Literature Study GuidesArrowsmithChapters 39 40 Summary

Arrowsmith | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Arrowsmith | Chapters 39–40 | Summary



Chapter 39

In Part 1 Martin Arrowsmith goes back to working on the phage. But the work doesn't go well. Clif Clawson visits and proposes selling the phage in pill form. Martin refuses, and later Clawson is insulting toward Joyce Arrowsmith and Max Gottlieb, which Martin can't abide. Clawson leaves, and Martin never sees him again.

In Part 2 Joyce and Martin have a son and name him John. In Part 2 Joyce builds a lab near their home so she can be more part of Martin's life and work. Martin is not thrilled. He likes and needs to get away from family obligations to do his work. But she is pleased with herself, and he tries to be grateful. In Part 4 Joyce's rich friends begin watching Martin work in his new lab for entertainment. This makes it extremely difficult for Martin to focus. By Part 5 Martin has become increasingly rude to the constant stream of visitors to his lab. In Part 6 Martin visits Terry Wickett in Vermont. They have an argument, and Wickett tells him "You've chosen between Joyce and me. All right, but you can't have both." Martin is upset at first but realizes he doesn't want to lose Wickett and swears to come back and work with him.

Chapter 40

In Part 1 Dr. Rippleton Holabird wants to promote Martin to assistant director of the McGurk Institute, and Joyce is thrilled. But Martin feels that the posh life with her is like a prison and wants more than ever to go to Terry's cabin in Vermont. They argue. She tries to convince him that taking the job is for the best, but he wants his freedom. He leaves in the middle of the night. When he arrives at Wickett's cabin, he says "Come for keeps."

In Part 2 Martin settles in to work and thoroughly enjoys himself. Joyce writes, saying any attempt at reconciliation must come from him. Martin writes back, describing the winter woods and not mentioning reconciliation. In Part 3 Martin is happy and his research is going well. Suddenly Joyce arrives. She proposes building a house nearby so they can see each other. He refuses and she leaves. In Part 4 the text summarizes what Dr. Almus Pickerbaugh, Max Gottlieb, Joyce, Holabird, and other people from Martin's life are now doing. The novel ends back at the Vermont cabin, where Martin tells Wickett, "I feel as if I were really beginning to work now ... we'll get something permanent—and probably we'll fail!"


Ever since Martin Arrowsmith met Joyce Arrowsmith, she has pulled him away from his path to becoming a true scientist. In the final chapters of the novel her demands and controlling behavior reach new heights. She hates it when Martin is away at the lab—even at the McGurk Institute where he remains unhappily. The situation becomes ridiculous as Joyce's friends come to watch Martin work in the lab, preventing any real work, and then become upset when he is rude to them. His life with Joyce becomes a "soft and smothering prison."

Like other characters before her, Joyce takes up the argument for why doctors and scientists should strive for success and respectability. She notes that a promotion at McGurk will not just provide more money, prominence in the community, and respect, but his higher position will give him "the power to accomplish good." Martin knows what really happens when a scientist becomes an executive. He watched Gottlieb's life become full of meetings, arrangements, and social obligations when he was promoted. He knows Joyce's argument is based on a fantasy, not the reality that he wants.

The resolution of Martin's dilemma is to leave Joyce and their baby, John Arrowsmith, and go to live with Terry Wickett in the Vermont woods. This ending shows that there is no choice Martin can make that does not have drawbacks. He can be a good husband and father, or he can do the work he feels compelled to do. But Joyce's criticism feels pointed and true: "Suppose every father deserted his children whenever his nice little soul ached?" There's a moral ambiguity to Martin's choice, though it feels inevitable and right that Martin seeks freedom over captivity. He can't live as a museum exhibit forever.

The image the novel ends on is one of two single men, working constantly, arguing about science, and living rustically. This is presented is the most positive terms. Martin works "rapturously." He is excited about the future as he's never been excited before, without reservation. Martin is finally doing what he was meant to do, and though it required losing one wife and leaving another, it seems like the right choice, whether he succeeds or fails at this moment. There will be others.

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