Arrowsmith | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Arrowsmith | Themes

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Pursuit of Pure Science

In Arrowsmith Martin Arrowsmith is drawn to scientific research from the beginning. His interest in Doc Vickerson's messy and fascinating collection of medical paraphernalia sparks in him an excitement. He feels in the doctor's strange collection "the lure to questioning and adventure." When he goes to medical school, he becomes the disciple of Max Gottlieb, a bacteriologist who spends late and solitary evenings in his lab. Gottlieb represents everything Martin wants to be and do. He is a scientist, not a physician who treats patients. For a time Martin follows his lead. However, life and love intervene, and Martin finds himself on a different path—as a practicing physician. Events interrupt Gottlieb's devotion to pure scientific research as well, as he loses his university position and is propelled into the world of commercial pharmaceutical research. Like Martin's family, friends, drinking, and doctoring, the pressure to make profitable discoveries also forces Gottlieb away from the pursuit of science for science's sake.

The obstacles these two men face show the difficulty of pursuing pure science in a culture that is increasingly geared toward material success. Such a culture has no room for the curiosity, doubt, patience, and potential for failure that science requires. It becomes clear that in order to become a scientist, and follow the passion he has for new knowledge, Martin will have to make sacrifices. The solitary laboratory researcher cannot be a pillar of the community. He cannot worry about making a profit, supporting a family, or gaining a respectable reputation. Furthermore, the scientist must be heartless. He cannot focus on healing the patients in his own life, as a physician does. He has to think of the future patients his research might save. In the end Martin can finally embrace the lifestyle required of a scientist—free of the need to make profit, treat patients, or appear successful. But it takes years of struggle, disillusionment, loss. and grief to come to this point.

Commercialism

The influence of commercialism on the practice of medicine and the pursuit of science is an important theme in the novel, developed in a number of different ways. Martin first encounters the commercialization of the medical profession as a student in medical school. His fellow students discuss the money they plan to make often enough that Martin begins criticizing them for it. Dr. Roscoe Geake gives an address to the medical school on "The Art and Science of Furnishing the Doctor's Office." And in fact one of the first things Martin does as a newly minted country doctor is look through catalogues of expensive office furniture.

The commercialism is often couched in explanations and words that make it seem admirable. For example, another doctor tells Martin in Chapter 20 that what he calls "commercialism" is really just being practical: "you've got to support your wife and family, and if you don't, nobody else is going to." In another example Dawson Hunziker, of the Dawson T. Hunziker Company, justifies patenting a life-saving medicine out of the company's "duty toward the stockholders ... to make money for them." He goes on to say that "many of them are poor widows and orphans," which seems unlikely. And he ridicules the idea of the "priceless scientific discovery, without consideration of mere profit" as an idealistic pipe dream.

Nearly everywhere Martin Arrowsmith or Max Gottlieb goes, there is someone trying to make a profit from selling the results of scientific discovery. And not all of their justifications seem unrealistic. Doctors should be paid for their work, and money for additional scientific research must come from somewhere. In a capitalist economy profit must be made, or the company will not continue and the lab equipment needed to do the research could not be purchased. However, despite these practical realities the commercial nature of medical practice and the pharmaceutical industry is held up as the object of criticism. The novel provides a warning of the potential for problems if profit becomes too important, and it satirizes those who exploit human health for personal gain.

Respectability, Success, and Social Class

Martin Arrowsmith moves from his hometown, to the university, to a small town, to a small city, to a large city. Each new setting has unique features, but Martin faces similar challenges in each new location. A common problem for him is the temptation of success and respectability. It becomes clear that Martin cannot be his true self, a scientist, if he gives in to this temptation. It is not only about money—though the commercialization of science intersects with the idea of success. To be a scientist, Martin must give up his desire to fit in, to be admired and respected, to have women fawn on him, to give lectures and have people applaud.

His first taste of this temptation is when he begins dating Madeline Fox. She is an upper-class young woman and gives an elegant dinner party that Martin attends. He falls even more deeply in love with her as he observes how genteel she is at the dinner party. She is the perfect hostess. She represents the path to higher social class for Martin. If Martin marries her, he would make the money, and she would plan the dinner parties. Their friends would be elegant and wealthy. But Martin does not marry Madeline. He marries Leora Tozer (Leora Arrowsmith) instead—somewhat vulgar, argumentative, unpolished Leora.

Unfortunately, Martin has a hard time putting this temptation to rest. In each new place there are ways Martin is tempted to fit in and be respectable. In each new place he tries—for a while. However, his striving to fit in with the wealthy, successful, and respectable crowd is an obstacle to being his true self and following his true path. At one point Leora asks him: "Are you going on for the rest of your life, stumbling into respectability and having to be dug out again? Will you never learn you're a barbarian?"

She's right about him. Martin keeps trying to be respectable, and he keeps feeling the lure of success and all its benefits. But these things are a distraction that threatens to keep him from becoming a scientist. To be a scientist, he needs to embrace his barbarian nature. He must set aside both the desire for adulation and "success" and the social graces of respectability. He finds a kindred spirit in Terry Wickett, another abrasive, brutally honest barbarian. In the end the two retreat to the Vermont woods to be scientists, and Martin finally stops trying to be respectable.

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