Literature Study GuidesBabbittChapters 5 6 Summary

Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Chapters 5–6 | Summary



Chapter 5

Babbitt is pleased to identify with each building along the main streets of Zenith, places where he is known and enjoys spending his money on new, modern items. He muses on the large income he expects to earn in 1920, computing that he can clear $8,000 and put himself in the upper income bracket compared to the general population. He still bemoans wasteful spending habits in his family, so he feels both rich and poor at the same time. Despite having sworn off smoking yet again, he treats himself to a new gadget that he has coveted for some time: an electric cigar lighter. He decides it will give him even more refinement and upper-class appearance when seen by others.

Babbitt is excited to be with his best close friend, Paul Riesling, at the Zenith Athletic Club. While it is the largest social club in Zenith, it is overshadowed by the rival Union Club, which is more expensive and conservative. He meets other friends there, including jovial Vergil Gunch, head of the Boosters' Club and a major supporter of local business initiatives. Also, he sees his friend Sidney Finkelstein, head buyer for the local department store, and Joseph Pumphrey, owner of a business college and an instructor in public speaking and writing. Finkelstein assures the insecure Babbitt that paying $5 for the cigar lighter was a good purchase and then makes anti-Semitic remarks about his own family members, who would not have spent the money.

Babbitt tunes out the other men when Paul Riesling arrives, treating him like a brother and long-lost soulmate, though they had seen each other just days before.

Usually, Babbitt sits with his large group of friends in their sub-club called "The Roughnecks," but he and Paul sit alone. Babbitt consumes a huge greasy meal, despite his intention to eat lightly, and tells Paul he has been feeling out of sorts and dissatisfied with himself recently. He describes how much he has earned and accomplished but feels uneasy nevertheless. Paul picks up the conversation and says he is more than a little unhappy himself, blaming the eccentric behavior of his wife, Zilla Riesling. After 24 years of marriage, he is totally alienated from her and cites her embarrassing and loud behavior in public, drawing attention to herself obsessively. He says he greatly desires to divorce her, but she will not consent, and he can find no grounds of infidelity either. Everything about her makes him miserable: "How she nags—nags—nags ... how absolutely unreasonable she is."

Paul seems at the end of his rope in his personal life and also criticizes the family roofing business he has inherited, even implying he has lost faith in the capitalist system. Babbitt is alarmed at this vaguely "socialist" talk, which has troubled him in the foreign news of 1920. Paul goes on to say he cannot imagine that Babbitt is as moral as he claims to be and, moreover, he would wager that two-thirds of the men they know are also troubled, ranging from "restless" to "miserable." Babbitt is unhappy to hear his dearest acquaintance speak so negatively and can only take refuge in "Christian patience."

The men agree they must stage some sort of escape from their domestic miseries and get away just on their own to Maine for a summer vacation away from civilization. Babbitt responds positively to Paul's need for a change in life.

Chapter 6

The chapter describes a busy workday for Babbitt. He spends business time with Myra's father, Henry J. Thompson, an older and traditional Yankee type Babbitt sees very differently from himself with his college education and what he calls his own "subtlety." Back at Babbitt-Thompson he has to lecture the young outside salesman, Stanley Graff, who is looking for more pay and a bonus for what he calls his extra hard work. Babbitt will not pay him anything additional and gives him a talking-to about showing more inspiration and pep in his sales efforts.

At the dinner table Babbitt causes a stir with his family by saying he is considering a new car purchase, and his older children immediately begin pressuring for it to be soon and in the more fashionable sedan style rather than the open car he now drives. They compare their car with that of the neighbors', in order to maintain status in the eyes of others. Babbitt is stressed from their nagging at him and begins thinking seriously of a way to introduce the idea of his going away to Maine with his friend Paul for some peace and quiet.

When the talk turns to high-school education, his son Ted Babbitt complains about the old-fashioned curriculum he must take, especially citing Shakespeare. His father has no comment since his opinions come from the local papers, but he does wish Ted could prepare himself more for a business career. Ted then reveals he has been collecting flyers and ads for home-study programs that make extravagant promises to young students of exciting and exotic careers that can be open to them. His father has little to say about this until one is shown to be a course in playing "a man's part" and defending himself and his family by boxing. Ted naively believes he can learn this in a correspondence class and claims he will be able to defeat his father's real-estate rivals should they insult him. Babbitt assures his son he has no enemies because he gets along with everyone. Ted thinks he has 50 or 60 surefire paths to excitement ahead, including playing the ukulele and being a fingerprint detective. His father agrees that much time is wasted on impractical education at college but also says that the "deepest and truest wealth" of the country is in movements and not necessarily possessions. He lists efficiency and being a Rotarian club member as especially praiseworthy.

Ultimately, he tells his son to stay with a formal education for the impression value of being able to present himself as someone with a BA. He does not approve of education for all but surely for the "gentleman class," and that is something a home-study course in "stamp licking" is not going to provide.

Babbitt is pleased with himself following the father-son talk and remembers his own youth when he intended to study law but found he could make money easily as a salesman. His best friend, Paul Riesling, married Zilla and gave up his dream of going abroad for music, while he chose Paul's cousin Myra Thompson, not from love but from the pleasure of her easy company and for her reliance on him, which was flattering. In time, she had made him a good wife.


Zenith is said to lack many defining qualities for a specific location since in fact it is one of many medium-sized American cities expanding in a time of prosperity—as evidenced by its standard office buildings and housing developments. But Babbitt can associate his own position in life through his business connections with each building and its inhabitants, finding his own definition of beauty based solely on the material. He enjoys computing his own income and measuring it against the wealth of all Americans; in his usual overheated self-enthusiasm, he exaggerates everything having to do with himself. He figures to make $8,000 in 1920—a solid and comfortable level for his family of five but hardly the large fortune he congratulates himself for. In current terms it would compute to slightly over $100,000, so he would not have been at the very pinnacle of the millionaire level of wealth in 1920. It is doubtful his wife would spend evenings darning socks for her family were they millionaires.

Babbitt's slim hold on reality is shown by his smoking and eating habits, since he makes only the feeblest effort to control these appetites. He goes on and on about stopping his cigar habit but buys new supplies regularly and makes a great show of possessing the most modern electric lighter he can find. He talks to himself incessantly about his unhealthy smoking habit and cannot control his intake for long. He is overweight and for the most part physically inactive, feeling queasy often, but he continues to eat oversized greasy meals both at home and out. He is likely within a normal range for men of his time and age, but as he takes such pride in the special qualities he possesses, he cannot control himself to be other than ordinary in his manner of living.

Babbitt is a total social climber in his club membership, so important for the business contacts he thrives on. The Union Club, which has not invited his membership, is an elusive goal he claims to scorn but clearly yearns for. The men take pleasure in the lavishness of their clubs' decor and furnishings, as they reflect the aspiring taste of the time.

The dialogue introduces more casual racism and bigotry common at the time, which passes by without a word from anyone. A leading member, Sidney Finkelstein, has much to say about the price of Babbitt's cigar lighter and speaks with scorn about his own parents—"the Old Folks, they're Jews"—who would never pay the amounts he pays for things. Assimilation was very common in the period for American Jews seeking social and financial acceptance, and casual anti-Semitism was publicly expressed. In real-estate language, "restricted" developments meant no minorities of any kind, and people accepted this as part of common usage. It is never explained how Sidney Finkelstein can speak about his family from a distance as if he has no tie to them himself. His name can clearly identify him, but as Zenith seems to be mainstream Christian, his success may be the result of marriage or conversion.

Paul Riesling's long diatribe against his wife reveals deep alienation and misery in his marriage. Compared to Babbitt's mild grumblings, Paul's bitterness is clearly a warning sign of a serious situation and eventual disruption of the story.

He and Babbitt both need to escape domestic unhappiness, but Paul's case seems desperate. He tellingly proclaims that a majority of the men in Zenith are unhappy, to varying degrees—many alarmingly so—and the reader has no difficulty believing him. His comments loom darkly over the novel.

When the men talk about their need to go to a rural escape, the khaki camping blanket Babbitt oddly uses in his sunroom sleeping quarters comes to mind. Babbitt attaches importance to civilized and streamlined modernity, or claims he does, but he harbors more primitive dreams and desires, such as the fairy girl of his dreams and the rougher outdoor life he would share with his best friend, Paul.

The extensive discussion Babbitt and Myra have with Ted about his boyish enthusiasm is revelatory. Apparently, he is allured by the possibility of avoiding old-fashioned higher education and classics in favor of the countless ads and flyers he has collected from magazines. These promote various adolescent fantasies and, in the most exaggerated terms, correspondence classes and home study to become a pilot, public orator, mechanic, detective, and the like. All a boy needs to do is send money and receive the keys to an exciting future. Naturally, it is easy to dismiss his naive dreams of tossing aside school to become a bodybuilder or musician, but Babbitt is not as dismissive as that. He himself has little regard for the traditional education he received and has no reason to defend even Shakespeare since he has never read it. Moreover, the exaggerated, comical, and overblown language of the ads ("Are You a 100 Percenter or a 10 Percenter?" runs the headline on one from Sandpit, Iowa, promoting public speaking courses as a sure road to financial and popular success) is not far removed from the gung-ho boosterism his office produces under his direction from his own clichéd ideas. He realizes Ted is naively attracted to such glittery promises, but he cannot really refute the lure of a well-written ad, no matter how extreme or silly, since he deals in much the same every day. He finally can muster the argument that having a BA will give Ted entry into the better class of society they all aim for, so he better see through the nonsense on that ground alone.

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