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Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Quotes


The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist ... They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings.

Narrator, Chapter 1

Zenith is characterized by its powerful financial orientation and the dedication to capitalist growth in the inhabitants, led by Babbitt. It is the essence of the city in 1920, contrasting with former times when power was in the military or the church. It is a new type of American civilization, dominant and expanding. Babbitt is chief among those uninterested in past ways and firmly believing in all that goes on in offices, as opposed to old-fashioned fortresses or places of worship.


The whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus ... the song of labor in a city built—it seemed—for giants.

Narrator, Chapter 1

The business of Zenith is business—and busy-ness. Without work and profit, the inhabitants would be without purpose. Factory whistles provide an artful chorus as they set the scene for men whose purpose is to work.


He beheld the tower as a temple-spire of the religion of business, a faith passionate ... surpassing common men.

Narrator, Chapter 1

Another exalting glance at the bank tower, which Babbitt can see from his bedroom, prepares him for the day's work at making shady profits. In a way that others might have drawn faith from a church or a military tower to protect them, he whistles a hymn that reassures his doubting self that he is part of a productive and good force.


In fact there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house: It was not a home.

Narrator, Chapter 2

The Babbitts' carefully planned house is totally standardized in order not to stand out, so that "if people had ever lived and loved here ... there were no signs of it." It looks like something taken directly from a popular decorating magazine. Statistics would show the same colors, same decorations, and same furniture in the same places. Similar to the factory ideal of efficiency achieved through repetition of rational tasks, as on an assembly line producing cars, the houses in Floral Heights have no claim to individuality.

Because people's lives are in fact lived on an individual basis, a house can become a home only by encouraging free expression and will. Babbitt and his friends prefer to live as others live, more scientifically sound and healthy and more standardized, without having to deal with individual choices that might make a structural house into an actual home.


And then most folks are so darn crooked themselves that they expect a fellow to do a little lying.

Babbitt, Chapter 4

Speaking to Paul Riesling, the one person he really trusts, Babbitt admits what everyone knows about him and about themselves as well. The nature of advertising is to embellish simplicity and create a purchase. Babbitt believes there is such a thing as being "unreasonably honest." He will cheat only if he or others have done it before, if lying is "sanctified by precedent," thus justifying his actions. It is a business behavior very familiar to him, and he can maintain his position as long as the stresses of his personal life do not overwhelm him—which they eventually will.


As he approached the office he walked faster and faster, muttering, 'Guess better hustle.'

Narrator, Chapter 12

Babbitt makes himself into a hustler, often engaging in dishonest business practices and then justifying it to himself. He also forces himself to live at a faster pace than his nature really wishes. Part of him craves the outdoors and the rural peace far from Zenith, and he is much changed each time he can get away. But he remains convinced that he must stay in Zenith for the long haul; he believes it is the only place he will ever really live with his family.

But the lure of doing more and doing it faster, of continually being on the go and expending all energies in hustling, is irresistible to him since it defines who he is. He belongs ultimately in an office with the sign, "The Lord Created the World in Six Days—You Can Spiel All You Got to Say in Six Minutes." His path to this way of life is not uninterrupted, and he runs away twice into irresponsibility. But in the end his existence depends on returning to a busy life. He even encourages his son and daughter to do the same.


In other countries, art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti.

Babbitt, Chapter 14

In his long address to the Zenith Real Estate Board, Babbitt is totally in his element with an audience in his corner. To inflate their opinions of themselves and play upon stereotyped clichés of foreign decadence, he goes on to say that successful American artists are no different "from any other decent businessman," showing a total ignorance of artistic creation and feeding bigotry and native coarseness in favor of "Standardized Citizens" and "Regular Guys" opposed to the "decayed nations of Europe."


If you had asked Babbitt ... his religion ... he would have answered in sonorous Boosters' Club rhetoric, ' ... to do my bit to make life happier for ... all.'

Narrator, Chapter 16

Religion is ostensibly significant in Zenith and to its inhabitants, since they support many churches and make a show of attendance and affiliation. Babbitt is no different but has no understanding of any doctrines at the heart of it. Religion is seen as a practical activity—something that must make sense and unite as part of a standardized view. Ignorant of the history of all faiths, a modern citizen will never delve into murky territory leading to unanswerable questions and what it is feared would be futile arguments and "bad feelings." Religion is assumed to play its part in increasing the sum total of happiness and productivity, and no dissent would be permitted to interfere with that goal.


If you analyze the needs of the school ... as if it were a merchandizing problem ... we [will] build up the biggest darn Sunday School in the whole state.

Babbitt, Chapter 17

To help the rich banker William Eathorne solve the problem of under-enrollment in the church Sunday school, Babbitt gives a glimpse of how he sees everything in life: a problem of sales, of convincing the "clients" to buy what he is selling. And if it is religious education, it makes no difference; it is all about the power of positive strategy to sell and be efficient.


With no ... resolute optimism, he ... half admitted that he beheld ... his way of life as incredibly mechanical.

Narrator, Chapter 18

Halfway through the narrative, Babbitt begins to have doubts about the life he has been leading and what he seems to be so proud of. When he is honest with himself, he admits he is perhaps only going through the motions in his business, his religion, and even his personal relationships. But he continues in this mechanical fashion despite the doubts.


Babbitt was overwhelmed to find that he had a dishonest person working for him.

Narrator, Chapter 19

Although he himself indulges daily in shady and often unethical real-estate dealings, Babbitt is shaken when he learns his star salesman, Stanley Graff, has been dealing with clients dishonestly and pocketing profits. Babbitt has so little self-awareness that his own admitted corner-cutting does not factor into his view of life, and he fires Graff in a contentious moment.


The thing to do then, as a live bunch of go-getters, is to CAPITALIZE CULTURE; to go right out and grab it.

Chum Frink, Chapter 21

Chum Frink the versifier speaks for the uncultured and naive view in Zenith that art is just a commodity to be traded in and spent on. He proposes that Zenith learn to compete economically with major cities by using what he takes for culture and selling it. He literally would write culture in capital letters, thus "capitalizing" it both through punctuation and by profiting from it. He wants a symphony to be housed in Zenith, so he thinks the only requirement is for Zenith to spend more money than any other town on a big name conductor. It is an early statement of the idea, "if you build it, they will come."


It came to him merely to run away was folly, because he could never run away from himself.

Narrator, Chapter 25

After his closest friend is jailed and leaves Babbitt's life, he tries to recreate the atmosphere of their camping trip to Maine but finds his mind deeply split. He cannot stay in Maine but knows he must return to Zenith and the life he is so fully involved with there. He resolves that he is "going to start something" and thinks he can make it "valiant." In fact, his life begins to disintegrate as this stab at freedom deteriorates into not much more than a secret affair.


We're not begging you to join the G.C.L.—we're permitting you to join ... Better think quick—better think quick!

Colonel Rutherford Snow, Chapter 32

As Babbitt tries out his freedom from past conformity, he gets into deep trouble with those who formerly were his closest associates. The Good Citizens' League is established to strengthen conservative views in Zenith and act as a censor for liberal opinions. The newspaper owner attempts to coerce Babbitt into dropping his rebelliousness of the moment and rejoin the flock and herd mentality. Babbitt refuses, and the league comes after him with punishments to wreck his career.


I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life ... I figure out I've made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods.

Babbitt, Chapter 34

The book concludes with Babbitt reflecting on his own failure to live life as he wanted, constantly conforming to social, family, and material pressures, while encouraging his son toward the same type of life. Looking back, all he has really done from the heart is to "just get along." Always seeing life as a race, he feels that—of the possible long distance he might have covered in all his "hustle"—he has not moved more than a puny quarter inch. He will pin his hopes on the marriage of Ted Babbitt and Eunice Littlefield, even as they embark on the same type of life he led.

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