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Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Chapters 9–10 | Summary



Chapter 9

The Babbitts' party becomes the scene of intense bickering when one of the younger guests, Eddie Swanson, criticizes the spending habits of his wife, Louetta Swanson, and she defends herself. They make no effort to hide their quarrel from the other guests. Babbitt has a vague attraction to Louetta, but for the most part his wishes to continue to concentrate on taking a Maine vacation with Paul Riesling. The party's highpoint is a spiritualist séance led by the poet Chum Frink, who claims to be able to conjure the spirit of the famous medieval poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), author of The Divine Comedy. The guests have only a vague idea who he was ("the Wop Poet," one suggests, with usual blind bigotry), since they heard him mentioned at school but have never read him. Babbitt knows he's "the fellow that took the Cook's Tour to Hell." The others suggest that Dante could not begin to compare to Frink, since the latter produces a poem a day for the newspaper syndicate while Dante was just an old-timer producing old-fashioned "junk" from "Brimstone Avenue in Hell." They think he can commune with "Jack Shakespeare" and other old poets.

Only Babbitt of all the guests actually wishes to any extent that he had had more education and might have read what he knows is a classic.

After the party Babbitt finally makes it clear to Myra that he wishes to go off to Maine with his friend before their families join them for a vacation. She is predictably hurt by the idea that he will enjoy himself far from her and comes across as "dumpy and defenseless and flushed," so he must truly break out in his own desperation to convince her of his need for solitude: "I'm shot to pieces ... I'm sick of everything and everybody." She agrees that he needs a break. The idea of his having his freedom in this way leaves him in a panic about what he will do with it.

Chapter 10

The Babbitts visit Paul Riesling and Zilla Riesling at their apartment, also coldly modern with "stone-hard brocade chairs." Zilla Riesling is her usual dramatic and dominant self. She commands attention with a story of how insulted she was in public by a streetcar conductor who did not pay her sufficient courtesy. She recites an entire splenetic story of imagined and loud offense, playing up the nature of the incident to the hilt. She uses the event to attack her husband as weak, lazy, and ineffectual, and he responds heatedly with scorn for her.

Babbitt and Myra Babbitt are troubled by the hateful atmosphere, and Babbitt finally leaps to Paul's defense. He upbraids Zilla and throws back her insults at her. Myra suggests that both Babbitt and Paul will benefit from the Maine time alone, which she must accept. She is crushed by harsh words from Babbitt, who tells her she is an object of general ridicule for being an old scolding shrew, and she collapses in apologies and regrets—but is still out of control.

Paul and Babbitt outfit themselves fully for their New England vacation at the local equipment store. On the train ride, they engage in talk about Prohibition and hotels for traveling salesmen, using vicious and numerous ethnic slurs, and complaints about overpriced clothes (a suit costing $67.90) and topics generally praising their new hero, a "pure Selling" great sales manager and "go-getter." Black Americans come under special attack, being accused of not knowing their "places" and most prominently vilified by one man who claims not to have "one particle of race-prejudice." Finally, some men and Babbitt enjoy themselves with dirty stories, although the finer-minded Riesling has already left the train car.


Babbitt's unhappiness is very clear in these chapters. He takes little satisfaction from the dinner party they have planned so minutely; the atmosphere is not pleasant when a young married couple quarrels and shows no affection. The entire séance led by the go-getter poet Frink is a long demonstration of ignorance and boorishness. For some reason the guests want to talk to Dante, one of the great figures in world culture, but all they can do is parade their lack of understanding and, as usual, prejudice and self-satisfaction. The vague notions they have of Dante's classic exploration of the human soul in life and after death are nowhere near any level of real interest or curiosity. As far as they are concerned, Dante must be inferior to Frink himself since their friend is contemporary and practical and can even summon the spirit of the ancient poet. Of course, the occasion is a party and merriment is expected, but what they have to say about Dante and his work of faith and politics is completely childish.

Babbitt as usual is somewhat separate from the other men, having a spark of interest perhaps inspired by the realization that Dante's epic work is a tale of an everyday man about to have a breakdown and find himself lost and adrift. He would actually like to hear some of the poem and "spiel us some of" it: "Buena giorna, senor, com sa va, wie geht's?" he asks Frink in baby talk he picked up somewhere in his own lost education, which will be of no use whatsoever to him as he navigates difficult territory ahead. There is a "Vergil" in the group but hardly a guide to Babbitt, while Paul Riesling is too far gone into unhappiness as he heads toward his own dissolution.

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