Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Plot Summary

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Summary

Babbitt and Zenith

The novel has a double focus at the start on George Babbitt—a representative citizen of Floral Heights, a prosperous section of Zenith—and the city of Zenith itself. Zenith is a medium-sized inland American city in an unidentified state, one that has grown in the first decades of the 20th century into a manufacturing and commercial hub and expanded its size through real-estate development.

Babbitt has played a large part in this growth. He is 46 years old in 1920 and married to Myra Thompson Babbitt, the daughter of his real-estate firm partner.

They are the average parents of three children ranging from 10 years old to college age and live in an upper-middle-class modern house of which they are very proud. In all ways it is representative of modern style and taste, giving an efficient but cold appearance remarkably similar to the houses of all their neighbors and social acquaintances, filled with new appliances and decorated to resemble the image of a perfect house rather than an old-fashioned home.

Babbitt is a compulsive real-estate wheeler-dealer, calling himself a realtor to make the profession sound more prestigious. He joins many organizations for the business contacts and the time spent with other social-climbing men, who are all determined to play their part in the growth of the city. They all boast of their memberships and exclude others who would not be part of the conservative, right-wing, patriotic spirit they proclaim. For these men, Zenith is the center of their public lives, and they have frequent meetings, conferences, trips, and other events at which they can exercise their pride in the city full of zip, zest, zoom, zowie, and the other manufactured terms they boast of. They claim to be upstanding citizens with high standards, but they all are eager at any moment to break the Prohibition laws of the country and enjoy bootleg liquor in copious supply.

Babbitt has a large number of similar friends all trading in enthusiastic support for Zenith, but his one real attachment is to his oldest friend, Paul Riesling. Since university days he and Paul have been the closest friends, and Babbitt is partly able to overlook the deep unhappiness Paul expresses over his miserable marriage to Zilla Riesling, a loud and unbalanced woman he longs to leave. He has musical abilities long suppressed and is far from the loud and optimistic behavior of his friend George, who tries to protect and encourage him to see things through.

Babbitt in Society

George and Myra are social climbers, or would be, if they could find the right niche and people to cultivate. Their parties do not succeed because they aim too high—for the true upper class of Zenith that is not open to them. The couples they do socialize with often are as unhappy with each other as are the Babbitts: distant and bored in their lives and physically estranged.

A high point in the book is a séance held at one of the Babbitts' parties, at which the guests invoke the spirit of the famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), although their knowledge of the medieval epic poem The Divine Comedy is nonexistent. Sinclair Lewis, however, imbues his novel with some similarities to the epic. Lewis has organized Babbitt into 34 chapters, as Dante did in his famous "Inferno," and given Babbitt a companion voyager in life also named Vergil (not a Roman in this case, but Vergil Gunch, head of the Boosters). Like Dante, Lewis has his main character wake from troubled dreams to a personal odyssey aimed at self-discovery. The substitution of a financial mentality and civic pride drives the characters to excesses in some ways reminiscent of Dante's work in his native city of Florence and suggests a framework Lewis may have devised in a modern context.

Babbitt longs to go with his friend Riesling back to nature, retreating in Maine where they can both get away from their domestic anxieties. Even having spent the week there, he does not recognize the depths of Paul's despair until by chance he sees him out with another woman. Characteristically, Babbitt attempts to smooth it over with Zilla, but a while later he is shaken to his core when, after yet another maddening quarrel, Paul shoots and badly wounds her.

Babbitt himself has been riding a tide of public approval and popularity for the stirring speeches he gives to the Real Estate Board, the Boosters, and other groups. They are long-winded presentations full of banal statistics, half-truths, and wishful speculation about a future in which Zenith will challenge New York and Chicago for supremacy, as well as old-fashioned cheerleading for people already on his side. At the moment Paul shoots his wife and is sent to jail, Babbitt finds himself bereft of the one person he could depend on and begins a series of attempts at romantic and sexual affairs outside the tedium of his marriage.

He goes off again to Maine and roughs it even more, striking out into wilderness with just an old guide, but he realizes his escape from Zenith is simply not possible. He is too tied to it and returns with the determination to find his truer self and fulfill his own wishes rather than continuing as part of a herd.

Babbitt Challenges the Status Quo

Zenith soon faces a labor crisis, with organizers for unions and better working conditions clashing with the National Guard and the united conservative opinion of the governing class firmly against them. Babbitt surprises himself and all his circle by stating that he is becoming more open-minded, even "liberal," a term frightening to many then for an assumed connection to communist movements and events taking place in post–World War I (1914–18) Europe. He defends an unpopular local lawyer, Seneca Doane, a university friend from the past who sides with the strikers.

He also dares to initiate a full-scale liaison with Tanis Judique, an attractive widow he met through his business, and soon becomes part of her questionable group of hard-drinking and hard-partying friends. For a time the longstanding romantic fantasy dreams he has had of an alluring female ideal seem realized with her, and he risks public disclosure in the small-town atmosphere of the city. At the same time his conservative circle closes in on him, being aware of his affair and troubled by his less-than-steady politics.

He is pressed and threatened to join the Good Citizens' League, a watchdog body that will seek to control all thought and opinion in Zenith and drive out, perhaps with violence, any dissenters. Deeply resentful of such pressure and also chafing at the demands being made on him by his mistress, Babbitt finds no wisdom in considering the religious aspects of his situation, and he continues to distance himself from everyone by ending the affair and refusing the league's final invitation to join.

Babbitt Settles

Babbitt is confused about where he is headed, having formerly been the most conscientious good citizen of all, but his perplexity is addressed suddenly when his wife has surgery for acute appendicitis. The doubts clouding his life vanish in a burst of renewed fidelity to all aspects of his life. He pledges love and loyalty at home, convinces himself he has never doubted his true position in Zenith, and soon becomes a mouthpiece for the league in all its views and conformity. He even discloses Follansbee as his unknown middle name and endures deep ribbing for it.

His son, Ted Babbitt, named after Theodore Roosevelt in admiration for the aggressively masculine and independently minded U.S. president, shocks the family by eloping with the girl next door. She has been Ted's girlfriend throughout the story, and he reluctantly followed his father's insistence that he have a traditional higher education. But he shows the strong will Babbitt had always wished for himself but never achieved. The father will support the son in his early marriage and gives him a green light to live his own life working as a mechanic, which is Ted's true gift.

The novel thus ends with a family unification and resolution to the questions that were in Babbitt's mind upon awakening in the first chapter two years before. Still, Babbitt feels that reconciliation with his club, his work, and his family is the embodiment of conformity from which he was trying to escape. He's left with only vague hopes that his retirement will afford him the opportunity to figure out his life and what it seems to be missing.

Babbitt Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Discontented, Babbitt wakes to another dull workday.

Rising Action

2 Paul Riesling confesses he is miserable in his marriage.

3 Babbitt chastises Zilla Riesling; she lets Paul go camping.

4 Babbitt and Paul Riesling enjoy camping in Maine.

5 Babbitt sees Paul Riesling in a hotel with May Arnold.

6 After revisiting Maine, Babbitt vows to lead a truer life.

7 Babbitt begins an affair with liberal-minded Tanis Judique.

8 Babbitt's friends see him with his mistress.

9 Friends pressure Babbitt to return to conservative ways.

10 His refusal to conform causes ostracism and lost business.

Climax

11 Myra Babbitt becomes seriously ill.

Falling Action

12 Babbitt pledges fidelity and is accepted again at home.

13 The conservative Good Citizens' League welcomes him back.

14 Babbitt returns to his old ways of doing real-estate deals.

Resolution

15 Babbitt accepts his son's elopement as a good omen.

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