Literature Study GuidesBabbittChapters 1 2 Summary

Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

The modern, medium-sized American city of Zenith (population between 300,000 and 400,000) is described in close detail. It has an industrial significance with various industries and commercial enterprises, as well as bank towers that dominate its horizon. The day is described as a typical spring morning in 1920 with people rising from bed for work. The focus is on George F. Babbitt, 46 years old, living in the residential area of Zenith called Floral Heights. His business is real estate, "selling houses for more than people could afford to pay." He is described as a married, unromantic person who still has a haunting vision in his dreams of a fairy girl who calls out to him for escape. He takes pride in everything modern and functional, and even his alarm clock and the elaborate bathroom of his house are as up to date and sleek as he can imagine and wish. He seems out of sorts this morning; even "the Babbitt whose god was Modern Appliances was not pleased." Small details of his life and surroundings bother him as he muses to himself about his family.

Myra Babbitt, his wife, is rather invisible to him in their married life after over 20 years of living together, and their drawn-out conversation revolves pointlessly about which suit he should wear to work that day and which pants need pressing. He finally decides and makes an elaborate ritual of transferring the contents of his pants pocket from one pair of trousers to another. He is described as a Republican in politics and an Elks Club member, and he wears a button on his lapel from the "Boosters' Club." The couple are described as plump and talk about heavy and light meals before beginning to plan a dinner party for friends and neighbors, including Vergil Gunch, a close friend. Myra Babbitt looks up to a rich acquaintance, Lucile McKelvey, when the question of what to call the tuxedo her husband will wear is briefly debated.

The couple share their views of their three children: daughter Verona Babbitt has just graduated from college and returned home. Son Ted Babbitt is finishing high school and undecided about his future. Only the youngest—daughter Tinka Babbitt, 10—does not present any problems for them yet.

As the conversation ends, Babbitt goes to the window and lifts his spirits by gazing adoringly at the skyscraper Second National Tower in the near distance. It fills him with a religious pleasure and revives his spirits like a hymn.

Chapter 2

The Babbitts' house is described as standardized according to the general tastes of the day. All old-fashioned elements of construction and design are gone, and only the most up-to-date aspects of design are permitted. The bedroom "had the air of being a very good room in a very good hotel." But life seems emptied out; in fact, "there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house: It was not a home."

Breakfast is marred by Babbitt's dissatisfaction with the vague plans of his two oldest children. Verona talks about what she has learned at college in social issues and welfare, which her father denounces as "the entering wedge for socialism," something he detests. Ted wants to use the family car and quarrels with Verona about his behavior, his friends, and his driving habits. The dispute smolders on until they leave the table along with their young sister. Babbitt then comments bitingly to his wife on the news in the morning paper. Much of it concerns actions being taken against socialism in both the United States and abroad. He is consistently on the conservative spectrum, approving the banishment of socialists from American legislatures and opposing all left-wing politics abroad.

The couple note a long and gushing report in the society pages of the local paper about a reception held at the McKelvey mansion on "Royal Ridge," given in honor of a visitor from Washington. The reporter calls the event "Society with the big, big S" and praises every detail lavishly.

Babbitt recalls knowing Charlie McKelvey at school before he became a highly successful millionaire, saying he was no more dishonest than he had to be. The Babbitts would like to mix with them but feel far out of that social class.

Analysis

The first two chapters introduce both a city and one of its important citizens. Lewis consistently maintains the double focus. Zenith (which means "high point") is not yet located anywhere specifically in the United States and has no defining characteristics to indicate a state or region. Business is dominant in people's lives, as expressed by Babbitt, the representative citizen. The first section of the first chapter notes that the city might seem to have been intended for the labor of "giants," so busy and booming is it, yet Babbitt himself is presented as physically not imposing at all, just an ordinary man whose sole out-of-proportion quality is his self-esteem.

The novel presents civic patriotism and zeal in every successful inhabitant. The residents take immense self-satisfaction in forming and belonging to booster clubs and self-promotion bodies. All their social climbing and entertaining at the middle-class level is imbued with the idea that men must be proud of who they are and what they have accomplished by whatever means necessary to succeed. They must push their particular interest ahead of others while still seeming to put the common good first.

The city has sprouted 35-story buildings that are not citadels or churches but instead exist solely for the glory of money, not a lord or a religion. When Babbitt feels depressed or anxious, he looks out of his standard bedroom and gazes on a bank tower the way other cultures would gaze on symbols of lordly or church power. He is then vivified and can go about his daily business of selling overpriced properties. He sees the Second National Tower as a "temple-spire of the religion of business," a passionate faith and a hymn to profit.

Lewis shows that in all aspects of daily life, the businessman of the 1920s had come to worship efficiency and modern, streamlined design. No ornamentation was applied to buildings or homes when they were built, since old styles with decorative elements were basically wasteful and distracting. If the business of business is making money, then every item consumed must fit into the modern impetus. All appliances and furnishings are bland and interchangeable at the level of income they are taken to represent. When he chooses to wear modern BVD underwear (loose-fitting, two-piece underwear) rather than the old-fashioned union suit of long constrictive design, he thanks the "God of Progress" for this feature as if it were made for his own purposeful use.

But Lewis shows that people remain perplexed by the new ways of life. Babbitt can find no place to dispose of his used safety razor after shaving, since the gleaming stainless steel and porcelain bath with its sleek fixtures would of course not include any receptacle for something so old-fashioned as an exhausted razor blade. Moreover, the discarded blades pose a tremendous source of danger to his family, since any of them accidentally coming across a blade in the trash could seriously hurt themselves. So, he has to toss and hide it along with dozens of useless others in a place he forgets about each time.

The domestic scene of the Babbitts' life is depressing. After over two decades of marriage and three children, George and Myra do not communicate at all except on the most absurd level. He married the boss's daughter and works together with his father-in-law, while she remains passively obedient and supportive in the home, all of her individuality having long vanished. He is described over and over as pink and plump, regularly overeats and overindulges, and pays no attention to his weight or fitness or health habits. She never comments on any of it. But she has gained weight as a matronly mother of three and is described negatively with bulging corsets and flesh—no sexual appeal whatsoever for her husband, who barely sees her in their bedroom. They sleep apart and interact in the first chapter in an absurd conversation about pressing his suit pants and eating lighter lunches.

He has dreams, sleeping alone as he does, about a mysterious and alluring fairy sprite of a girl who will lure him out of his tired and indifferent domestic cradle into something exotic and sensual. His children seem to give him only indigestion and irritation with their sibling bickering and material demands, so he walls them out and off. In his single bed he covers himself with a khaki camping blanket that he clings to like a baby but also represents his dream of an escape to the woods away from the sterile civilization he inhabits. Much later in the novel he will make the escape with his best friend, but the long-term effects are not at all what he needs. In his pockets are trinkets and objects showing his loyalty to the Boosters' Club, the essential identity he holds to like a legion of honor ribbon.

Lewis reveals the Babbitts as addicted to social climbing and envy as they read an absurdly exaggerated newspaper column about a party given by their superrich acquaintances, the McKelveys, existing at a social and financial level far over theirs. They measure themselves failures in this sense and begin planning a way to boost themselves, like the other Boosters, into a new position.

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