This satire of the American social landscape caused quite a stir when it was published in 1922, and it is widely regarded as Sinclair Lewis’ greatest novel. Babbitt’s limitations exposed the hollowness of the conventional definition of success, and his name became an instant and lasting synonym for middle-class complacency.
His experiences are typical of those who live in a society where adhering to social norms is highly valued, even if it can lead to a person feeling as if they don’t belong.
Babbitt is a timeless classic that deserves its place among the great works of the twentieth century that deal with the plight of individuals caught in the machinery of modern life as a cautionary tale against clinging to traditional values.
You may be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.
At the end of this book summary, I’ll also tell you the best way to get rich by reading and writing.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Babbitt Book Summary
As another day dawned in Zenith, sleeping George Babbitt fought to ignore the morning sounds – the milk truck, the furnace-man, a dog barking – so that he could cling to the dream he was having. He had the same dream often. It involved a “fairy child” who discerned “gallant youth” where “others saw but George Babbitt.”
But now the day beckoned. George pulled himself from bed, bathed, shaved, dressed, and then trudged downstairs to eat. As usual, Babbitt was a grumpy breakfast partner; a foul mood was expected of a respectable businessman. He grumbled at his nearly adult children, Verona and Ted, and argued with Myra, his wife. No one in the house appreciated all he did for them.
Babbitt gulped down his food, “laid unmoving lips against [Myra’s] unblushing cheek,” and left for work. Driving toward his office in downtown Zenith, he admired the “bigness” of the city. In fact, “Babbitt respected bigness in anything: in mountains, jewels, muscles, wealth, or words. …”
At the Reeves Building where the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company had its offices, he wrote an advertisement designed to entice buyers to purchase the company’s cemetery plots, then phoned his old school friend Paul Reisling and made arrangements for lunch.
Babbitt always ate in the Zenith Athletic Club, and today was no exception. He normally sat with “the Roughnecks,” an intimate group of big businessmen, but today he and Paul sat by themselves. Paul was more than a little depressed with his shrewish wife Zilla, who constantly badgered him, embarrassed him in public, and treated him like a little boy.
While the two friends sat complaining about their colorless lives, they struck on the idea of getting away to Maine by themselves that next summer to “just loaf … and smoke and cuss and be natural.” Babbitt assured Paul that he would iron out everything with their wives.
The day ended with Babbitt firing a salesman for being too honest. At home, as usual, Babbitt ate dinner, the kids left the house, and he plunked himself on the sofa for some lazy reading. But a seed of dissatisfaction swelled up in him; he vowed that the following year would bring changes in his life.
The next year began well for Babbitt. Money poured in as he secretly bought real estate options in a Zenith suburb, Linton, in anticipation of “the public announcement that the Linton Avenue Car Line would be extended.” Babbitt told Myra about his plan to run up to Maine with Paul early that spring and bullied Zilla into letting Paul go, too.
Paul and Babbitt arrived in Maine’s north woods, and both found the climate, surroundings, fishing, hiking and camaraderie, soothing. Paul started looking at his distant wife with a more forgiving eye. He began to feel that his marriage would somehow be different – better; maybe he could “go back and start over again.” Babbitt, on the other hand, “sank into irritability,” as though he had “uncovered layer upon layer of hidden weariness.” But he still promised himself that his life would be, from then on, less hurried and hectic.
After his return from Maine, Babbitt was given the opportunity to address the State Association of Real Estate Boards at their annual convention. He tried for days to come up with a speech to express his newfound relaxation; to somehow convince businessmen that they needed to see life from a deeper perspective. But just before the convention he trashed his notes, and, instead, parroted the ideas he knew his peers wanted to hear. Enthusiastically, he proclaimed the real estate profession, Zenith, and every good thing about the city, as “God’s gift to earth.”
Babbitt’s speech was a success. One of Zenith’s newspapers even printed his picture. After that, things really took off. That November, Harding won the Presidential election, but in Zenith the mayoral race was the fight that really counted. Seneca Doane, a radical lawyer – and Babbitt’s former college acquaintance – was running on a liberal labor ticket, while his opponent, Lucas Prout, had the support of “the banks, the Chamber of Commerce, all the decent newspapers, and George F. Babbitt.” As Babit told campaign audiences, “Prout represented honest industry, Seneca Doane represented whining laziness.” In the end, Prout – and by extension, Babbitt – won.
Soon thereafter, Babbitt was chosen to serve on a church committee formed to “build up the biggest darn Sunday School in the whole state.” There Babbitt met a new business associate, William Washington Eathorne, president of the First State Bank. Eathorne symbolized old money, Victorian conservatism, and real power in the Zenith community. He liked Babbitt’s ideas for increasing the size of the Sunday School by dividing it into four “armies,” with military ranks to be awarded according to how many “souls” each member brought in. Babbit also authored the idea of hiring a Sunday School press agent.
Next, Babbitt was elected vice-president of the Zenith chapter of the International Organization of Booster’s Clubs. He was riding high on success, when “all the charm in his life was smothered by a single event”: Paul, his best friend, shot his wife. Babbitt was devastated. Because Zilla survived the shooting, Paul’s sentence was light – only three years in the State penitentiary. But Babbitt now “faced a world which, without Paul, was meaningless.”
That June, Myra went East to stay with relatives, and Babbitt was free to do as he pleased. He began to look on women with a cautious but desiring eye. Once or twice he even dated a manicurist he knew, but she quashed any thought of an affair, and Babbitt eventually gave up the search for his “fairy child,” choosing instead to return to Maine’s wilderness. But this too proved disappointing, as he was alone with no wife to coddle him, no friend to talk with, no children to visit him.
Returning by train, Babbitt bumped into Seneca Doane. As they reminisced about old college days, Doane told Babbitt that “in college you were an unusually liberal, sensitive chap. I can still recall your saying to me that you were going to be a lawyer, and take the cases of the poor for nothing, and fight the rich.” Much impressed by this recollection, by the time Babbitt returned to Zenith he had determined to be more open, “to give the other fellow a chance, and listen to his ideas.”
One day, Tanis Judique, who rented one of Babbitt’s properties, called on him about some repairs. Their relationship soon escalated, and Babbitt quickly became absorbed into Tanis’s group of friends (called “the Bunch”), cavorting around town with them and drinking bootleg whiskey in roadside inns. Still feeling inexplicably unfulfilled, George secretly continued in these reveries even after Myra’s return.
Babbitt’s friends at the Athletic Club became aware of his changed attitudes.
When, rather than flat-out condemning a group of city strikers Babbitt defended them, his colleagues met him with cold shoulders, glares and looks of disbelief.
One afternoon an associate approached Babbitt and invited him to join a new organization, the Good Citizen’s League. When Babbitt refused, the man let it be known that he would regret his decision. Babbitt’s business partner warned him, “One little rumor about you being a crank would do more to ruin this business than all the plots … these fool storywriters could think up in a month of Sundays.” Sure enough, the real estate company began to lose lucrative opportunities. From all sides Babbitt was feeling pressure to return to his old, cynical self. His children were the only ones who approved of his newfound freedom.
Then Myra had a sudden attack of acute appendicitis. Babbitt at first felt guilty, then repentant. He decided to mend his ways. He cut off his affair with Tanis; he quit running with “the Bunch”; and he joined the G.C.L. Once again, George F. Babbitt became the model citizen – outwardly, at least. Inside, he still refused to conform.
Meanwhile, Ted, who had been away at college halfheartedly pursuing a career in law – Babbitt’s dream for his son – eloped one night with a neighbor’s daughter, Eunice Littlefield. The next morning, when Myra discovered the newlyweds in Ted’s bedroom, she became hysterical. Later that day, the Littlefields demanded an annulment.
Babbitt took Ted aside to talk. But rather than condemn his son, he told Ted that he “got a sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it.” As for himself, Babbitt lamented that he’d “never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life.”
Babbitt Book Review
When Sinclair Lewis wrote Babbitt, he succeeded in creating a caricature of success typifying the mindset of the twenties. The “big booster” filled with “vim and vigor,” Babbitt is a character without a real soul, gleaning his opinions from newspapers or from business peers. Even Babbitt’s extra-marital affair is a “standard deviation.”
Lewis attempts to indict these “standard” symbols of American prosperity – popularity, hidden pleasures, money, shiny cars and self-obsession – by citing the weaknesses of both radical and conservative viewpoints. George is truly discontent in both settings.
While Babbitt has been criticized for its lack of character depth, it seems that it would have been impossible to make Babbitt profound. The satirical essence of the novel requires that George be shallow and complacently mediocre. Lewis does provide some hope symbolized by Ted, who does exactly what his father would have liked to have done. However, perhaps Babbitt’s reaction to his son’s elopement suggests that there is still something more to him than a cardboard front. Ted’s question to his father at novel’s end divulges the true message of Babbitt: “Gosh, dad, are you really going to be human?”
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