Literature Study GuidesBabbittChapters 7 8 Summary

Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Chapters 7–8 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 7

Babbitt's house is described as very standardized and in line with all the others of its type in Zenith. All houses in Floral Heights resemble one another in color, furniture, decorations, and style. The text repeats over and over: "Two out of every three houses ... had ..." No distinct taste emerges because there is none: "It was as neat, and as negative, as a block of artificial ice." It is not a home: only a house.

Babbitt muses about a long trip he'd like to take and realizes it will not include his wife, but he loses himself in long ritual behavior with a bath and preparations for sleeping on his special porch. He is lulled into repose by the objects and brands around him that create his identity and give him what he thinks are joy, passion, and wisdom.

He drifts into sleep, and the rest of the chapter is written in a lyrical way. Each paragraph repeats, "At that moment in Zenith ..." The long list of what is being done in the city as he goes to sleep includes illicit lovers meeting, drug addicts and bootleggers indulging their crimes, serious union labor organizers meeting, a fiery evangelist holding a prayer meeting, and a Civil War veteran dying. The liberal lawyer Seneca Doane debates with a local scientist about the values of standardized living in Zenith. Doane claims to appreciate standardized objects of consumption but says he rejects standardized thoughts and minds, while the scientist says he is still too middle of the road and not really a revolutionary such as he those in Europe at the time.

Babbitt's father-in-law has a private meeting as well with a crooked politician, and they plan some illegal dealing.

Meanwhile, the owner of the local bookstore is composing a poem in the structure of an old rondeau, a work of continued rhymes that repeat and interlock, like the chapter itself. Babbitt has finally made his sleepy escape into dreams of the fairy girl in a midnight garden far from Zenith.

Chapter 8

The Babbitts are having a major dinner party to impress their friends. Babbitt does not care that Howard Littlefield speaks three languages, as he does too: "American, baseball, and poker." Myra is nagging him steadily not to forget the special ice cream cake she has ordered, while his mind is on the bootleg whiskey he intends to serve to make an impression. He goes to a hidden speakeasy saloon in a rundown part of town where his fancy business card counts for nothing, and he is charged a high price for the gin he buys to serve that evening.

The party will feature the usual friends and wives but especially the local poet Chum Frink. Chum Frink is a celebrity in Zenith for his syndicated "Poemulations"—clichéd rhyming verse with no literary distinction—and a blooming career writing advertising copy, "Ads that Add." He treats the guests to samples of his ads, including one for Zeeco Cars: TRY LIFE'S ZIPPINGEST ZEST—THE ZEECO!

Amid more ethnic and accent jokes, the men debate to no conclusion the national laws prohibiting alcohol, since the men all break the law and drink anyway. At the same time, they have vague political ideas about the injustice of the amendment that made America nominally dry. They object to losing their individual right to drink and even suggest licenses for individuals to purchase alcohol rather than for selling it.

Vergil Gunch, head of the Boosters, sums up a long discussion about how lucky they all are in general to be in Zenith. They all agree that Zenith is not small town in attitude; it's highly sophisticated, putting the "con" in economics. He says that rural people all look up to them: "They all want to be just like Zenith!"

Analysis

A strong contrast exists between the total standardization of living in Zenith and the overriding sense of shared humanity expressed by the author. The houses and their interiors are all the same, interchangeable in all details, as if cut from the same mold. Three of four, eight of nine—all have the same positioned sofas, lamps, and phonographs. No life for individuals exists because they are happy, or think they are, consuming the same objects and surrounding themselves with "standard advertised wares" to prove the worth of those who buy them. No reading, discussion, or interchange of ideas or wisdom takes place, only the same clichés and accepted opinions they have read.

But the author spends the greater part of Chapter 7 in constructing a lyrical, unique pattern for his prose, which actually resembles an epic in repeated refrains. After locating Babbitt drifting off into his dreams of escape from Myra and his family, Lewis provides a dozen vignettes of life, love, death, faith, and work occurring in the city simultaneously. The parts build on one another in a songlike structure incorporating elements of daily life in a slice-of-life overview of how people spend time in Zenith when not cocooned in their own fantasies. The life of the city is given voice in a stream of ongoing consciousness in which the fates and actions of the population are not intertwined, because everyone is shown deeply alienated from resolution. However, Zenith itself takes on the role of a character far more alive than the representative figure of Babbitt, who speaks for it in all the other chapters.

The mixture presented of population and action takes the shape of an urban lyric, while the final figure shown is an obscure poet laboring to compose a rondeau, a verse of interlocking rhymes. His subject matter is the dullness of Zenith in 1920, but in fact in the numerous scenes of the chapter, much interesting action occurs, if only people would listen. It is not first rate or top drawer, since Seneca Doane says he thinks Zenith would outdraw European cities such as Glasgow, Manchester, or Turin, and not the famous world capitals such as Paris or London. Doane himself is characterized as a weakly principled liberal, not a true game changer.

The "poetry" of Chum Frink is in direct contrast to the lyrical structure of the previous chapter. He recites it at the subsequent dinner party in Babbitt's house. What he calls "the real American genius" is the most clichéd, empty, laughable type of promotional language imaginable. It echoes what Babbitt produces to sell and rent houses; because all objects are basically interchangeable, the same images of zippy and zesty goods and lives they exult over complete the lyric of life in Zenith. Frink's "fame" saturates his own social circle but has zero substance; his work is written to be consumed and digested, unlike the abiding poetry shown in the rondeau.

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