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Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Chapters 19–20 | Summary



Chapter 19

Babbitt and his father-in-law, Henry Thompson, profit from a shady development deal that violates all ethical principles, but they are untroubled by it. Thompson has no scruples; "it's the public that gets double-crossed," he proclaims, sneering at Babbitt's mention of doubt: "Now we've been ethical and got it out of our systems," meaning they have not been ethical at all. Soon after, Babbitt discovers that his salesman, Stanley Graff, has also been violating trust and proper procedures by tricking potential tenants. One outraged person confronts Babbitt with proof of Graff's ill-deeds, and Babbitt has to fire the salesman. They exchange bitter words, and Graff denounces Babbitt's family and his supposed principles, threatening to unmask what he knows of how the firm runs. He is soon replaced by a rival salesman from another agency.

During a father-son business trip to Chicago, Babbitt is at loose ends until by chance he meets the English executive Sir Gerald Doak whose visit to the McKelveys in Zenith had been such a social sensation—although Babbitt himself was excluded. Doak is more at loose ends than Babbitt, melancholy and bored, and attaches himself to Babbitt, hoping to see something of Chicago. He has a supply of whiskey as well and appreciates Babbitt's more lowbrow treatment of him as compared to the false fawning most Americans give him. He confesses that Lucile McKelvey turned him off with talk of Rome and Florence when in fact he has never visited Italy, and his tastes are much more in line with those of Americans such as Babbitt, saying, "Nobody in the States has treated me like a friend till tonight!"

Babbitt's pleasure in the simple human contact is spoiled, however, when he spots his closest friend, "Paulibus" (Paul Riesling), having a rendezvous in the same hotel with a questionable woman who is definitely not his wife. Babbitt realizes he is seeing proof of Riesling's ongoing personal difficulties.

Chapter 20

Babbitt goes to the hotel where Paul is staying, and the men confront each other; Babbitt fears Paul is slipping more and more away from him into dangerous behavior. Riesling makes it clear he cannot tolerate Zilla any longer and needs another woman, no matter the consequences. Babbitt is deeply distressed and will attempt to cover for Paul by telling Zilla whatever will pacify her about her husband's absences. He concocts stories and seems to calm things down back in Zenith, but Paul is adamant that he will have to make a break somehow.


The chapters reveal the personal anxieties and unhappiness prevalent in many people who might seem to have fulfilled lives. Babbitt employed and liked Stanley Graff but found final proof that he was acting dishonestly and potentially bringing shame on the company. Graff insults him and his family with bitter words long suppressed. Babbitt himself can hardly take a high road in his own business dealings and, in the end, dismisses Graff from his life without penalty. Amid the booming economic world, corruption seems omnipresent and only barely papered over in the ideals of "Vision" and cooperation that Babbitt churns out in his own public-relations vocabulary.

His meeting in Chicago with Sir Doak is proof of the general alienation of many of the characters. The person described in such glittering terms in Zenith in the usual overblown style Babbitt and others cultivate turns out to be a rather lonely, even pathetic, man with "pop eyes and a deficient yellow mustache." He knows no one and has nothing to do. He has been treated as someone very different from his rather humble and lowbrow businessman identity, and he attaches himself firmly to Babbitt for company. Here, the natural goodwill and friendliness of Babbitt emerges, since he is far from Zenith and can respond as a "regular guy" to Doak. They can exist as friends on the same level in a natural way since Babbitt is freed from his obsessive need to impress and sell himself. The brief friendship is real and unforced, the best of Babbitt's behavior.

But the mood is soon broken when Babbitt finds Paul Riesling in a rendezvous with another woman and realizes the depths of trouble his friend is in—bordering on disaster. The book has included ample evidence all along that some domestic disaster may be pending. Despite all of Babbitt's powers of persuasion and can-do approach to solving problems, he is confronted with proof that his friend, the person he cares for so deeply and trusts, is at the edge of something he cannot address or organize a promotional campaign to solve.

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