Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Symbols


Babbitt in the Bath

Of all the objects he surrounds himself with, Babbitt pays excessive attention to sanitation and modern plumbing. The extended detail in the book about the family's ultramodern bathroom—and all that takes place in it and how it is furnished—shows that for Babbitt it is much more than a necessary room in a house. He works so hard and hustles so much to provide for himself and his family the luxuries of a modern lifestyle. Many rooms are described in detail in the house, but none as much as the bath. It is efficient, streamlined, and healthy, a place he spends much time in, both morning and night. In his effort to live at an exalted pitch above the past, he sees in the bath a sacred place that has been carefully designed and executed. Each gleaming object and accoutrement has a special place in the "altogether royal bathroom of porcelain and glazed tile and metal sleek as silver." Babbitt is said to worship the god of modern appliances, and like the sacristan in a church, he guards each object, verifies its integrity, and makes sure it is as it should be to be used at the proper moment in his ritual cleansing behavior.

The water and the objects of the bath contrast with the hustle and consumption-oriented portrait of life outside, far from his sanctuary of nickel, glass, and tile. He scorns foreign countries for many reasons, chief among them that he knows Europeans never bathe, for example, not having been there himself but sure the dangerous reports he has heard are true enough to spread.

Because he is convinced that very few people in the rest of the world can live as healthily as he can in his bathroom/shrine to modernity, he spends a great deal of time washing, shaving, and lounging in the water, even "lulled to dreaming by the caressing warmth." Having worked (and manipulated others) so hard to be able to have the reassuring luxury of such a bath, he feels "virtuous in the possession of this splendor." Other appliances are important too, but he has little to do in the kitchen or with the cleaning of the house, whereas the bath and its resplendent and efficient surfaces symbolize for him a way of life vastly superior to the past and something the gods of progress have bestowed on him for all his labors. His "joy and passion and wisdom" are provided for him by advertisers who give him "the surface of his life" as a consumer of toothpastes, hot water heaters, and all the rest of his bath accessories.

Babbitt and Khaki

When Babbitt is first presented, he is emerging from his sleeping cot and its khaki blanket. In a modern, rather pale bedroom and sleeping porch, he continues to use a heavy khaki blanket he appears to be childishly attached to. Khaki is associated with the military and uniforms, having been brought back from India by the British army in the 19th century to replace the brightly colored tunics soldiers previously wore. Khaki provided a natural camouflage, being the color of sand or soil. It began to be used for various outdoor materials, especially for bedding and clothes meant for hiking and sleeping in nature. Babbitt "had bought it for a camping trip which had never come off. It symbolized gorgeous loafing, gorgeous cursing, virile flannel shirts." Whatever the original planned trip, the blanket remains for him a symbol of escape from the hectic civilization of Zenith and his carefully planned standardized life.

When in the company of his close friend and confidant Paul Riesling, he speaks often of their mutual desire to take time away from domestic pressures and go to Maine. Although Zenith is never geographically placed, it seems a reasonable train ride away from Maine, a place itself symbolizing rural getaways and a peaceful nature. Babbitt and Riesling are exultant at the chance to spend the time there, and even the deeply unhappy Riesling responds with calm to the beauty around them.

They have outfitted themselves for the trip—as it happens, the first and only one they will be able to do together—and Babbitt has dressed himself in a "khaki shirt and vest and flapping khaki trousers." Later, he is said to treasure "every grease spot and fish-scale on his new khaki trousers." The rural nature of the material, being the opposite of the city-style suits, shirts, and coats worn daily like a businessman's uniform, has a liberating effect on Babbitt. Later, after Paul is taken to prison, Babbitt makes another pilgrimage to Maine and the place where they had camped. He thinks of staying but realizes he must continue his life in Zenith for better or worse. A new realization of masculinity opens to him, and the virility of the flannel and khaki is what he takes back to Zenith when embarking on a serious affair with Tanis Judique.

The Fairy Girl

Babbitt dreams of a fairy child, "so slim, so white, so eager." She is not the girl his wife was. In fact, at a certain point Babbitt realizes that he and his wife are one person, and he protects her as he would protect himself. Still, he longs for the youth, the innocence, and the admiration of this fairy child. She haunts his dreams as well as his waking hours. He sees her in his secretary, a young manicurist, and several of the Bohemian ladies he tries taking up with. However, like the idyllic rural world he occasionally finds soothing, he cannot get close to her in real life. She remains a part of his dreams. In some sense, she represents a fantasy that no man could ever attain, no matter how virtuous or successful a life he lived. In another sense, she represents the ideal that lies far beyond Babbitt's powers not just of attainment but even of comprehension, as he pursues conformity at all costs.

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