Arrowsmith | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Arrowsmith | Symbols


Magnifying Glass

In Chapter 1 Doc Vickerson gives young Martin Arrowsmith his "beloved magnifying glass." He sighs as Martin slips the lens into his pocket. By the next chapter Doc Vickerson is "dead and buried and forgotten" and both of Martin's parents are dead. The magnifying glass is not again seen in the novel, but it clearly symbolizes scientific research and Martin's future in science. Doc Vickerson passes it like a mantle to the young man who will go on to become a doctor and researcher. As a symbol of Martin's future, it represents the focus and careful attention he will need to be successful in science.

Guinea Pigs

In Chapter 4 Professor Max Gottlieb injects two guinea pigs with anthrax as a demonstration to his bacteriology students. The guinea pigs, placed inside a large glass jar, die in two days. Martin is both anxious and excited by the demonstration.

The guinea pigs symbolize the need to sacrifice one's normal human emotions in the interest of science. It is normal to feel sympathy for animals that will suffer and die, and to be wary of deliberately causing their deaths. But the scientist sets that sympathy aside in order to do the research necessary to find answers to larger questions. Throughout the novel Martin Arrowsmith feels pulled between pure research and other aspects of human life, including family and money. In the end he chooses to sacrifice family and money to pursue research in the remote Vermont lab. Just as Max Gottlieb did when he injected the guinea pigs with a fatal disease, Martin ultimately chooses science.

Mysterious Woman in Black

In Chapter 33, a mysterious woman wearing black accompanies Martin, Gustaf Sondelius, and Leora Arrowsmith on the way to St. Hubert, where Leora and Sondelius will both die. She is described as a "thin woman in black whom they had not seen all the trip" and as having a blank expression on her face. Furthermore, she is described as the kind of person you never notice on a journey until they suddenly appear on deck.

This woman represents death—the deaths Leora, Sondelius, and countless others will find on the island of St. Hubert. Like the woman, people don't notice or acknowledge death until it appears right beside them. This suggests that Martin and the others will soon notice death more and be forced to acknowledge it.

Lab in Vermont

In Chapter 36 Terry Wickett complains about the McGurk Institute to Martin Arrowsmith, saying, "One of these days I'm going off to the woods" to his shack in Vermont where he can work "without having to produce results for the Director." When Martin visits the shack, which Terry calls "Birdies' Rest," Terry elaborates on his plan. He intends to "put up a couple more buildings on the flat by the lake, and have one absolutely independent place for science" where 16 hours a day will be spent on research. Eventually Terry and Martin move to the shack and put Terry's plan into action.

When the Vermont lab/shack is just a dream, it represents the desire of both Terry and Martin to pursue research of their own choosing. They fantasize about being able to do their research without the McGurk Institute's director, various society patrons, or trustees requiring "fool reports." Its location is rural and remote, symbolizing the distance the two researchers want to have from the demands of society. As the Vermont lab becomes reality, it represents the choice both men make to put other worldly pursuits, including marriage and family, aside.

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