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Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Chapters 17–18 | Summary



Chapter 17

Babbitt is awed by the large mansion of William Eathorne, exemplary of the original Zenith as first developed in the 19th century. The banker is a surviving representative of old Zenith, "powerful and enduring ... small, still, dry, polite, cruel." Servants wait on the guests when they visit on business for the Sunday school advisory committee, and Babbitt seizes the opportunity to outline an approach based on organizing the school into a semi-military structure and embarking with advertising on a merchandising campaign with extensive promotion.

The aged and powerful banker likes everything Babbitt proposes, which gives him great hope and pleasure for his own role so close to power. He draws much admiration from all his friends for his access to Eathorne and the potential for power of the association with such an elite figure. He does secure an important loan from the banker for a streetcar terminal, and the result is that Babbitt now becomes a regular churchgoer without a shred of doctrinal faith.

Chapter 18

At home Babbitt notices that Verona Babbitt and Kenneth Escott, a reporter assigned as press agent for the Sunday school, have made a connection based on their ideas. His daughter does not interest him as much as Eunice Littlefield (Ted Babbitt's girlfriend) from next door does. Eunice's vitality and social gifts enchant him. She is a voracious reader of the highly popular movie magazines—to him symbols of the "Age of Pep." Ted spends much time with her when he is not tinkering with cars. His father allows him to give a class party for other seniors, but the event is problematic since the adolescents shrug off the proper elements of the party intended for them and find ways to go upstairs for cuddling, petting, smoking, and drinking. They dance very closely to jazz and are seen doing this by Howard Littlefield, who forces Eunice to leave suddenly and angrily. The two neighbor families become much more distant since each blames the other. Meanwhile, the "radical courtship" of Verona and Kenneth Escott moves slowly in place.

Babbitt's mother pays a visit and bores all with her "Christian Patience" and sentimental stories about Babbitt as a child and his father, a major from the American Civil War (1861–65). Then his half-brother Martin Babbitt comes to visit with his new baby and bad manners, inquiring about the price of everything he sees.

Babbitt suffers a temporary illness and general slowdown from all the stress and, in a moment of rare insight, finds fault with what he calls his "mechanical" life: his houses for sale, his unsatisfying church membership, even his sports and socializing seem to him "by the numbers." There is another aspect to him—the tie with Paul Riesling—and he holds to it as he resists surrendering to his inner grumbles and continues with his work.


The contact with William Eathorne brings Babbitt into a new world. For all his talk about the brotherhood of Zenith and the standardization of life he claims is so important for moving ahead, the fact is that Zenith, like all cities, is still stratified and not open to all on equal terms. Babbitt has no sense of history because he is so focused on the present and what he takes to be a future he can create, so he is unprepared for Eathorne's home and a way of life that is deeply connected to the actual history of the city. "Out of the dozen contradictory Zeniths which together make up the true and complete Zenith," the world of Eathorne, old money and imposing real architecture in his home and his life, is revelatory to Babbitt. He realizes he can use the true power the old elite banker has for his own benefits and is shrewd enough to give the impression of solving the problem of the under-enrolled Presbyterian Sunday school by giving it his attentions in the most pragmatic way. His approach is pure "Babbitry," in that he relies on a military-style organizational principle and spreading word through media. He finds he can use the already-existing models for weekly and monthly church journals and add his own high-blown rhetoric and practicality. He relies on his tried and true "he-hustling," merchandizing and drumming up growth with a concerted advertising campaign and a press agent who will become a close part of the Babbitt world. Everyone connected with the project will benefit from being associated with the initiative, including Pastor John Jennison Drew, who also approaches religion much like any business enterprise. Soon enough Babbitt profits materially from associating with the Eathorne financial world and begins church attendance as a "bulwark of sound conservatism" having nothing to do with faith and everything to do with social and financial climbing. When his own personal crises come, he will have no spiritual foundation at all.

The behavior of the young partygoers at Ted's school party shows a great divide between their super-modern "Flapper Age" ways and the solid unchanging world of the parents. It's all about cars, short dresses and tight suits, smoking, drinking, flirting with sex, breaking the Prohibition laws, and doing precisely as they wish. The generation gap between parents and children is natural, but the world seems to have changed far faster for those of Ted's age than for Babbitt when he was young. Their behavior makes his world seem totally antiquated, as insubstantial as the ice cream from Vecchia (meaning "old" in Italian) that he continues to serve. Babbitt finds he has no family or neighborhood resources to rely on, and even the visits from his mother and brother are frustrating. He has flashes of looking for more meaning in his life than the practical march to success he has established. But he cannot break loose.

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