Literature Study GuidesBabbittChapters 15 16 Summary

Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Chapters 15–16 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 15

Babbitt is now well known for his public oratory, but he and his wife miss being invited to socialize with the true elite of the city. He takes the opportunity to attend his class of 1896 reunion dinner in the hopes of rubbing elbows with some leaders, chiefly the millionaire builder Charles McKelvey. Sixty men attend, and many know Babbitt and Paul Riesling, who is gloomy because of more trouble with his wife. McKelvey is graciously friendly to Babbitt since he can afford to be, and Babbitt presses the former college star to come to their home for dinner. The dinner actually comes to pass, but the class differences are so large that the atmosphere seems strained and tedious: "It was a dinner without a soul." Both Babbitts are deeply disappointed at the waste of all their efforts.

Babbitt and Myra will read full coverage of the McKelveys hosting a visit by a British industrialist, Sir Gerald Doak, in a glowing report on the foreign flavor of the themed event. It is clear to them they are not considered in the same class, nor will they ever be. By contrast, a brief conversation with Ed Overbrook from Babbitt's college class leads to an invitation to Overbrook's home. Babbitt has no interest in Overbrook, viewing him as an unimportant failure at business. The visit is miserable and depressing for all. The Overbrooks are "awkward and threadbare," and the Babbitts cannot wait to leave. They are as far distinct from them, they feel, as they suppose the McKelveys saw the Babbitts.

Chapter 16

Babbitt sees himself as a prominent member of numerous local organizations, which form a large part of his social life. He remains happiest listening to Paul Riesling on the violin, an unhappy and frustrated man spinning out his "dark soul in music."

Babbitt also is deeply involved with strengthening the Sunday school at his Chatham Road Presbyterian Church. He likes the practical approach to religion of the pastor who labors to make the church a community center with all manners of activities. He asks Babbitt to help with his efforts to make the Sunday school more significant and brings him together with an elderly banking titan of Zenith, William Eathorne, the great grandson of one of the men who founded the city in 1792. Babbitt sees this as a great opportunity for advancement in elite banking circles. His own watered-down religion is totally without doctrine or talk of faith but rests on its practical aspects for controlling human behavior and excesses. As a member of the advisory committee for the Sunday school, he feels he can make a definite impact but is at loose ends how to do so until he starts reading journals from the schools that seem to him close to the trade publications he reads in the real-estate world. Advertising and popular science fill the journals with practical tips about imbuing lackluster Sunday schools with "pep" and "get-up-and-go" campaigns to make them relevant. He understands that hustle and sales vigor are vital and knows he has the experience to make a change. The more "manly and practical" the appeal, the more likely that an "enterprising Christian life" will result from increased membership and activism.

Analysis

The Babbitts are deeply aware of their social class. They take satisfaction from it but also yearn to be at high-level country club functions, attaching significance to all indications of who is below them and who is above them. Babbitt uses his recent attention from speechmaking to draw praise at his school reunion and zeroes in on the McKelveys as a key opening into true society. Ignoring the fact that they really cannot compete at that level, the Babbitts force a dinner invitation on Charles and Lucile, but it ends flat and unsuccessfully, and the event will not be repeated. Then, making things worse, they read obsessively in the local society pages who it is that is being entertained by McKelvey. They must accept being excluded and, in turn when invited down the ladder by a less successful alumnus of the university, find the Overbrook house and atmosphere stifling. They never even note the names of the other guests since it is all far beneath their plans for advancement.

Their lives seem stuck in the middle-level social class. They are who they are and have little in common with the millionaire class as well as being too rigid to unbend and enjoy knowing families from another, lower class. For all his talk about brotherhood and cooperation to make Zenith even greater, Babbitt stands firm on what he knows in society. Standardization has apparently not reached human interaction. People remain rigidly separated in discrete categories that obviously cannot be helpful in building true local or national consensus. Class systems seem far stronger than Babbitt's powers of persuasion, for once. The truth is that snobbery and social climbing are truer than clichés about all being brothers in consumption and economic supremacy.

Though he fails to make social class more fluid, in a matter of his own weak association with religion, Babbitt can make his presence known. He is on his own territory when it comes to promoting membership and pride in a religion no matter how little faith may be involved. All his financial and communicative skills are welcome, and he rises to what will be a very useful occasion. He is not at all interested in the theology or content of the school, seemingly not any more than the pastor, but sees the challenge as something perfectly suited for his promotion and advertising abilities. The chance encounter with the eminent Eathorne is precisely what Babbitt could ever have hoped for. He makes the most of it not through boring doctrine but by finding "prospects" for school membership through hustle. He is determined to bring "Christianity Incorporated" to a manly and practical result.

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