Arrowsmith | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Arrowsmith | Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

Sinclair Lewis divides each chapter into two to nine smaller parts,

Part 1 of Chapter 1 is a short vignette about a young woman named Emmy, 14 years old, driving her family's covered wagon through Ohio. Her father, lying surrounded by Emmy's siblings, is very ill, and her mother is dead. Emmy is determined to take the family west. The text explains that she is the great-grandmother of Martin Arrowsmith.

In Part 2 Martin Arrowsmith, age 14, is introduced. It is 1897. Martin is reading Grey's Anatomy while waiting for Doc Vickerson to return to his office in Elk Mills, Winnemac. Martin is Doc Vickerson's unofficial assistant. Doc Vickerson's office is messy and unsanitary, but Martin finds this "wild raggedness" exciting.

Doc Vickerson returns in Part 3. He has some rum and rather drunkenly encourages Martin to go to medical school. He also rambles about some of his patients, the poor roads, and a rival doctor. Before falling into a drunken sleep, he directs Martin's attention to his "museum." This is a collection of specimens of various kinds. He gives Martin a magnifying glass.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 begins with a description of the fictional Midwestern state of Winnemac and the illustrious University of Winnemac. The university specializes in producing graduates who are all quite similar.

In Part 2 the narrator explains that Martin begins attending the University of Winnemac in 1904, at age 21. Doc Vickerson is dead, as are Martin's parents, so he makes his studies his world. Martin soon learns of Professor Max Gottlieb. A bacteriologist at the university, Gottlieb is a German Jew and quite a mysterious figure. Martin finds Gottlieb's work inspiring.

Martin goes to visit Gottlieb's office in Part 3. He is determined to specialize in bacteriology and fantasizes about Gottlieb recognizing his genius. He asks the professor if he can take bacteriology this year instead of the next. Gottlieb refuses, and Martin is disappointed.

Part 4 describes Martin's first day of dissecting cadavers. Ira Hinkley, another student, talks to him about souls, but Martin notes he hasn't yet found a soul in their cadaver. Hinkley teasingly insults him, which annoys Martin.

In Part 5 Martin joins Digamma Pi, a medical fraternity of which Ira Hinkley and Angus Duer, another medical student, are members. A member named "Fatty" Pfaff is the butt of many jokes among the residents of the fraternity house.

Part 6 describes the fraternity house: the messiness, the cramped quarters, the skull ashtrays. It also describes Marin's roommates: clowning Clif Clawson, simple Fatty Pfaff, and boringly normal Irving Watters. Ira Hinkley constantly chides the other fraternity brothers for their bad habits and use of profanity. Angus Duer has an aloof, superior manner.

Analysis

The novel's opening establishes the lineage of Martin Arrowsmith, a character inspired by American bacteriologist Paul de Kruif (1890–1971)—who was in fact Sinclair's Lewis's collaborator on this novel. Martin descends from a woman who fearlessly took her family to the frontier despite significant obstacles. Emmy, the young woman in this brief scene, has several things in common with Martin. She is an explorer by nature, excited to go west and see new things. This suggests a parallel between pioneers and scientists, and the opening scene invites readers to see Martin in this light. Emmy is driven by her fierce curiosity to move forward despite losing her mother and having a father incapacitated by fever. She is on a journey. Likewise, when Martin goes off to college to begin his life's journey, he has lost both his parents and must forge ahead without parental guidance. The final image of Emmy shows her sitting by the fire, alone. This foreshadows Martin's ultimate realization that a true scientist requires solitude.

Chapter 1 also introduces Martin's first mentor, Doc Vickerson. Although Doc Vickerson is not the most admirable doctor and plays only a brief role in the novel, he is also an intriguing man. His collection of strange medical specimens and equipment piques Martin's curiosity. Martin will have other mentors, but Doc Vickerson's influence is what gets Martin to medical school in the first place. His strange and sloppy office intrigues and inspires Martin. The short episode with Doc ends as he gives Martin a magnifying glass. This represents the desire to see and explore new things that Doc, Emmy, and Martin all share.

Chapter 2 introduces the University of Winnemac and some of its inhabitants, many of whom will play an important role in Martin's life. The description of the university itself is satirical in tone. It boasts an ill-conceived "baseball field under glass." It turns out "beautifully standardized" students who, like cars off the assembly line, have interchangeable parts. These students are expected to be moral and upstanding citizens. They will "play bridge, drive good cars, be enterprising in business, and occasionally mention books, though they are not expected to have time to read them." It is also expected to bring about an entirely new and better civilization. This satirical tone pokes fun at the aspirational thinking that Lewis saw in the academic world and questions the giddy optimism regarding the potential of educational institutions. It also suggests the language of marketing and sales, as it uses hyperbolic language to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of what the university can do. The reader can easily imagine the university president, described as "the best money-raiser and the best after-dinner speaker in the United States," using such language.

This chapter also introduces an important theme: the pursuit of pure science. Max Gottlieb, the bacteriologist, is one of the novel's main figures in the development of this theme. Gottlieb is based in part on American microbiologist Dr. Frederick Novy (1864–1957), American bacteriologist and mentor of Paul de Kruif, Sinclair Lewis's collaborator on Arrowsmith. Martin's first glimpse of Gottlieb is of a lone figure "unconscious of the world" and talking to himself as he walks home through the night. To Martin he looks like a mysterious and magical figure, "wrapped in a black velvet cape with a silver star arrogant on his breast." In their first interaction, Gottlieb emphasizes that science requires doubt and patience. This first teaching is made concrete by Gottlieb's refusal to let Martin into his bacteriology class until he's had a year of other medical classes. The idea that pure science hinges on doubt is reinforced by Martin's conversation with Ira Hinkley. Hinkley is a religious man and talks about souls as they dissect a cadaver; Martin notes that he hasn't yet discovered a soul in the cadaver. The idea that science relies on what can be observed is juxtaposed with faith in something unseen.

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