Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Themes

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Advertising through Language

Babbitt explores the American English of the post–World War I era, when it was greatly changing and expanding as a means for commercial and financial communication. The impact of radio and film, silent at first and then with sound, was immense. The country was moving from a rural majority to an urban one. Even those millions still living on the land found themselves with the potential for increased communication through radio—a medium that people could receive in their own homes at any time, greatly shrinking distances and opening the population to influences it had never encountered before.

Newspapers and magazines continued their vital role as commercial building blocks for the economy, and the language of advertising invaded all aspects of people's lives. In Babbitt, Lewis explores all levels of language. Babbitt writes many sales promotional letters and messages, relying on his secretary to smooth out the rough parts. He uses exaggerated images, with promises of exclusivity and excellence to sell middle-class houses and rent apartments. In fact, he knows next to nothing about the properties other than how to sell them and make them seem superior to similar houses offered by rival firms. He never pretends that what he is writing is true, only that there is precedent for manipulation of the truth by others and by him, so he will continue to do so.

The local paper runs absurdly exaggerated society reports on the doings of the city's supposed elite, polishing their egos and ensuring that those not of the elite will be faithful readers to vicariously enjoy events and dream of their own social climbing.

The characters have no interest in serious literature but only their homegrown, popular, and clichéd "poemulations," as Chum Frink's syndicated verses are called. They drip manufactured sentiment in forced rhymes, seemingly written on the spur of the moment on any topic ordinary readers can shed tears over that will boost their lagging spirits. Foreign influences are scorned since it is politically a time of closing borders to protect what are seen as manly and healthy American values. Though they have no foreign experiences themselves, they repeat stereotypical prejudices about non-American artists: degenerate loafers and unproductive figures.

Language taken directly from advertising spreads everywhere, including religion and education. A best-selling book for two years was The Man Nobody Knows (1925) by the advertising executive, author, and politician Bruce Fairchild Barton (1886–1967), presenting the life of Jesus Christ as a modern-day advertising man. In such an atmosphere churches must be profitable and competitive, and classical education comes under fire for not being sufficiently attuned to preparing students for new careers that did not even exist a generation before, such as aviation, automobiles, and media.

In Zenith, slogans, logos, buttons, banners, and flags all carry messages in shorthand abbreviations and acronyms as part of people's lives. They seek to motivate practical and profitable action, cutting short abstract debate on any subject (such as religion) that would divide rather than unite people and limit their workplace efficiency. Life seems reduced to trading bits of information in "ads that add," as Frink calls his promotional copy.

When individuals or couples do talk, more often than not quarrels and misunderstandings occur, since so much of their everyday lives seems taken up with the sharing of false information that seeks to manipulate them toward uniformity of opinion. Because of that driving and noisy force of empty language, the ability to communicate one-on-one seems atrophied. Language and advertising seem indistinguishable from each other when self-promotion for image making is the dominant activity in life, as it is for Babbitt and his friends. If they do not continually remind themselves that Zenith is number one in this category or another, they may forget how important they are by virtue of living there.

A Man at Midlife Crisis

Babbitt at age 46 is a man in the midst of his active and productive life, facing doubts about his position and his future, some of which he is aware of only vaguely. Lewis portrays him sleeping uneasily alone on the porch of his bedroom, seemingly deep in sleep but in fact uneasy in dreams that have long haunted him. In this dream he has a vision of female beauty—young, alluring, slim, and valiant—that he has long yearned for, but he awakes to his wife, Myra Babbitt, and their mutual alienation. She pays close attention to him, but for him she is simply not there beyond being the caretaker of his existence, as mother to their children and manager of their comfortable house. When he sees her at all, he sees a plump, unappealing, mature person with whom he debates household trivia. She bears no connection to the ideal of female beauty that continues to appear in his dreams.

When he says "I certainly do feel out of sorts, this morning," he is referring to his digestion, but it soon is apparent he is generally dissatisfied with his life and sees much of it with a critical eye. The perfect fittings and furnishings are not all he wants; he needs both more tranquility and more activity at home and more reassurances at work that all goes well with the real-estate dealings. He and his wife are both frustrated with their social position in the closed environment of their town.

Babbitt is also troubled by the deep unhappiness of his closest friend and confidant, Paul Riesling. Decades of friendship link them, and they are together as often as possible. But Babbitt knows his own mild anxieties at home are nothing compared to Paul's dreadful marriage, which threatens to implode. He has often counseled Paul in the past, but this time all they can think of is how nice it would be to get away from the hectic urban life to a wilderness in Maine.

Babbitt must continue with his unethical real-estate dealings to stay ahead of his competitors in the expanding development of the city. He seems uncomfortable when he thinks of the pressures of his financial position in Zenith. Further, he feels a certain lack of stability in dealing with an intangible such as real estate and would like more assurance of his own recognition and importance to others.

Until a friend is jailed for attempting to murder his wife, Babbitt moves along through his society in a kind of half-wakeful, half-dreaming state, taking pride in his accomplishments but still seeking something else. He has sold himself on his city and his role in its future, but he continues to see himself as an outsider pursuing an ideal that leads him into uncharted areas.

Dante's The Divine Comedy

At various points in Babbitt there are indications that Lewis gives the story of the main character a grounding in something other than an American success story. Sinclair Lewis was well read in the classics; in one of the longest scenes in the novel, the guests at the Babbitts' dinner party arrange a semiserious séance with the spirit of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). The Italian medieval epic The Divine Comedy tells of a middle-aged man waking from uneasy dreams and embarking on a personal odyssey through hell, purgatory, and paradise in search of the truths of existence. His guide is the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE), who cannot accompany him all the way to Paradise because he died a pagan. A consistent guiding spirit is the love of a beautiful young Florentine girl, Beatrice Portinari, who brings Dante to the side of God at the zenith of creation from atop Mount Purgatory into Paradise.

Dante structured the most famous part of The Divine Comedy—"Inferno"—into 34 cantos, or chapters. In these chapters the pilgrim seeks truth and satisfaction and engages with many levels of society and acquaintances of the time who are in Hell. Lewis, in his 34 chapters, does not write theologically as Dante did, but Babbitt is also in search of religious counsel at various points. Babbitt realizes that the bloodless definition he gives of his own faith—doing what he can to make others happy—cannot give him guidance in the deep unhappiness he is experiencing with his life. Vergil Gunch himself recognizes at the séance that he parallels Dante's guide; he takes the lead to forgive Babbitt and welcome him back to the fold after Babbitt's fling with nonconformity and liberalism.

However, the role Vergil plays is ironic, since he brings Babbitt back to a world in which salvation is impossible. In The Divine Comedy, Virgil can take Dante only so far; because the former was a pagan, he cannot ascend beyond a certain point in the afterlife. At that point, he passes Dante along to his lifelong (unrequited) love, Beatrice, a character similar to the fairy child about whom Babbitt dreams. Vergil Gunch, however, instead of leading Babbitt through danger and passing him off to a superior spiritual force, pulls Babbitt back down into the "Zenith" of American accomplishment: social-climbing capitalism.

Standardization and Individualization

In the 1920s, American manufacturing came under the influence of what was called "scientific (or process) management." Originally described by American inventor and engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915) as a way to increase productivity in the steel industry and eliminate wasteful practices, it proposed that labor needed to modernize, leaving the previous emphasis on craftsmanship and individual pace of work to become far more efficient and standardized. The approach was based on the transfer of knowledge into the means of mass production overseen by objective experts promoting best practices for all. Labor unions opposed this "Taylorism" as encouraging an authoritarian and impersonal strategy of control better suited to a totalitarian society, where in fact it was strongly approved by the leaders of the new Soviet Union. It is often linked with the "Fordist" assembly line for the manufacture of automobiles, whose reliance on standardized parts and repetitive tasks lowered costs through the elimination of waste.

In Babbitt's Zenith, standardized practices held great appeal because parts and even people could be seen as interchangeable for maximum profit. Individualized work, as in idiosyncratic or eccentric views, was discouraged. All the rhetoric of the administrative and manufacturing class was directed toward lack of dissent and overt loyalty to the goals of the enterprise. People who had similar backgrounds and goals would make more desirable citizens and productive members of society and be easier to convince and manipulate for profit and efficiency.

Babbitt is a leading spokesman for conformity and unity of goals but finds himself questioning the suppression of his own views as well as the curtailing of individual liberties. For example, during Prohibition, because he belongs to the class in power, he finds it simple to circumvent restrictions while supporting the law.

Chapter 7 is noteworthy for the lyrical structure Lewis employs to give an overall portrait of life in Zenith. The tension of human life is portrayed through adultery, murder, life, death, and religion. One example is a debate between the liberal lawyer Seneca Doane and the foreign scientist Kurt Yavitch, who trade views on life in Zenith as being too standardized in Yavitch's view, or pleasantly uniform according to Doane.

The latter repeats the idea from Chapter 1—that Zenith exists on a "giant" scale of development—while Yavitch sees only the hustle that has "standardized all the beauty out of life. It is one big railroad station," with trains headed only to the cemetery. Doane admits that elements of life are standardized but thinks this is good because products are reliably the same. He criticizes, however, the idea that individual thoughts are suppressed. When minds cannot function on an individual basis, then selfishness takes over. Under the guise of family life, others are disregarded in favor of the limited loyalties of the herd.

Doane accepts standardized products but not standardized minds. Eventually, Babbitt comes under this influence when he begins proclaiming his more liberal social views, but the fragility of this view at a conservative time is revealed when he is ostracized by the ruling circle. In the end a standardized way of life is shown to bring more happiness at that moment in American life. Given Babbitt's standardized lifestyle, the way his peers pressure him to continue standardizing, and the way he embraces his son for continuing along his own path (despite saying words to the contrary), the reader should see the irony in this viewpoint.

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