters into a rather foolish affair with the sophisticated Tanis
Judique.) Nor is he strong enough to make his rebellion last.
Babbitt is a comic figure, and Lewis with his gift of parody will have
you laughing at each of his absurd business letters, each of his
boneheaded speeches. But at the end of the book Babbitt emerges as a
pathetic figure as well. He's in the terrible bind of knowing that he
needs to change but isn't courageous enough. Is he a more or less hapless
victim of the Zenith mentality and morality? Or is he really responsible
for his own plight, a man suffering only because he's now forced to
follow the standards he demanded of everyone else? That's for you to
decide. All Babbitt can hope for as his story ends is that the next
generation, represented by his son, Ted, will somehow manage to lead a
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: MYRA BABBITT
Plump, matronly Myra Babbitt has been married to George Babbitt for
twenty-three years. She is no more a traditional heroine than her husband
is a traditional hero. No better educated than Babbitt, she's both a
victim of and a willing participant in Zenith's demands for conformity.
Her main worries seem to revolve around social status. She wants to give
successful dinner parties; she longs to be invited to the home of the
wealthy Charles McKelveys.
The Babbitt marriage is a good one by Zenith standards, but as Lewis
paints it, it's completely devoid of passion or romance. Babbitt feels
trapped by his wife's dullness and turns first to dreaming of the fairy
girl of his youth and then to pursuing Mrs. Tanis Judique.
Yet Mrs. Babbitt isn't an unsympathetic character. She is kind. And she
deserves credit for having spent twenty years listening to Babbitt's
irritable complaints. She can't understand his desire to rebel, but she
too sees dimly that her life might have been better.
At the end of the book Mrs. Babbitt suffers an attack of appendicitis
that brings the couple together. You may still be having mixed feelings
about her. On the one hand, she's one of the forces making Babbitt
abandon his rebellion and return to safe, conformist Zenith life. On the
other hand, she's been a victim of that conformist life as well. When in
the ambulance she suggests it might be better if she did die because no
one loves her, you may see, as Babbitt sees, that she hasn't had an easy
time of it in Zenith either.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT BABBITT
Like some seventeen-year-olds, Babbitt's son, Ted, is caught up in a
rebellion against his father. Babbitt wants Ted to go to college and then
on to law school to have the legal career he was denied. Ted would rather
be a mechanic. Yet despite these warring goals, father and son are more
alike than different. Both are one hundred percent products of Zenith,
mistrusting education, valuing material success above all else, more than
willing to conform to Zenith's standards. Ted's high school party may
seem wild to Babbitt, but it's exactly like every other high school party
in the city.
Yet, like Babbitt, Ted has his good side. He does love his father. Away
from home--as on their trip to Chicago--they act more like two friends
than like father and son. When, at the end of the novel, Ted rebels by
eloping with Eunice Littlefield and asking family permission to quit
college, Babbitt gives his approval. He hopes that Ted will be strong
enough to avoid the mistakes Babbitt made--that he won't be afraid of
family, of Zenith, of himself.
From what you've seen of Ted and of Zenith, do you think Babbitt's hopes
are justified? Will Ted be able to maintain his honest independence? Or
is he destined to become as much a victim of conformity as his father?
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: VERONA BABBITT
Babbitt's twenty-two-year-old daughter considers herself superior to
everyone around her. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she reads "genuine
literature" (books by Joseph Conrad and H. L. Mencken), thinks of herself
as an intellectual, and has vague plans to do social work.
Yet for all her education, Verona may not seem to you much different from
the rest of her family or from the rest of Zenith. Her arguments with her
brother are petty and childish. Instead of becoming a social worker, she
takes a job as a secretary. Though in her political discussions with her
fiance, reporter Kenneth Escott, she calls herself a radical, her ideas
are only slightly more liberal than Babbitt's. And at the end of the
novel, when Ted has eloped with Eunice Littlefield, the now-married
Verona strongly disapproves. What can you conclude about Verona when you
see she's become such a staunch defender of Zenith's values?
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: SENECA DOANE
This lawyer and reformer (whose first name comes from a noble Roman
statesman) is perhaps the one person in Babbitt who makes an intelligent,
persistent rebellion against the forces of corruption and conformity in
Zenith. He runs, unsuccessfully, for mayor; he supports striking workers;
he tries to aid a minister condemned for his liberal views. In a way,
Doane and Babbitt have switched places in life. When they were in college
together, Babbitt had wanted to become a lawyer who helped the poor, and
Doane had wanted to become rich. Babbitt gave up his dream to chase
business success, and Doane gave up a lucrative career in corporate law
to work with labor unions and other reform movements. What point do you
think Lewis was making with the Babbitt/Doane reversal? Is it to show how
youthful dreams can change?
Doane understands Zenith more clearly than does any other person in the
novel. In fact, Lewis uses Doane to voice many of his own thoughts about
the city. Zenith is to be admired for its economic efficiency and for the
comfortable life of its middle class, but condemned for its crooked
politics and for the conformity it demands.
T. CHOLMONDELEY FRINK
One of Lewis's funniest creations is this poet and advertising "genius"
known to his friends as "Chum." Frink, the author of "Poemulations," a
newspaper idea column, and "Ads that Add" is Zenith's idea of a great
writer. His writing is, of course, terrible, and Lewis has a great deal
of fun showing just how bad his work really is. Verses like "I sat alone
and groused and thunk, and scratched my head and sighed and wunk" are all
the evidence we need of the low level of literature in Zenith.
Yet Frink, like so many others in Babbitt, may win at least a little
sympathy from you because he is a victim of failed dreams. One foggy
night Babbitt observes Frink staggering drunkenly down the street. "I'm a
traitor to poetry," Frink shouts--and it's the truth. He thinks he could
have been a serious writer; instead he sold his talents to the highest
bidder. It's a sadly common fate in Zenith.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: VERGIL GUNCH
Vergil Gunch, coal dealer, president of the Boosters' Club and potential
Exalted Ruler of the Elks, is at the start of Babbitt everything Babbitt
himself would like to be. Gunch is Babbitt at his most extreme--loud,
full of jokes, financially successful--but he is not plagued by any of
the doubts that burden Babbitt. But because those doubts make Babbitt in
many ways a sympathetic character, without them Gunch is in many ways a
monster. Once Babbitt begins to rebel against Zenith by supporting Seneca
Doane and by having an affair with Tanis Judique, it's Gunch he most
fears. And for good reason--Gunch is always whispering about him, spying
on him. Gunch's ugly name signals his moral ugliness.
Gunch does have his good side, as Zenith has its good side. His hospital
visits to the ailing Mrs. Babbitt show that friendliness does exist in
Zenith, and that it can be a comfort. But Lewis never lets us forget that
Gunch's friendliness is basically shallow, because it extends only to
people who are exactly like himself. Gunch represents Zenith at its
meanest. When at the end of the book Babbitt once again becomes his
friend, it's another token of Babbitt's final defeat.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: TANIS JUDIQUE
A pretty, elegantly dressed widow of not-quite middle age, Tanis Judique
enters Babbitt's life when she comes to look for an apartment. Babbitt is
immediately attracted to her, but not until he makes an unsuccessful pass
at a young manicurist, and fails as a political rebel, does he take the
enormous--and in Zenith, dangerous--step of having an affair.
Compared to Babbitt, Tanis is cultured and well educated. But in some
ways she isn't that superior to the rest of Zenith. She snobbishly hopes
that Babbitt belongs to the elite Union Club. Her friends, who call
themselves "The Bunch," like to believe they're brave rebels against
Zenith society, but in fact they're as flighty and thoughtless, and
probably as foolish, as any member of the Booster's Club.
Eventually, Babbitt begins to think of Tanis as dull and unattractive,
little better than his wife, and he breaks off the affair. When, in a
moment of desperation, he returns to see her, she is cool and distant
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: ZILLA RIESLING
Zilla Riesling, Paul Riesling's wife, is another of the unhappy, would-be
rebels in Babbitt. An intelligent, witty woman, she sees Zenith for the
dull, conformist place it is and isn't afraid to say so. Yet just as her
husband Paul's insight becomes self-pity, Zilla's becomes bitterness. She
and Paul turn on each other, making their lives more miserable than they
Paul first deals with Zilla by having an affair; then, enraged, he shoots
her. She survives, but when some months later Babbitt visits her, she's a
changed woman. Once blowsy, though lively, and attractive, she's now
"bloodless and aged," and "dreadfully still." She's become a devout
follower of the Pentecostal Communion Faith, but religion, far from
teaching her Christian charity, has only increased her bitterness. She
claims she's found peace, but Babbitt gives an accurate analysis: "Well,
if that's what you call being at peace, for heaven's sake just warn me
before you go to war, will you?"
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: PAUL RIESLING
Paul Riesling is Babbitt's best--perhaps his only true--friend. In some
ways, he's the most extreme example of the damage Zenith inflicts on its
citizens, of the crippling disappointments they suffer when their
personal dreams are sacrificed to Zenith's demands for commercial
success. Once a promising violinist, Riesling had hoped to study music in
Europe. Instead, he's a roofing manufacturer, unhappily married, playing
his violin only for friends.
Riesling is one of the most intelligent characters in the novel. His
thoughts about Zenith--that it is a place of cutthroat competition and
conformity, where one-third of the people are openly miserable and
another third secretly unhappy--are similar to Lewis's own views. Still,
some readers have found him an unsympathetic character in some ways. Paul
blames his wife, Zilla, for all his suffering and seems to ignore the
fact that he has made her suffer too. When at last his rage and
depression lead him to shoot Zilla, he realizes too late she deserved his
understanding more than his anger. Intelligent critic of Zenith, or self-
pitying weakling? Victim or criminal? How do you see Paul?
After Paul is sent to prison he virtually disappears from the novel. With
him goes the one relationship Babbitt truly valued. That loss sets the
stage for Babbitt's own open rebellion.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: MAY ARNOLD
May Arnold is a middle-aged widow with whom Paul Riesling is having an
affair. Babbitt sees the pair together in Chicago.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: KATHARINE "TINKA" BABBITT
Tinka is Babbitt's ten-year-old daughter. Because she's too young to have
been spoiled by life in Zenith, she gives Babbitt comfort when the rest
of his family irritates him.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: FULTON BEMIS
Bemis is a railway clerk; he and Babbitt are the two male, middle-aged
members of the Bunch, Tanis Judique's group of friends.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: DR. A. I. DILLING
Dr. Dilling is Mrs. Babbitt's surgeon and the leader of the Good
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: SIR GERALD DOAK
A visiting British millionaire, Sir Gerald is much entertained by society
hostesses like Lucile McKelvey, who assume he's interested in art and
culture. In fact as Babbitt happily discovers when he befriends Doak in
Chicago, Doak is as concerned with profits and as ignorant of art as any
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: SAM DOPPELBRAU
Doppelbrau is Babbitt's neighbor. Babbitt dislikes him for his drunken
noisy parties. Later, the rebellious Babbitt becomes a participant in
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THE REVEREND JOHN JENNISON DREW
Reverend Drew is the pastor of the Chatham Road Presbyterian Church. Drew
represents the way religion in Zenith has been corrupted by business. He
runs his church like a successful corporation, and he invites Babbitt to
use business techniques to increase Sunday School attendance.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: WILLIAM WASHINGTON EATHORNE
Eathorne is the head of Zenith's oldest and richest family. Banker
Eathorne is to Babbitt an awe-inspiring figure. His somber, dignified
manner is very different from the backslapping joking of Babbitt and his
Boosters' Club friends, but he's just as profit-hungry and unethical as
the rest of the Zenith business community.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: KENNETH ESCOTT
Escott is a young reporter on the Zenith Advocate-Times. Escott is hired
to promote Reverend Drew's Presbyterian Church. Like Verona Babbitt, he
considers himself a "radical," and their shared beliefs lead to romance
and marriage. But Escott is hardly more liberal than Babbitt, and no more
honest: he abandons his journalistic ideals to take a high-paying job.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: SIDNEY FINKELSTEIN
Finkelstein is a clothing buyer and a member of the Athletic Club.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: STANLEY GRAFF
A salesman for Babbitt-Thompson Realty, Graff is fired for dishonesty but
accuses Babbitt of being just as dishonest.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: HEALEY HANSON
Hanson is a saloon owner who sells Babbitt illegal liquor.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: ORVILLE JONES
Jones is a laundry owner who is invited to the Babbitt's dinner party.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: EUNICE LITTLEFIELD
Eunice is the seventeen-year-old daughter of Howard Littlefield. Eunice
is a carefree, movie-mad girl who represents some of the ways America's
youth was changing in the 1920s. At the end of the novel she elopes with
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: HOWARD LITTLEFIELD
One of Babbitt's neighbors, Littlefield has a Ph.D. in economics and
delights in showing off his knowledge. Yet most of what he knows is petty
and dull, and his opinions are no more thoughtful than the opinions of
any other Zenith businessman.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CONRAD LYTE
Lyte is a greedy speculator who is one of Babbitt's best clients.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THERESA MCGOUN
Theresa McGoun is Babbitt's highly efficient secretary. He briefly
considers having an affair with her.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHARLES MCKELVEY
A college classmate of Babbitt, McKelvey is now a wealthy, powerful, not
very honest contractor who represents the rising American aristocracy.
The Babbitts invite the McKelveys to dinner only to discover that the
McKelveys are not interested in having middle-class friends.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: LUCILE MCKELVEY
Lucile is Charles McKelvey's wife. She considers herself superior to the
middle-class Babbitts, preferring to entertain English aristocrats like
Sir Gerald Doak.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: MIKE MONDAY
Monday is a prizefighter turned famous evangelist. He's based on a real
evangelist of the 1920s, Billy Sunday.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: OPAL EMERSON MUDGE
Opal Mudge is a field-lecturer of the American New Thought League. She
gives a ridiculous speech on "Cultivating the Sun Spirit" to an audience
that includes the enthusiastic Mrs. Babbitt and the irritated Babbitt.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CARRIE NORK
Carrie Nork is a spinsterish member of the Bunch.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: JAKE OFFUTT
Offutt is a crooked political boss. He plots shady business deals with
the help of Babbitt's father-in-law.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: ED OVERBROOK
Overbrook is an unsuccessful college classmate of Babbitt. He and his
wife are prevented by class barriers from becoming the Babbitts' friends,
just as those barriers prevent the Babbitts from becoming the McKelveys'
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: JOE PARADISE
Paradise is a wilderness guide in Maine. He disappoints Babbitt by
showing himself to be as lazy, profit hungry, and ignorant of nature as
any Zenith businessman.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: LUCAS PROUT
Prout is a conservative mattress manufacturer, who with Babbitt's help is
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: PROFESSOR JOSEPH K. PUMPHREY
Professor Pumphrey is the owner of the Riteway Business College and a
member of the Athletic Club.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: IDA PUTIAK
Ida Putiak is an empty-headed, teenaged manicurist, whom Babbitt takes
out on a disastrous date.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: SHELDON SMEETH
Smeeth is the choir director at the Presbyterian Church. He annoys
Babbitt with his constant smile and embarrassing lectures about sex.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: COLONEL RUTHERFORD SNOW
Colonel Snow is the owner of the Advocate-Times and one of the leaders of
the Good Citizens' League.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: MINNIE SONNTAG
Minnie Sonntag is a sarcastic young member of the Bunch.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: EDDIE SWANSON
Babbitt's neighbor, Swanson is a sales agent for Javelin Motors.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: LOUETTA SWANSON
Louetta is Eddie Swanson's bored, flirtatious young wife. She first
ignores Babbitt's advances, later responds to them.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: HENRY T. THOMPSON
Thompson is Babbitt's father-in-law and partner. His continued dealings
with Jake Offutt prove that the older generation in Zenith is no more
honest than are Babbitt and his peers.
Babbitt takes place in Zenith, an imaginary city of 360,000 in the
American Midwest. Zenith is more than just the novel's setting, though.
Because Lewis wanted Babbitt to portray not just one man but an entire
society, Zenith is in some ways as important a character as Babbitt
himself and is presented in as much satiric detail. And just as Lewis
wanted the character Babbitt to stand for many conformist, success-hungry
Americans, he wanted Zenith to stand for all that is admirable and
dreadful about a large segment of America--not the biggest cities or the
small towns but the places in between where so many of us live. And
although on the surface Babbitt may seem to be a realistic novel, at its
heart it really isn't that; instead it's a comic attack. As you read the
book you'll want to ask yourself in what ways Babbitt is an accurate
portrait of America in the 1920s. What do you think has been exaggerated
and what left out of Lewis's portrait? In what ways is the portrait still
Our first view of Zenith is a stirring one. It seems a city made for
giants, fully worthy of its name, which means "highest point." It's one
of the engines pulling America into the industrialized twentieth century.
The products it manufactures are sold around the world. Its laboratories
make it a center of science and engineering. Its prosperity has insured a
comfortable life for its middle class.
Yet we see Zenith's failures in even more glaring detail. Zenith lives
for business profits; everything else is unimportant. It calls itself
religious, but the religion of Mike Monday and John Jennison Drew mainly
keeps the working class under the thumb of the rich. Its literature is
the hack poetry of T. Cholmondeley Frink. Its municipal government is
manipulated by crooked politicians like Jake Offutt and by crooked
businessmen like Henry P. Thompson. It calls itself a land of equality,
but the lines between social classes--between the rich McKelveys and the
middle-class Babbitts, for example--are impossible to cross. It calls
itself a democracy, but its most respectable citizens refuse to tolerate
views different from their own.
This standardization is probably the worst of Zenith's flaws. On a minor
level, it means that downtown Zenith resembles every other downtown in
America, and that Babbitt's living room resembles every other living room
in Floral Heights. But more importantly, it means that Babbitt's opinions
are the opinions of every other member of the Boosters' Club--and that
any one who dares to think differently is considered a threat.
Here are the major themes that Lewis treats in Babbitt. They're explored
in greater detail in The Story section of this guide.
1. THE TYRANNY OF BUSINESS
In Zenith, business is all important, and the hunger for business success
corrupts every part of life. Zenith politics are manipulated for personal
gain. Friendships are used to advance careers. Education and culture have
no value if they can't earn you money. Even religion has less to do with
God than with profits.
Lewis's attacks on the tyranny of business in America are harsh indeed.
Do you think they were valid at the time he wrote? Do you think they're
still valid now? How important is material success to Americans today?
And what are Americans willing to do to achieve it?
2. STANDARDIZATION OF THOUGHT
Zenith has become admirably prosperous because its industries churn out
standardized products. Unfortunately, Zenith also churns out standardized
citizens, who not only buy the same cars and living room furniture, but
get their information from the same sources and think the same thoughts.
Worse, they oppose anyone who dares to be different. As you read Babbitt,
you'll want to look at the ways Lewis portrays standardization in Zenith.
And you'll want to compare Zenith to your world. Where do you get your
opinions? What do you think of people whose views differ greatly from
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
7. THE CORRUPTION OF RELIGION
Religion too has been corrupted by the Zenith business mentality.
Evangelist Mike Monday is brought in to fight labor unions, and the
Reverend John Jennison Drew runs his church like a highly competitive
business. Zilla Riesling's Pentecostal Faith teaches only bitterness.
8. A FAILURE OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS
Most of Babbitt's relationships are, he admits, mechanical, empty,
unfulfilling. Though he jokes with his friends at the Athletic Club, he
can't reveal his true feelings of restlessness to them; only with Paul
Riesling can he really be himself. Babbitt's marriage, too, seems at best
a comfortable but passionless routine.
Probably no aspect of Babbitt has prompted so many different opinions as
has Lewis's literary style. At its best, it's vivid, fast moving, and
funny. One favorite technique is to use overly grand language (often
capitalized) to show that Babbitt's life isn't nearly as heroic as
Babbitt thinks it is--as when Lewis tells us that Babbitt feels his
underwear represents the God of Progress.
Lewis's greatest gift, perhaps, is his ability to mimic his characters'
slang-filled speech and parody their ridiculous writings. Babbitt's
business letters--"I know you're interested in getting a house, not
merely a place where you hang up the old bonnet but a love-nest for the
wife and kiddies"--are strings of enthusiastic, incoherent cliches. And
there are equally effective parodies of correspondence school
advertisements, T. Cholmondeley Frink's dreadful poetry, John Jennison
Drew's syrupy sermons, and the mystical nonsense spouted by Opal Emerson
Mudge of the American New Thought League.
Despite Lewis's gifts as a parodist, however, many readers have
criticized his writing. Even at its most effective, Lewis's satire is
seldom subtle. And too often, some readers feel, his strengths become his
weaknesses. He skillfully mimics the speech of the 1920s, but dialogue so
dependent on the slang of one era can seem out-of-date to later
generations. And Lewis is so adept at imitating Babbitt and his friends
that he tends to let the imitations go on too long, running the risk of
boring the reader just as Babbitt himself bores his audiences with his
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
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: FORM AND STRUCTURE
Babbitt is a loosely structured novel. There is a plot--Babbitt's growing
discontent with his life in Zenith, and his attempt to change by
supporting Seneca Doane and engaging in an affair with Tanis Judique.
There are subplots as well: Paul Riesling's desperation, which leads to a
shooting; Ted Babbitt's romance and elopement with Eunice Littlefield;
the growth of the Good Citizens' League. But many critics have noted that
Lewis is really more interested in exploring Babbitt's world in all its
variety than he is in creating a tightly woven plot and moving that plot
forward. One thing doesn't always lead to another. You could reverse the
order of many of the episodes in the book--say, Babbitt's speech to the
real estate convention and his church work for the Reverend Drew--without
Still, Babbitt does possess a structure. Chapters 1 through 7 show a
typical day in the life of George Babbitt. Then comes a long middle
section--chapters 8 to 19--that examines Babbitt's growing restlessness
but also examines various aspects of life in Zenith. We see important
social institutions like dinner parties, leisure activities, business
conventions, political campaigns, and churches. In a sense, not much
happens in this middle section to move the plot forward, but you come
away from it with a much greater understanding of the society George
Babbitt lives in, the society against which he's about to rebel.
The last section of the book deals with rebellion, Babbitt's and others'.
Paul's affair and its aftermath are treated in chapters 20, 21, and 22.
Babbitt's first efforts to change his life--by dating Ida Putiak, going
to Maine, and supporting Seneca Doane--occupy chapters 23 through 27. His
open revolt and its failure are recounted in chapters 28 to 34.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: POINT OF VIEW
Babbitt is an example of a third-person, omniscient narrative. For the
most part we experience the story from Babbitt's point of view: We're
with him as he wakes up, as he drives to his office, as he has lunch with
Paul Riesling. But the opening scene of the novel demonstrates that Lewis
the narrator is reserving for himself the right to be omniscient, to show
us scenes that Babbitt (who is asleep) couldn't possibly see: a speeding
limousine, workers leaving a factory. He'll use the same tactic at the
end of Babbitt's day, taking us from Babbitt's house to Lucile McKelvey's
parlor, to a Mike Monday revival meeting, to the room where Jake Offutt
and Henry T. Thompson are plotting a crooked business deal.
These narrative techniques are very useful for Lewis. The third-person
narrative lets him satirize Babbitt's failings more easily than if he had
chosen (for example) to have Babbitt narrate the story in the first
person. And by making the narrator omniscient he's able to smoothly
portray not just one man but an entire society.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 1
Babbitt opens with a view of Zenith, the imaginary midwestern city that
is the novel's setting. It's a sweeping, panoramic view--if this were a
movie you could imagine the camera gliding from Zenith's business
district to its suburbs, moving along the highways and railroad tracks,
then zooming in on specific locales: a speeding limousine, an immense new
This opening scene tells you much about what Lewis hopes to do in his
novel, and about the way he hopes to do it. Babbitt isn't just a portrait
of a single man, but of an entire community. You can get a clue to the
way Lewis wants you to understand that community by studying his opening
paragraphs. The name of the city itself, Zenith, is significant. Zenith
means the highest point, the greatest achievement--surely a proud name
for a city to have. And Zenith is proud. It isn't like older cities whose
buildings are citadels devoted to war or cathedrals devoted to religion.
Zenith's shining towers are devoted to business, devoted to the new.
This new city has art, represented by the limousine full of Little
Theater actors speeding home from a rehearsal. But the fact that their
rehearsal was a drunken one makes you wonder how seriously this city
takes art. (The sorry state of art and literature in Zenith will be a
theme repeated throughout Babbitt.)
Zenith also has economic power. Its telegraph wires connect it to Peking
and Paris; the goods it manufactures are sold in the Middle East and in
Africa. Modern, successful Zenith seems a city fit for giants, Lewis
says. We'll soon see if those giants really exist.
NOTE: BABBITT AND MODERN AMERICA In his first success, Main Street,
published two years before Babbitt, Lewis satirized life in the typical
American small town. Now, in the opening paragraphs of Babbitt he
announces he's going to deal with the post--World War I America that has
replaced the small town. This typical new America is urban, industrial,
and prosperous. It's the America, indeed, that many of us still live in
today--a fact you should keep in mind as you read the book.
Lewis takes you inside one Zenith residence, the home of realtor George
F. Babbitt. Babbitt is above all a comic, satirical work, and as Lewis
begins to describe his main character, his satire grows sharp. Zenith
from a distance may look like a city made for giants, but Babbitt is
anything but a giant. He's pink, plump-faced, well-off--not because he's
creative but because he knows how to sell houses to people for more than
they can pay.
But Babbitt himself isn't entirely comfortable with his life. He dreams
of a fairy girl who'll see him not as a middle-aged realtor but as a
Grumpily Babbitt gets out of bed. He's suffering from a hangover, but
he's also suffering from a deeper discontent. That discontent will become
the major theme of the novel. Babbitt looks out at his yard, then goes
into his bathroom and shaves. These actions are simple, everyday ones,
but through them we see one of Lewis's main criticisms of Babbitt's life.
It's a life that puts enormous importance on things. Babbitt's alarm
clock represents all that is modern, advertised, and expensive. His yard
is the neat yard of every successful Zenith businessman. His bathroom is
glittering. In all these careful descriptions, Lewis is making fun of
America's passion for material objects. It's a passion that certainly
continues today. If Babbitt were set in our time, George Babbitt would
probably be the proud owner of a video cassette recorder and a home
If Babbitt is an unlikely hero, the dull and matronly Myra Babbitt is
just as unlikely a heroine. Still, you may find it hard not to feel a
little sympathy for her this morning. Not only must she apologize to
Babbitt for his headache, but she must pretend to listen to his
discussion of suits that--it's clear--has been repeated every morning for
the last twenty years.
Mrs. Babbitt goes down to breakfast and Babbitt lingers upstairs, gazing
out at downtown Zenith. His irritation disappears as he sees the city
skyline. The tall buildings represent the business prosperity that is his
religion, and he hums an inane song--"Oh by gee, by gosh, by jingo"--as
if it were a hymn.
NOTE: BABBITT The first chapter of Lewis's novel gives you a good look
at George F. Babbitt and introduces themes you'll see repeated later on.
One of the things Lewis wants you to do is laugh at this real estate
salesman's irritable boneheaded ignorance. Babbitt knows little about art
and literature. (That's shown when he calls William Shakespeare by the
name James J.) He and his wife both seem mainly concerned with material
possessions and with what other people think of the Babbitts.
Yet there's another side to Babbitt, too, and Lewis wants us to
sympathize with this side, at least a little. Babbitt's dream of the
fairy child may seem ridiculously sentimental, but it shows that he hopes
for a world better than the one he lives in. His plaid blanket reminds
him of a camping trip, planned but never made, that represents a chance
for freedom. These are the signs that Babbitt may have some rebellious
feelings growing within him. We'll see those feelings grow stronger as
the book progresses.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 2
Mrs. Babbitt has been married too long to feel any real sympathy for her
husband's complaints, Lewis says, but long enough to know she must fake
such sympathy. And like the Babbitts' marriage, the Babbitts' house is
more fake than genuine, designed more to impress than to be lived in. The
rooms are acceptably modern, but nothing in them is quite real--the
furniture is "very much like mahogany," and Mrs. Babbitt's toilet
articles are "almost solid silver." But the Babbitt house, the narrator
comments, is not a home.
The restlessness that Babbitt felt upon awakening stays with him at
breakfast. He grows annoyed with his daughter, Verona, just graduated
from Bryn Mawr and very sure of her intellectual abilities. Verona wants
to do charity work, which to Babbitt is almost socialism--a forbidden
belief. Meanwhile, Ted Babbitt is fighting with his sister for use of the
car. Their squabble is an exaggerated version of arguments every family
has but it makes you wonder if the younger Babbitts are any more
intelligent than their parents.
Babbitt now turns his attention to the morning newspaper.
NOTE: STANDARDIZATION OF THOUGHT One of the most important themes in
Babbitt is the way American society, though supposedly free and
democratic, tells its citizens what they should think. It's able to do
that, in large part, because citizens like Babbitt are too lazy to think
for themselves. Just as Babbitt's furniture is little different from his
neighbors', his ideas too are echoes of the accepted norm.
You'll want to compare Babbitt's world to yours. Do you think most
middle-class Americans still tend to share the same political opinions--
for example, on relations with the Soviet Union, on taxation, on
minorities and women? Do the newspapers and magazines and television of
today give you a truer picture of the world than the Zenith Advocate-
Times gives Babbitt? Are Americans today better informed, or just as
In a gooey, overwritten society column (the first of many newspaper
parodies in Babbitt), Babbitt reads about his wealthy college classmate,
Charles McKelvey. Though he calls McKelvey a snob, it's clear that he and
Mrs. Babbitt both want to be invited to a McKelvey party. We'll see that
worries about social status are common in Zenith. Babbitt so sympathizes
with his wife's social aspirations that he feels a moment of genuine
sympathy. "You're a great old girl, Hon!" he says. But it's a brief
moment, and Babbitt covers it up with more characteristic behavior: a
NOTE: DIALOGUE IN BABBITT When Babbitt talks about having "a lot liver
[livelier] times" than a bunch of "plutes" (short for plurocrats, or rich
people), it's an example of one of Lewis's favorite literary techniques--
that of imitating, and exaggerating for comic effect, the slang-filled
speech of ordinary 1920s Americans. Some readers have felt that Lewis
overdoes this kind of dialogue. But for other readers, Babbitt's dialogue
is responsible for much of the book's vitality and humor.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 3
Babbitt's motor car "was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism." Lewis's
inflated language shows that Babbitt's life in fact lacks the poetry and
heroism he thinks it possesses. But of course Babbitt isn't alone in
idolizing his automobile--sixty years later, many Americans still feel
the same way. Lewis wants us to see Babbitt for the shallow man he is,
but he also wants us to remember that there may be more than a little
Babbitt in each of us, too.
Babbitt has as neighbors the Sam Doppelbraus and the Howard Littlefields.
Babbitt dislikes the Doppelbraus. They're Bohemian--a word that usually
describes artists who disregard society's standards, but that Babbitt
uses to criticize anyone who has fun in a way he doesn't approve of.
(Later we'll see his attitude toward the Doppelbraus, and Bohemians,
change.) Babbitt admires Littlefield, even though he is an intellectual,
a member of a group Babbitt normally distrusts. But even with a Ph.D.,
Littlefield is as dull and conventional and devoted to business as
Babbitt is--no wonder Babbitt likes him.
NOTE: NAMES IN BABBITT Like one of his favorite authors, Charles
Dickens, Lewis often uses names that hint, sometimes broadly, at the
nature of his characters. Because "doppel" in German means "double" and
"brau" means "brew," Doppelbrau is a good name for a heavy drinker.
Similarly, Howard Littlefield's last name reflects the fact that, for all
his education, his field--his area of competence and interest--is small,
petty, unimportant. Later we'll meet Vergil Gunch, whose unpleasant-
sounding last name is a clue to his personality, and Seneca Doane, whose
first name is intended to remind you of the noble Roman statesman. And
"Babbitt" itself carries connotations of "rabbit" (timid, mindless),
"baby," and "babble." What other names in this book do you find
particularly interesting? Why?
Babbitt drives from Floral Heights toward downtown Zenith, stopping for
gas and grandly telling the mechanic that what the country needs "first
last and all the time is a good, sound, business administration." Howard
Littlefield spoke the same words only minutes before--another reminder
that Babbitt possesses few ideas that are his own.
Babbitt picks up a rider. Their conversation is strained: in fact, we'll
see that many conversations in Babbitt are strained, because in Zenith
only certain opinions are permissible. You can gripe mildly about the
street car company, but to complain seriously is forbidden--that might be
advocating socialism. The only really safe topic is the weather. What is
Lewis really doing when he has Babbitt think to himself that his rider
"has no originality, no wit"?
As Babbitt approaches downtown Zenith, he's cheered by the fine spring
day and by the bustling city. But his upbeat feeling disappears by the
time he enters the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company, which he owns with
his father-in-law, Henry P. Thompson. Not even the new "right-thinking"
watercooler (Lewis's adjective again mocks the importance that material
objects have in Babbitt's mind) can cheer him up.
Babbitt dictates a letter to his stenographer, Miss McGoun. Though, of
course Babbitt doesn't admit his failings as a writer, any letter
actually sent the way he dictated it would be thrown into the trash on
arrival. It takes Miss McGoun to make Babbitt's prose intelligible. Next
Babbitt turns his attention to a form letter that will be mimeographed by
the thousands and sent to customers. Such letters and advertisements are
vital to the world of Babbitt. They take the place of genuine literature,
and when Babbitt is writing them he becomes in his own mind a Poet of
NOTE: PARODY Just as Lewis enjoys imitating his characters' speech, he
takes pleasure in parodying their literary efforts--in exaggerating their
faults for comic effect. We already saw one such parody in the society
column Babbitt read in chapter 1; Babbitt's advertisements provide other
hilarious examples of Lewis's skills as a parodist. Parody is a technique
used today by humor magazines such as National Lampoon. You might ask
yourself: are today's advertisements any better? How?
His dictation finished, Babbitt lets his mind wander to his pretty
stenographer, thinking of her with "a longing indistinguishable from
loneliness." The restlessness he feels is turning him toward thoughts of
an affair--though it seems he still prefers his fairy child to the flesh-
and-blood women around him.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 4
"It was a morning of artistic creation." By now we know Lewis is being
ironic--this morning's "masterpiece" is an advertisement for cemetery
plots. Babbitt enjoys a similarly ironic moment of "heroism" when he
discovers a new way of quitting smoking. As you'll see, Babbitt is always
trying to quit smoking, without ever succeeding. In fact, this pattern of
failed good intentions holds true in other ways as well.
Babbitt telephones his best friend, Paul Riesling. (Throughout the novel
you'll see that this friendship is one of the truly fulfilling
relationships Babbitt has.) Paul Riesling manufactures roofing, but
Babbitt still thinks of him as the promising violinist and poet he was in
college, and treats him as a younger brother.
Babbitt spends the rest of the morning working, as Lewis shows us in
great detail his moral and intellectual limitations. A real estate
salesman might be expected to understand something about architecture,
landscape gardening, and economics. Babbitt understands nothing about
these subjects. He knows little about Zenith except its real estate
prices. The political opinions he reflects on now are as unthinking and
inconsistent as those he spouted while reading the morning newspaper: no
one should be forced to join a labor union, but everyone should be forced
to join the Chamber of Commerce. He supports Prohibition but likes a
drink. He preaches ethics but isn't sure what they really are, and he's
not so ethical he won't do business with an out-and-out crook, Jake
These "ethics" are at work in Babbitt's dealings with the speculator
Conrad Lyte. (In a wonderful bit of description, we see that Babbitt
isn't the only one in Zenith greedy for material success. Below Lyte's
eyes are hollows, "as though silver dollars had been pressed against them
and left an imprint"--a superb image of the way Lyte's eyes and mind are
focused on money.) Lyte has followed Babbitt's advice to quietly buy land
a butcher needs to expand his shop. When the butcher comes to Babbitt and
Lyte, they demand for the property twice the going price--and get it.
Lewis doesn't want us to feel sorry for the butcher, who will make up his
loss by overcharging his customers. He does want us to understand that
this is the way "honest" businessmen in Zenith work.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 5
When Babbitt leaves his office, we get a close-up view of the downtown
Zenith we saw earlier at a distance. The city represents Lewis's view of
the new, modern, industrial America. Everything is standardized, bigness
is more important than beauty, and a person's worth comes from the
material objects he possesses--in Babbitt's case, expensive ties and an
electric cigar lighter (for the cigars he has given up smoking).
Babbitt enters the Zenith Athletic Club, which like so many things in
Zenith is an example of false advertising: "It isn't exactly athletic,
and it isn't exactly a club." It's a gathering place for businessmen like
Babbitt who are prosperous but not members of the city's true elite. That
elite belongs to the more exclusive Union Club.
NOTE: CLASS DIVISION Lewis's discussion of the Athletic and Union Clubs
picks up a theme that we encountered earlier in Babbitt and that we'll
encounter again. Zenith (and by extension, all of America, as Lewis views
it) calls itself a democratic and egalitarian society, where everyone
from washerwoman to bank president is equal. But in fact the divisions
between classes are almost impossible to cross, and Babbitt and his
family and friends are always conscious of their social status, always
anxious to improve it.
Babbitt greets his friends, Vergil Gunch, Sidney Finkelstein, and
Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey (whose position as instructor of Business
English tells us what kind of education is valued in Zenith). Babbitt
talks with special enthusiasm to Gunch, for the loud, jolly coal dealer
represents everything that Babbitt himself wants to be. As we might
expect, Babbitt's conversation with this important man is no more
interesting or original than are most conversations in Zenith.
Paul Riesling enters the club, and Babbitt breaks away from Gunch and
Finkelstein (who with Babbitt and others form The Roughnecks, a club
within the Athletic Club) to share a table with his friend. Such privacy
is considered suspicious by the other club members, but as soon as
Babbitt and Paul start to talk, it's clear why they value it. Paul is the
only man to whom Babbitt can confess his discontent. All his life,
Babbitt says, he's done the things society told him to do--supported a
family, bought a nice house. Yet he isn't satisfied. We see now that
Babbitt can be a more sensitive man than he usually appears.
Paul understands. He had wanted to be a violinist and now he's
manufacturing roofing and is married to a wife, Zilla, he'd like to
divorce. He's sick of cutthroat, competitive Zenith.
Now Riesling has gone too far. To criticize business practices is to talk
like a socialist--and Babbitt won't stand for that even from his best
friend. Riesling backs down, but still he says that of all the citizens
in Zenith, only one-third are truly satisfied with their lives. Another
third are restless but unwilling to admit it. A final third are, like
Riesling himself, openly miserable.
Riesling's description of Zenith may seem at first an overly bleak one.
But you might consider how you'd describe life in your town or city. How
many people where you live would you describe as happy? Restless? Openly
miserable? Who, or what, is to blame for their unhappiness?
NOTE: PAUL RIESLING Lewis uses Paul Riesling to voice many of his own
thoughts about Zenith (and its actual counterparts). Like Lewis, Paul
sees Zenith's shallowness and hypocrisy and itches to rebel against them.
Lewis rebelled, of course, by writing this novel. We'll see later what
form Riesling's rebellion takes. As for Babbitt, if Riesling obviously
belongs to the third, miserable category of the Zenith population,
Babbitt belongs to the second--restless, but as yet unwilling to admit
Riesling comes up with a plan for escape. The two men will go camping in
Maine without their wives. The trip will surprise their conventional
friends--for in Zenith respectable businessmen can't even change hobbies
without causing talk--but that's part of its appeal.
NOTE: FORESHADOWING Babbitt is a loosely structured novel, and Lewis
often pays more attention to examining--and getting us to laugh at--the
various parts of Babbitt's world than he does to moving a plot forward.
Still, one technique he does use to tie his story together is
foreshadowing, the use of small events to hint at more important events
that will occur later. Paul is angry with his life in Zenith and with his
wife, Zilla. Babbitt in turn vows that if Paul ever needs him, he'll
chuck his other friendships to come to Paul's aid. Can you predict now
what might come of these hints and promises?
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 6
Babbitt is deeply proud of being modern. As he leads a client through a
run-down tenement, he discourses on the wonders of modern technology. But
his impressive-sounding talk is just talk--Babbitt has no real
understanding of the machines he worships. In his confident ignorance,
Babbitt may seem like people you know. How many times have you heard
people brag about their stereos or automobiles without having the
slightest real knowledge of the engineering behind such products?
Babbitt picks up his father-in-law and partner, Henry T. Thompson, and
drives with him to see Noel Ryland of Zeeco Motors. Babbitt thinks of
Thompson as a human antique, lacking Babbitt's education and refinement.
But Babbitt also looks down on Ryland, who possesses more education, more
refinement. Why do you think that is? Is insecurity the cause of
Babbitt's--and Zenith's--demand for conformity?
Back at the office, Stan Graff, one of Babbitt's salesmen, asks for an
increase in his commissions, which Babbitt refuses. Afterwards, Babbitt
can hear Graff grumbling to the other employees, and grows disturbed.
This is another sign of his essential insecurity: more than anything
else, he wants everyone to like him.
At dinner he talks about buying a new automobile, giving rise to a family
argument over what he should buy. In Zenith, Lewis says, cars are the
chief way you can tell a person's rank in society. (Do you think that's
still true?) When Babbitt, irritated by the discussion, says he won't be
buying any car until next year, the conversation falls apart.
After dinner, Mrs. Babbitt settles down to darning socks, Babbitt to
reading the newspaper comics, and Ted to doing his homework--geometry,
the Latin poet Cicero, and the poem Comus by the great seventeenth-
century English poet John Milton. Ted's homework gives Lewis a chance to
satirize education in Zenith, and much of his satire still hits home
today. The Babbitts have little use for real education. Cicero,
Shakespeare, and Milton are among the greatest poets the world has
produced, but to Ted they're dead and irrelevant because they won't make
money for him. The genteel Mrs. Babbitt dislikes Shakespeare (whom she
hasn't read) because she's heard he isn't nice. As for Babbitt, though he
defends Shakespeare, he doesn't value literature any more than his wife
or son do; it's just a necessary requirement to enter college.
Ted sees a shortcut to success through correspondence schools, and Lewis
displays his gift for hilarious parody as Ted brings out the school
advertisements he's collected. In one, the traditional symbols of
learning--the lamp, the torch, Minerva (the Greek goddess of wisdom)--
have been replaced by the symbol worshipped by Zenith--the dollar sign.
Babbitt doesn't know what to say at first, because no one has told him
what to think about correspondence courses. They've apparently become a
big business, and big business always impresses Babbitt. Still, because a
degree from a regular college is necessary for business success, Ted must
go to a regular college. Ted finally agrees.
NOTE: BABBITT AND EDUCATION As Ted and Babbitt wrangle over the value of
correspondence schools, we see Lewis satirizing American attitudes about
education that still exist today. Ted wants school to teach him
immediately practical skills. Babbitt wants his son to take more
traditional liberal arts courses--not because he thinks education has any
real value in itself, but because it's a status symbol necessary to
business success in Zenith. Lewis finds both attitudes narrow-minded,
materialistic. You may want to ask yourself: How much have things
changed? Do most students today see education as a road to wisdom or to
wealth? What are your goals? How will education help you achieve them?
When Ted abandons his homework to go out driving, Mrs. Babbitt tells her
husband it's time he instruct Ted about sex. Babbitt agrees to explain
the importance of leading a "strongly moral life." (You'll see later just
how moral Babbitt's life is.) Then Babbitt walks out on the porch and
broods. Despite his son, his family, his good day at the office, he feels
restless. He remembers when he dreamed of being a lawyer, and his friend
Paul dreamed of being a violinist. The dreams don't last: Paul loses his
when he marries Zilla Coolbeck, and Babbitt gives up his when he marries
Myra Thompson. Most people in Zenith would call the Babbitts' marriage a
good one, but as Lewis describes it, we see it lacks any passion. Yet in
his depression Babbitt feels a rare moment of sympathy for his wife.
"Poor kid, she hasn't had much better time than I have," he thinks. On
returning to the living room he smoothes her hair, making her happy and
rather surprised, giving us a reminder that he isn't an entirely
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 7
Babbitt's living room is decorated to be like every other living room in
Floral Heights, and Babbitt's conversation with his wife is no more
original or inspiring than the room in which it's held. Suddenly, though,
he does something unexpected: he announces that he'd like to make a long
motor trip. But he hasn't worked up the courage to confess he'd like to
make the trip without his wife. His rebellion is still a private one.
Lewis takes as much time to show Babbitt going to sleep as he did to show
Babbitt awakening. Babbitt in the bathtub is a sympathetic figure, plump,
pink, content, childlike. But once he steps from the tub you're reminded
of the limitations of this man and of his comfortable life. He's a pawn
of larger organizations. The Elks, the Boosters, the Chamber of Commerce
tell him what to think about his city. The Presbyterian Church tells him
what to worship. The Republican party tells him whom to vote for, and
advertisers tell him what to buy. Lewis is showing you two sides of
Babbitt--the naive, goodhearted man and the unthinking conformist. Which
part of his personality do you think will triumph by the book's end?
Lewis's chronicle of Babbitt's day began with a panoramic view of Zenith.
Now you get another panoramic view as the narrative moves from Babbitt's
home to other parts of the city. You see the rich: the smoothly elegant
Horace Updike unsuccessfully trying to seduce Lucile McKelvey. You see
the criminal: a cocaine runner murdering a prostitute in Healey Hanson's
saloon. (You'll see that saloon in more detail later.) In a laboratory,
two scientists investigate synthetic rubber. In another part of the city,
union leaders discuss a strike. A dying Civil War veteran (a member of
the G.A.R., the Grand Army of the Republic) reminds us of the backwoods-
type town Zenith used to be; the humming, prisonlike Pullmore Tractor
Factory shows the modern industrial center Zenith is today. Lewis gives
us our first portrait of religion in Zenith, as the famous boxer-turned-
evangelist Mike Monday (a thinly disguised version of Billy Sunday, an
ex-baseball player who became a well-known evangelist in the 1920s)
finishes a prayer meeting. The portrait isn't a very flattering one. Mike
Monday is valued mainly as a way of averting labor unrest, and his
sermon--another example of Lewis's gift of parody--is nothing but loud
Next appear two men who share some of Lewis's cynicism toward Zenith:
Seneca Doane, the radical lawyer, and Kurt Yavitch, a histologist whose
study of cells has made Zenith a world-famous scientific center. "I hate
your city," Yavitch tells Doane; he hates it for its standardization.
Although, as a radical, Doane might be expected to agree, he doesn't.
Zenith is no more standardized than are the cities of England or France,
Doane argues, and industrial standardization provides better goods for
less money. What Doane condemns is Zenith's standardization of thought,
the cutthroat competition, the business trickery of the so-called good
family men who lead the city.
In the next scene, two of those devious men, politician Jake Offutt and
Henry T. Thompson, Babbitt's father-in-law, plot a shady business deal in
which Babbitt will play a key role. Offutt and Thompson make us
understand that although Lewis is attacking--often fiercely--the modern
Zenith, he doesn't want us to be nostalgic about the past. Babbitt's
generation may regard Thompson as a symbol of old-fashioned integrity,
but he's more crooked than they are.
Offutt and Thompson are worried about Seneca Doane. He alone seems to
understand what they're up to and is willing to fight them. The rest of
the city can't share Doane's outrage. It's asleep. And Babbitt, too, is
asleep, ready to begin his blissful dream of the fairy child.
NOTE: ZENITH As he did in the first chapter, Lewis gives us a panoramic
view of Zenith with all its strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand,
it's modern and economically vital; it's helping pull America into the
prosperous twentieth century. On the other hand, it has deep class
divisions; the gap between the wealthy Lucile McKelvey and the out-of-
work man who kills himself is enormous. Zenith has religion, but it's the
loud, empty religion of Mike Monday. It has democracy, but it's a
democracy manipulated by Jake Offutt. It is, as Seneca Doane says, a
place of cutthroat competition and standardization of thought. In short,
it's fascinating, powerful, and deeply flawed.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 8
The first seven chapters of Babbitt described a single day in George F.
Babbitt's life. (In fact, Lewis's original plan was to center the entire
novel around a single day, but he changed his mind.) Now the pace
accelerates. It's sometime later the same spring. The Babbitts are
planning a dinner party in celebration of a business deal that we know is
slightly crooked. Dinner parties are important status symbols in Zenith,
and Babbitt wants this one to demonstrate how far he's risen. He plans to
invite his most "highbrow" friends.
Despite his anticipation, the morning of the party is a tense one for
Babbitt. Nagged by his wife, he ventures a sacrilegious thought: he
wonders if "Floral Heights dinners were worth the hideous toil involved."
Lewis, of course, wants you to see that the answer is no. The dinners are
like so many other events in Zenith, empty rituals that blind people to
the real joys of life. Babbitt ignores this truth in the excitement of
buying liquor for his party.
NOTE: PROHIBITION "Now this was the manner of obtaining alcohol under
the reign of righteousness and prohibition." This reign of Prohibition,
implemented by the Eighteenth Amendment, was one of the hallmarks of the
1920s, and to Lewis it represented all that was narrow-minded, stupidly
puritanical, and hypocritical about America. As Babbitt enters Healey
Hanson's saloon (where we earlier saw a murder), Lewis's point is clear:
Babbitt calls himself honest and law-abiding, but he'll do business with
criminals if he has to. Lewis's ironic description underlines the
hypocrisy: Hanson becomes "an honest merchant" who speaks "virtuously,"
and Babbitt feels "honored by contact with greatness." This is the sorry
state of honor and greatness in Zenith.
The fussy femininity of the Maison Vecchia caterer's shop spoils
Babbitt's sense of triumph, and his good mood isn't restored until he's
back home mixing a drink.
The guests arrive, and Lewis's introductions of them make this collection
of "highbrows" sound very unimpressive indeed. There's dull, trivial
Howard Littlefield, loud Vergil Gunch, car salesman Eddie Swanson, and
Orville Jones who has tried to make his laundry business sound impressive
by calling it "a cleanerie shoppe." Most important of all, there's T.
Cholmondeley Frink, author of "Poemulations" and "Ads that Add."
With these men are their wives. Lewis analyzes the roles of the sexes in
an interesting way. At first, he says, Zenith women all seem to be alike-
-chirping housewives. Yet as you get to know them you see that they're
very different from one another. And though initially the men's variety
of occupations makes their personalities seem equally varied, the
business world of Zenith demands such conformity that there's really
little difference between a "poet" like Chum Frink and a car salesman
like Eddie Swanson.
The big moment has arrived: it's time for Babbitt to bring out his
illicit liquor. Lewis mockingly compares the procedure to a "canonical
rite"--a religious ceremony. Babbitt and his guests behave like teenagers
sneaking their first beers. Especially enthusiastic is Chum Frink, who
only hours before penned a poem (a horrible poem, of course) attacking
liquor. Frink isn't alone in his hypocrisy: the whole group agrees that
the lower classes can't be trusted with alcohol, but that good
businessmen like themselves should be allowed to drink whenever they
want. Once they've finished with this "required topic," the talk turns to
smirking jokes about sex and about the superiority of Zenith over any
NOTE: BABBITT AND MAIN STREET This dinner table conversation contrasts
the city world of Babbitt to the small-town world Lewis satirized in his
first popular novel, Main Street. In Main Street, Lewis called the
midwestern small town confining and dull. Babbitt and his dinner guests
would certainly agree. But when we hear that Prohibition is a "required
topic," and when we hear Vergil Gunch and Eddie Swanson and Howard
Littlefield parrot the same beliefs in almost exactly the same words, we
may doubt that Zenith is really any more sophisticated or cultured.
That's Lewis's point. When Vergil Gunch enthusiastically says that every
small town wants to be just like Zenith, Lewis intends us to realize that
such a fate is far from being happy or noble.
Now Chum Frink flatters his fellow guests by sharing one of his literary
dilemmas. He's tried his best to write an ad campaign for Zeeco Motors,
he complains, but he hasn't been able to dream up anything as brilliant
as the advertisements another writer created for Prince Albert tobacco.
NOTE: LITERATURE IN ZENITH With his pretentious name and his terrible
writings, T. Cholmondeley Frink represents the sad state of the arts in
Zenith, where ad campaigns are discussed as if they were great
literature, while genuine literature goes ignored. (Later we'll see that
Frink himself is well aware of his failure.)
As effective as Lewis's satire of Frink and Zenith is here, you should
remember that he isn't ridiculing just one man or one city but a sizable
segment of America in the twenties. Do you think he'd be justified in
making the same kind of attack today? How many of your friends, parents,
or teachers are more familiar with last night's advertisement for
hamburgers or shampoo than they are with Shakespeare or Milton? What do
you read more of--the great literature of the past, or popular novels of
the present? How important do you think it is to appreciate classic works
of art, literature, and music?
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 9
Babbitt's restlessness resurfaces as the dinner drags on. It's another
sign of his growing discontent that--apparently for the first time--he
admits to himself that these so-called friends bore him. He longs to
escape to Maine.
Spiritualism was a popular fad in the 1920s, and Babbitt and his guests
indulge in it with a seance, trying to summon the spirits of the dead.
Mrs. Jones wants to talk with Dante, the fourteenth-century Italian poet
whose Divine Comedy is widely considered to be one of the greatest works
of world literature. Zenith, of course, knows and cares almost nothing
about Dante. Orville Jones calls him "the wop," and Vergil Gunch says
that while he hasn't read Dante (you may have noticed that in Zenith
people are very fond of criticizing writers they've never read), he knows
that Dante can't be as skilled a poet as the ones (like Chum Frink) whose
works fill the pages of American newspapers.
NOTE: ZENITH AS HELL To help summon the spirit of Dante, Vergil Gunch
invents the dead poet's eternal address: "1658 Brimstone Avenue, Fiery
Heights, Hell." The name Fiery Heights is a play on the name of the
Zenith neighborhood--Floral Heights--where Gunch and Babbitt and everyone
else at the table live. And some critics have noted that in many ways
Zenith--dull, competitive, and dishonest--resembles a twentieth-century,
Dante speaks. It's a fraud, of course, but Babbitt distrusts poets so
much that he fears one like Chum Frink might actually be able to
communicate with the dead--a talent almost as dangerous as being a
socialist. Yet even now, when he's being his most narrow-minded, Babbitt
reveals some sensitivity. As he listens to Vergil Gunch's jokes, Babbitt
wishes he had actually read Dante. He feels a sudden contempt for the
people he calls his friends, and must ignore his feelings by jokingly
asking Dante to read a poem.
At long last the guests leave. Babbitt's had a terrible evening, and
though he's kind enough to lie to his wife that the party was wonderful,
he isn't a good enough liar to convince her. He complains that he's
tired, and admits that he Wants to go to Maine a week early, without Mrs.
His wife is hurt that he wants to do something without her. Finally he
breaks down. "But can't you see that I'm shot to pieces?" Seeing her
husband's true weariness, Mrs. Babbitt agrees to let him go.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 10
The Babbitts visit Paul Riesling and his wife, Zilla. The Rieslings live
in an "excessively modern" apartment house, and Zilla Riesling, too, is
more "modern" than Babbitt and his wife are. Zilla is a witty woman who
sees Zenith for the dull place it is and isn't afraid to say so. Her wit
can turn to bitterness easily, though, when she feels she's been ignored
by her husband. That's what happens now. The Babbitts try to convince
Zilla that Paul is tired and deserves an early vacation in Maine. Paul
isn't tired, Zilla objects: he's crazy and cowardly.
After this shrill outburst the evening goes from bad to worse. Zilla
accuses her husband of having girlfriends, and Paul admits that she's
right. Zilla's stupidity, he says, has driven him to other women. Then
Babbitt attacks Zilla, his harsh words bringing her to tears. Sobbing,
she agrees to let Paul leave for Maine a week early.
On the way home Babbitt feels triumphant, but Mrs. Babbitt sees that her
husband has been a bully and that Zilla is herself a victim, a woman
losing her youth and beauty and trapped with an unloving husband.
Briefly, Babbitt is forced to admit that his wife is right. But like so
many other moments of truth in Babbitt, this one is brushed aside. "I
don't care," Babbitt tells himself. "I've pulled it off."
On the New York express train Babbitt rejoices at his and Paul's escape.
Yet in some ways he hasn't really left Zenith. The conversation among the
traveling salesmen in the Pullman smoking compartment sounds like one
that could be heard back at the Athletic Club; consequently, it's no
surprise that, when Paul Riesling makes the mistake of speaking not about
money but about beauty, the other men can't understand him.
A black porter enters the car. He doesn't seem respectful enough to the
salesmen: they call him offensive names and warn that blacks must stay in
their "place," all the time loudly claiming they aren't prejudiced. Their
hypocrisy is spelled out even more clearly when one of them says America
needs "to keep those damn foreigners out of the country." The man
speaking is named Koplinsky--a "foreign," Eastern European surname. If
his wish for immigration controls had been granted a generation earlier,
his family probably would not have been allowed into the country.
Paul, fed up, leaves. But Babbitt remains, comfortable with such familiar
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 11
Babbitt, who loves anything large and new, is anxious to see the large,
new Pennsylvania Hotel when he and Paul arrive in New York. Paul wants to
see an ocean liner. You'll remember that it was Paul's youthful ambition
to go to Europe and study the violin. Now as Babbitt and he make their
way to the docks, he insists he will cross the Atlantic some day.
(Babbitt would like to go, too. But while Paul thinks of Europe as a
place of culture, Babbitt thinks of it as a place where he can easily get
a drink.) When they reach the docks, Paul becomes upset. It's as if the
ocean liners are reminders that his youthful dreams of musical success
are now forever out of his reach.
At last, Maine. The pine woods, the clear lake--symbols of a masculine,
wilderness world completely unlike Zenith--bring Babbitt peace. After a
week at camp, both he and Paul have changed from the boisterous but
unhappy men they are in Zenith into the naive, enthusiastic boys they
were in college. Their families' arrival briefly dampens these good
feelings but doesn't destroy them.
The next year will be different, Babbitt promises himself as he returns
to Zenith. Perhaps it will be. But you might notice that the only thing
he hopes for is that the Real Estate Board will elect him president.
That's a sign that he still thinks of his life in terms of business
success, and that his values may not have changed as much over the last
few weeks as he thinks they have.
What do you think it would take to shake up Babbitt and make him undergo
a genuine change of heart? Would anything be sufficient? Or is he
inevitably doomed to conformism, mingled with an occasional tremor of
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 12
Lewis immediately throws cold water on any hope that Babbitt has
permanently changed for the better. Babbitt vows again to quit smoking,
and again is unable to quit. He takes up a new hobby, going to baseball
games, but after one week abandons it. It's back to business as usual--
meaning, in Zenith, hustling, looking busy even when you're not.
Lewis the sociologist now presents some of the recreations popular among
the American middleclass in the 1920s. Babbitt belongs to the Outing Golf
and Country Club, which he praises even though it lacks the status of the
Tonawanda Country Club (just as Babbitt's Athletic Club lacks the status
of the Union Club). He goes to the movies, his taste in pictures being
what we probably expected: simple and unsophisticated.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 13
Babbitt enjoys a moment of glory. He is asked to address S.A.R.E.B., the
State Association of Real Estate Boards. The theme of Babbitt's talk:
real estate men are as worthy of respect as are doctors and professors.
Babbitt's speech will be only ten minutes long, but he goes through agony
writing it. If you've ever delayed starting an assignment for school,
you'll probably appreciate Babbitt's meaningless outlines, his doodles,
his wasted time. The S.A.R.E.B. meeting is to be held in the city of
Monach, Zenith's chief rival in the state. Babbitt and the other
delegates gather at Union Station, wearing buttons that proclaim, "We
Boost For Zenith," singing the Chum Frink anthem, "Good Old Zenith," and
following Babbitt in cheers. Meanwhile other Zenith residents look on
silently--"Italian women with shawls, old weary men with broken shoes,
roving road-wise boys in suits which had been flashy when they were new
but which were faded now and wrinkled." These people are reminders that
Zenith possesses citizens who can't share in the realtor's idiotic
optimism, people who have problems that Babbitt and his friends will
Just as Zenith contains people too poor to belong to Babbitt's world, it
contains people too rich to want to belong to it: when Babbitt spies the
wealthy Lucile McKelvey in her compartment, he's overcome by a feeling of
insignificance that he tries to conquer by lording it over delegates from
towns smaller than Zenith.
The S.A.R.E.B. meeting is an incredible, hilarious combination of boredom
and stupidity. Lewis has fun with the speeches, the slogans, even the
names of the cities--Galop de Vache, for example, is pidgin French for
"cow gallop." Babbitt's own speech is hailed as "a sensation," but by now
you may suspect that description merely reflects the low standards of
At the convention's final session, cities noisily vie to be next year's
convention site. To advertise Zenith, the delegates parade on stage
costumed as cowpunchers, bareback riders, Japanese jugglers. At the end
of the parade marches Babbitt, dressed as a clown and beating a big bass
drum. The restless, sensitive Babbitt we've occasionally seen before is
taking back seat to the booster.
After all the hoopla, the following year's convention is awarded to the
city of Sparta because it promised to spend the most money to entertain
the delegates. Says one realtor, "Money talks." it does talk, very loudly
indeed, in Babbitt.
Instead of going straight home to Zenith, Babbitt lingers for a drink in
a fellow delegate's hotel room. In between their drinking and laughter,
Lewis reminds us again that this is a world of failed dreams. Just as
Babbitt wanted to be a lawyer and Paul Riesling a violinist, a young
delegate from Sparta sadly remembers how he wanted to be a chemist but
became a kitchenware salesman instead.
The group goes to dinner, then staggers to a burlesque show and then on
to a speakeasy (where liquor can be bought). The night has been long and
Babbitt is tired. He feels "nothing but a hot raw desire for more brutal
amusement"--and doesn't object to the suggestion that they visit a
Notice the way Lewis mocks Babbitt's boosterism here. All through the
book Babbitt has been boasting about clean, proper, prosperous Zenith.
Now he continues to boast, but instead of praising industries or
libraries or anything Zenith might legitimately be proud of, he boasts
about Zenith's large number of bars and brothels.
This chapter shows the humor and enthusiasm of Babbitt's world, but it
also shows that world's meanness and hypocrisy. The real estate men are
in many ways laughable. But they're also pathetic, haunted by failed
dreams. They can be cruel. And they're hypocritical: they enjoy by night
the things they disapprove of by day. Babbitt has spent an evening he
will never admit to.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 14
Now Lewis presents to us Zenith politics, which are a miniature version
of that era's national politics. Nationally, Warren Harding is running
for (and will win) the U.S. presidency. Today, Harding is widely
considered one of the weakest presidents ever to have held office--an
opinion Lewis shared at the time. Yet, for much of his presidency, the
handsome Harding was very popular. If the entire country can be so easily
fooled, will Zenith be any wiser? Not according to Lewis.
Zenith's choice for mayor is between Seneca Doane, the "radical" we've
seen earlier, and Lucas Prout, a conservative mattress-maker. Babbitt
naturally supports Prout, and thanks to his new reputation as a public
speaker is invited to deliver political addresses for him. (The nature of
Babbitt's success is revealed in Lewis's ironic comment: "He acquired
lasting fame for weeks.") Babbitt's speeches are as long-winded, foolish,
and illogical as you'd expect, and Lewis takes pleasure in reporting them
at some length.
Prout defeats Doane, and Babbitt is rewarded for his campaign work with
"advance information about the extension of paved highways." We'll see
later that Babbitt will use this illegally obtained information to make
shady business deals.
Babbitt's speech-making now wins him an even greater honor: he's invited
to give the annual address to the Zenith Real Estate Board.
NOTE: BABBITT'S SPEECH Babbitt's speech to the real estate board is
considered by many critics to be one of the high points of Babbitt, for
it gives Lewis a chance to show off fully his powers of parody. But other
critics have said that it demonstrates one of Lewis's chief literary
faults--that here and elsewhere in the book Lewis depends too much on his
powers of imitation and parody and lets Babbitt drone on too long. As you
read, try to pretend you're in the audience listening, and decide which
view you take.
Babbitt begins his speech with an unfunny joke, then lists the ways in
which Zenith is the best city in the United States. It's best, he claims,
because it contains the highest proportion of Ideal Citizens, ambitious
men full of Zip and Bang. These citizens are producing "a new kind of
civilization" in which everything--stores, offices, streets, hotels, and
newspapers--will be just as they are in Zenith.
As Babbitt quotes a verse by his friend Chum Frink, Lewis has a chance to
parody another kind of bad writing, the dreadful poetry that passes for
good literature in Zenith. Frink's message is the same as Babbitt's.
Wherever you go in America, you'll meet the same kind of people:
standardized American citizens, Nice Guys.
And what about those people who aren't standardized? To Babbitt, they're
menaces. People who call themselves "liberal" and "radical" and
"nonpartisan" are threats. Journalists and professors who criticize
business should be stopped.
NOTE: BABBITT'S PORTRAIT OF ZENITH Babbitt's speech shows him at his
very worst--loud, smug, intolerant. He brags about schools but knows only
ventilation systems, not teaching; he brags about art museums but knows
only their buildings, not the art they contain. His idea of a park is a
driveway "adorned with grass, shrubs and statuary."
More important, Babbitt's speech will remind you of comments made earlier
by Seneca Doane. Doane criticized Zenith for the pressures it puts on its
citizens to conform. Babbitt applauds those pressures. He wants everyone
to be an Ideal Citizen. Those people who aren't--foreigners, liberals,
This, Lewis reminds us, is the most dangerous aspect of Zenith (and
American) life. Standardization of hotels is one thing; standardization
of thought is much worse. Babbitt and his friends claim to be loyal
Americans, but they oppose a basic ideal of American democracy--tolerance
for beliefs that differ from your own.
Lewis wants you to laugh at Babbitt's long-winded speech but he also
wants you to see it as an example of what is wrong with Zenith and the
segment of America Zenith represents. Do you think he is being fair in
his portrait of Zenith's narrow mindedness or is he exaggerating to make
his point? Do you think that the middle-class business people of today
are more tolerant than Babbitt and his friends or have they simply
learned to camouflage their intolerance better?
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 15
After his success as a speaker, Babbitt had hoped to be invited to join
the Union and the Tonawanda country clubs, but no invitations arrived.
Now he pins his hopes for social advancement on his upcoming college
The reunion is held at the Union Club, which for all its snob appeal is
housed in an old and ugly building. Anxious to engage in some social
climbing, Babbitt drags along his friend Paul Riesling, as he moves
through the crowd toward Charles McKelvey.
McKelvey is what Babbitt dreams of being: rich, powerful, and
intimidating, even if not overly honest. Part of a rising American
aristocracy, he's able to hobnob with the wealthy of Europe, men like Sir
Gerald Doak, the British iron millionaire.
Babbitt is flattered when McKelvey compliments his speeches, and during
dinner he makes his move: he invites McKelvey and his wife for an evening
at the Babbitt house. But only when Babbitt hints that he possesses
inside information about real estate does McKelvey accept. This is the
way business and "friendship" operate in Zenith.
Plans for the important dinner are made. Mrs. Babbitt invites only her
most proper friends, and she forces Babbitt into a suit. Yet despite the
preparations, the dinner is a disaster. No one has anything to say to
anyone else, and the McKelveys invent an excuse to leave early. That
night Babbitt hears his wife weeping at their social failure--a failure
that is confirmed when they aren't invited to any of the McKelveys'
parties for Sir Gerald Doak.
The Babbitts, though, are no less snobbish than the McKelveys, as we see
when they attend a dinner party given by Ed Overbrook--an unsuccessful
college classmate who admires Babbitt as fervently as Babbitt admires
Charles McKelvey. The second dinner exactly parallels the first. (Some
critics have called the parallel too neat, an instance where Lewis makes
his satire too obvious and heavy-handed.) The Overbrooks seem as shabby
and dull to the Babbitts as the Babbitts seemed to the McKelveys, and
this evening is also a social disaster.
NOTE: CLASS DIVISION IN ZENITH These two failed dinner parties are
reminders that Zenith is hypocritical in calling itself a democracy,
where money and class don't matter. How much do they matter in America
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 16
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
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
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."
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 17
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
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.
NOTE: THE CORRUPTION OF RELIGION 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: CHAPTER 18
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
NOTE: BABBITT AS A FATHER 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.
NOTE: BABBITT AND THE 1920S 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.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 19
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
NOTE: BUSINESS ETHICS IN BABBITT 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
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
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
NOTE: SIR GERALD DOAK 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: CHAPTER 20
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.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 21
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
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 22
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
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: CHAPTER 23
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
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.)
NOTE: FAILED DREAMS 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
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
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 24
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
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
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
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?
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 25
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
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.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 26
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,
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
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.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 27
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.
NOTE: LABOR STRIFE IN 1920S AMERICA 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
"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.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 28
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: CHAPTER 29
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
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
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.
NOTE: THE GOOD CITIZENS' LEAGUE 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.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 30
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.
NOTE: THE NEW THOUGHT LEAGUE 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: CHAPTER 31
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.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 32
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
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.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 33
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.
NOTE: THE COMFORT AND LIMITS OF FRIENDSHIP IN ZENITH 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.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: CHAPTER 34
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
NOTE: LEWIS'S GRIM VIEW OF ZENITH AND AMERICA 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
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.
NOTE: BABBITT, THE SLIGHTLY CHANGED MAN 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
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
NOTE: BABBITT'S ENDING 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.
AMERICAN NEW THOUGHT LEAGUE Philosophical organization promoted by Mrs.
Opal Emerson Mudge and supported by Mrs. Babbitt.
ATHLETIC CLUB Middle-class businessmen's club, less prestigious than the
Union Club, to which Babbitt belongs.
BOHEMIAN Originally a term used to describe artists who flout society's
conventions. It's used by Babbitt to describe--first disapprovingly, then
enviously--people like the Doppelbraus or "The Bunch," who seem to lead
lives more exciting than his.
BOOSTERS' CLUB Organization devoted to promoting business and Zenith: a
symbol of Zenith's loud, mindless optimism.
THE BUNCH Tanis Judique's friends, who consider themselves rebellious
CATAWBA Babbitt's small, rural hometown, where his mother and
stepbrother still live. It's a symbol of the older America that's being
replaced by modern, urban Zenith.
CHATHAM ROAD PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH Church run by the Reverend John
Jennison Drew; a symbol of religion corrupted by business.
DANTE Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italian poet, author of The Divine
Comedy. He's jokingly summoned during a seance at the Babbitts' dinner
FLORAL HEIGHTS Upper middle-class Zenith neighborhood where Babbitt and
his friends live.
GOOD CITIZENS' LEAGUE Nationwide organization devoted to opposing--and
silencing--those it considers too liberal.
MONARCH Zenith's rival city and host of the S.A.R.E.B. convention.
OUTING GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB Babbitt's country club, less prestigious
than the Tonawanda Country Club.
PENTECOSTAL COMMUNION FAITH Grim religion to which Zilla Riesling
converts after her shooting.
POMPEIAN BARBER SHOP A virtual palace devoted to the care of
businessmen. Its employees include the pretty da Putiak.
PROHIBITION The outlawing of alcohol in the United States, which under
the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution lasted from 1919 to 1932.
ROUGHNECKS The Athletic Club group with whom Babbitt usually lunches. It
includes Vergil Gunch, Chum Frink, and Howard Littlefield.
S.A.R.E.B. State Association of Real Estate Boards organization that
Babbitt addresses at its convention.
UNION CLUB The most prestigious men's club in Zenith. Charles McKelvey
is a member, and Babbitt would like to be.
ZENITH ADVOCATE-TIMES Zenith's morning newspaper, owned by Colonel
Rutherford Snow, from which Babbitt gets most of his news and opinions.
ZENITH STREET TRACTION COMPANY Zenith transit utility, which is involved
in many corrupt deals with Babbitt-Thompson Realty.
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THE BABBITT TYPE
Let me confess at once that this story has given me vast delight. I know
the Babbitt type, I believe, as well as most; for twenty years I have
devoted myself to the exploration of its peculiarities. Lewis depicts it
with complete and absolute fidelity. There is irony in the picture; irony
that is unflagging and unfailing, but nowhere is there any important
departure from the essential truth. Babbitt has a great clownishness in
him, but he never becomes a mere clown.... Every American city swarms
with his brothers. They run things in the Republic, East, West, North,
South.... They are the Leading Citizens, the speakers at banquets, the
profiteers, the corruptors of politics, the supporters of evangelical
Christianity, the peers of the realm. Babbitt is their archetype. He is
no worse than most, and no better; he is the average American of the
ruling minority in this hundred and forty-sixth year of the Republic. He
is America incarnate, exuberant and exquisite. Study him well and you
will know better what is the matter with the land we live in...
-H. L. Mencken, "Portrait of an American Citizen,"
1922; reprinted in Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis:
A Collection of Critical Essays, 1962
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THE IMPORTANCE OF POSSESSIONS IN BABBITT
...material possessions are the symbol of power to Babbitt.... These
possessions mark the difference between a real-estate salesman and a
realtor--between the Athletic Club and the Union Club--between the state
university and the eastern colleges--between Babbitt's less successful
friends, the Overbrooks, whom he snubs, and the socially prominent
McKelveys, who snub him. For the sake of these possessions Babbitt
sacrifices both his physical vigor ("Ought to take more exercise; keep in
shape...") and his peace of mind ("Like to go off some place and be able
to hear myself think..."). In the course of acquiring possessions he is
forced to alienate himself from the human beings who work with him. And,
having acquired them, he is forced to mold his own personality into the
pattern of the social institutions which dispense or safeguard these
-Maxwell Geismer, "On Babbitt," 1947; reprinted in
Martin Light, The Merrill Studies in Babbitt, 1971
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: ON BABBITT
...Lewis's conclusions about Babbitt's future are not entirely negative.
He shares with Lewis's other heroes a yearning for self-realization and
fulfillment. If it is too late for him to find fulfillment, at least he
may achieve realization. This realization, once established, will never
again allow Babbitt contentment or peace of mind, will never again permit
him to warm himself against the bodies of the herd, but it is worth more
than any of these. Babbitt is not of heroic dimensions--nor could he ever
be so ion the conditions of his world; but he is an adult or promises to
become one at the novel's end. He walks out to face the world and live in
it, although it is no longer Eden.
-Sheldon Norman Grebstein, Sinclair Lewis, 1962
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: LEWIS'S GIFT FOR MIMICRY
[Lewis] performed a function that has nearly gone out of American
fiction, and American fiction is thinner for the loss. Many American
novelists today tell us about our subjective lives, and on that subject
Sinclair Lewis could hardly speak at all. Fitzgerald, Hemingway,
Faulkner--they all had some sense of the tragic nature of human
experience that was denied to Lewis. Lyric joy, sensuous ecstasy--to
these, too, he was apparently a stranger. But he had a stridently comic
gift of mimicry that many a more polished American writer does not have
at all. And a vision of a hot and dusty hell: the American hinterland. He
gave Americans their first shuddering glimpses into a frightening reality
of which until he wrote they were unaware and of which he himself may
also have been unaware.... [He] could document for an enormous audience
the character of a people and a class, and, without repudiating either,
criticize and laugh uproariously at both. In any strict literary sense,
he was not a great writer, but without his writing one cannot imagine
modern American literature. No more, without his writing, could Americans
today imagine themselves. His epitaph should be: He did us good.
-Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis, 1963
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: THE WORLD OF BABBITT
...Since Lewis's folk are not alive in senses, mind, or spirit, they
could scarcely be expected to have a social life. They carry on, of
course, a group existence, for solitude is terrifying to them. Yet when
they have gathered together, they have nothing to say to one another....
Their sociability is ghastly as any lifeless imitation of a living thing
must be ghastly. It is a dance of galvanized dead. Lewis's world is a
social desert, and for the best of reasons, that it is a human desert. It
is a social void because each of its members is personally a human
-T. K. Whipple, "Sinclair Lewis," 1927;
reprinted in Schorer, 1963
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: LEWIS'S USE OF SATIRE
In the first flush of his triumph in the twenties, when Lewis did seem to
be the bad boy breaking out of school, the iconoclast who was Mencken's
companion in breaking all the traditional American commandments, it was
easy enough to enjoy his satiric bitterness and regard him as a purely
irreverent figure. But today, when his characters have entered so
completely into the national life and his iconoclasm has become so
tedious and safe, it is impossible to look back at Lewis himself without
seeing how much native fellowship he brought into the novel and how
deeply he has always depended on the common life he satirized...
For what is it about Lewis that strikes one today but how deeply he has
always enjoyed people in America? What is it but the proud gusto and
pleasure behind his caricatures that have always made them so funny--and
so comfortable? Only a novelist fundamentally uncritical of American life
could have brought so much zest to its mechanics; only a novelist anxious
not to surmount the visible scene, but to give it back brilliantly, could
have presented so vivid an image of what Americans are or believe
themselves to be.
-Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds, 1942
^^^^^^^^^^BABBITT: LEWIS'S WRITING STYLE
One is led to conclude that the nervous energy that is so much a part of
Lewis's style, tends to wear readers and critics down.... There is no
point in explaining away this characteristic of the Lewis novel other
than to state simply that Lewis is no writer to read in large doses: he
is too singular, too angry, too irritating in both style and statement.
This, of course, is a major source of his power, a way he still makes the
presence of his abrasive personality felt.
-Jane Lundquist, Sinclair Lewis, 1973
Lewis's flaws of style and some of his puerile notions will remain a
problem for every reader. But perhaps one way to approach his novels is
this: He was a great talker. He began as an admirer of a bad "literary"
language, but he learned the uses of common speech. He employed the comic
potential of the vernacular to expose the boosters and hypocrites he saw
in American life.... He was a demon of anger toward waste and cruelty.
Yet he was sympathetic and could give in to a whimsical imagination,
which sought solace in places governed by a romanticized chivalric code.
He began his career as a journalist and publicist, and perhaps always
thought in terms of giant typography, headlines, billboards. There is
amplitude in his best books, and if he is read for size--for his large
quixotic vision--then his faults, in his best books at least, accordingly
-Martin Light, The Quixotic Vision of
Sinclair Lewis, 1975