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Character Analysis in Babbitt
George F. Babbitt: George F. Babbitt is a middle-aged realtor and father who lives in the fictional Midwestern town of Zenith, Winnepac. Babbitt’s career is thriving, his family picture-perfect, his community involvement admirable. As the novel begins, however, it is clear that Babbitt is deeply restless and unhappy. He has played by the rules through the first half of his life and is miserable as a result. Babbitt’s deepest desire is for freedom; he wishes desperately to escape his roles and responsibilities. The success of the novel brought the name “Babbitt” into common parlance; the word describes anyone who, like George Babbitt, conforms blandly to expectation.
Myra Babbitt: Myra is George Babbitt’s wife. As was conventional for women in her culture, she is a homemaker. As the novel develops, George Babbitt’s unfolding midlife crisis takes center stage. There are moments, however, in which Myra Babbitt’s suffering reveals itself. Myra keeps house, looks after the children, and otherwise contains her desires and personality. Not only do her efforts go unrecognized, her routines are unendingly boring. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that George’s depression receives our attention while Myra’s remains in the shadows.
Ted Babbitt: Ted is the teenage son of George and Myra. Ted navigates the typical shoals of conformity in his own manner. George wants Ted to attend college, go to law school, and become a lawyer. Ted would rather be a mechanic and engineer. As the novel progresses, Ted increasingly steers according to his own course, dropping out of college, eloping with his girlfriend, and pursuing his dream. The final scene of the novel features a reconciliation between George and Ted.
Paul Riesling: Paul is George’s closest friend and former college roommate. Like George, Paul is a married, middle-aged, middle-class businessman in Zenith. In his youth Paul had wanted to be a violinist, and so the current shape of his life—his job selling roofing-tar, his difficult marriage—brings him great grief. At the novel’s beginning, George contents himself by comparing his suffering to Paul’s seemingly greater suffering. After Paul is sent to prison for assaulting his wife, George’s illusions collapse. Without Paul, George descends into a chaos of questioning and rebellion.
Vergil Gunch: Vergil is a coal merchant in Zenith who participates with George in a number of community clubs and business groups. Among the characters in Babbitt, Vergil represents the most conservative end of the spectrum. Vergil values financial success, personal reputation, and community standards. Vergil is depicted as highly logical and calculating, with little capacity for creativity and emotional nuance. During George’s period of rebellion and soul-searching, Vergil attempts to bring George back into line.
Character Analysis Examples in Babbitt:
" blanket..." See in text (Chapter I)
The blanket here embodies Babbitt’s desire to escape from his life, and his inability to do so. This parallels Babbitt’s use of sleep as a drug.
"Myra Babbitt—Mrs. George F. Babbitt—was definitely mature...." See in text (Chapter I)
Notice that Myra Babbitt is described by the third-person narrator who adopts George’s perspective. In this way, the audience sees things through George; Myra is portrayed in terms of George’s lack of attraction to her.
"All right for a woman, that stays around the house all the time, but when a fellow's worked like the dickens all day, he doesn't want to go and hustle his head off getting into the soup-and-fish for a lot of folks that he's seen in just reg'lar ordinary clothes that same day..." See in text (Chapter I)
Babbitt's statement reveals the strict gendered roles of his time period and the mentality these roles created. Myra “stays around the house” because it was socially shameful in this time for a woman to work. Women did not have careers; they became wives to men who had careers. Men provided for the family while women took care of the home and children. Babbitt’s scorn for Myra’s desire to dress up and go out reveals his disdain for her work and role. In claiming that a woman “stays around the house” and he “worked like the dickens all day,” Babbitt suggests that Myra does nothing at home while he works hard. In this way, he discredits everything Myra does to keep their household running and disregards her labor as “real” work.
"that is, it was perfection, and made him also perfect...." See in text (Chapter I)
In describing the yard, the narrator compares Babbitt to his perfect yard. The maintenance and upkeep of his yard makes him perfect. This is another example of how Babbitt is defined by his things and his ability to conform to social expectations.
"He looked regretfully at the blanket—forever a suggestion to him of freedom and heroism. He had bought it for a camping trip which had never come off. It symbolized gorgeous loafing, gorgeous cursing, virile flannel shirts...." See in text (Chapter I)
Here, the narrator juxtaposes city life with the natural world. The natural world is set up as a symbol of masculinity, freedom, and beauty, while the life he is living, life in the city, is implicitly the opposite. This small moment suggests that Babbitt is not entirely satisfied with his life in the city.
"He escaped from reality till the alarm-clock rang, at seven-twenty...." See in text (Chapter I)
The little dreaming or imagination that Babbitt does have is strictly regulated by his alarm clock and therefore by his association with the working world. Babbitt is entirely defined by the conventions of his workplace and the standards of his society.
"He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; and altogether unromantic appeared this sleeping-porch, which looked on one sizable elm, two respectable grass-plots, a cement driveway, and a corrugated iron garage...." See in text (Chapter I)
This description of Babbitt suggests that he is a man who lacks imagination and strictly follows the rules of his society. Notice that after a few adjectives describing his personality, Babbitt is described by the state of his house and the things that he owns. Babbitt’s character is defined by his consumerism, money, and social status as a married man.
"Himself a pious motorist, Babbitt cranked with the unseen driver, with him waited through taut hours for the roar of the starting engine..." See in text (Chapter I)
The adjective “pious” is generally used to describe someone who expresses true reverence and obedience to God. Pious individuals are devoutly religious. Notice, however, that the narrator describes Babbitt’s piety in association with cars. His prayers and devout religion praise the U.S. automotive industry instead of God. This not only sets up Babbitt as an avid capitalist and the era as a period that is remarkably unreligious.
"his lifetime trying to give his kids a chance and a decent education, it's pretty discouraging to hear them all the time scrapping like a bunch of hyenas and never..." See in text (Chapter II)
Babbitt’s transactional attitude with the institution of family has left him feeling empty, touching on the core theme of the novel: playing by the rules does not pay.
"I don't know that I'm entirely satisfied!"..." See in text (Chapter V)
This line represents what can be called a quintessential mid-life crisis. Upon reaching a certain age, Babbitt begins to feel dissatisfied with his achievements even though he has done everything he’s been told he should do. Since the tenants of the American Dream claim that all one needs to do is work hard to succeed, Babbit’s dissatisfaction here suggests that working hard and following rigid social expectations does not mean someone will achieve happiness and success.
"fellows at the Roughnecks' Table..." See in text (Chapter V)
A “Roughneck” is a colloquial term for a blue-collar worker. George expresses some guilt about his depression, considering that he is of a higher social status than “the fellows at the Roughnecks’ Table.” This suggests that depression and malaise are taboo to discuss among the wealthier classes.
"standardization of thought, and, of course, the traditions of competition. The real villains of the piece are the clean, kind, industrious Family Men ..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Seneca Doane, a “radical” lawyer, directly addresses the prevalence of uniform conformity in Zenith. This conformity, Doane argues, extends past the acquirement of certain material possessions to also infiltrate how the residents of Zenith think, speak, and act. Doane condemns the individualism of “Family Men” who prioritize the good of their own family over the good of wider society.
"arcanum..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
The noun “arcanum” comes from the Latin word “arcanus,” meaning secret or mystery. Here, Lewis uses the word to demonstrate how Fink normally keeps his literary life to himself, but now feels confident enough to confide in the group.
""Don't they, though! They just say the same things over and over," said Vergil Gunch...." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Readers should notice that this statement is highly ironic: these men have been consistently repeating themselves throughout this conversation. This irony demonstrates the group’s complete lack of self-awareness and is an amusing moment for the reader.
""Just the same, you don't want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps 'em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness," ..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
This comment reflects certain class prejudice held by Babbitt and his peers. They believe that while they themselves should be afforded the liberty to drink, men of the lower classes are unable to regulate their drinking and spending. Furthermore, this comment further demonstrates how the value of working-class men lies entirely in their productiveness in the workplace rather than in any other contributions they make to society.
". A shaker was proof of dissipation, the symbol of a Drinker, and Babbitt disliked being known as a Drinker even more than he liked a Drink. ..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Once again Babbitt prioritizes appearances over reality. While he happily admits he likes a drink, he nevertheless is careful to remain within the acceptable limits of drinking for “polite” society. This precludes him from possessing a cocktail shaker, even though one would make his drink-mixing inevitably easier.
"he lay awake, shivering, reduced to primitive terror, ..." See in text (Chapter IX)
ything so unknown and so embarrassing as freedom.” The concept of freedom from society’s rules causes Babbitt to feel intense fear and embarrassment. Despite his desire to separate himself from his daily life by escaping to Maine, he is quite unable to comprehend what to do once he steps out of his daily routine.
"the barrenness of Bellevue—blocks of wooden houses, garages, little shops, weedy lots...." See in text (Chapter XXVIII)
The French word bellevue translates to “beautiful view.” It’s ironic, then, that Bellevue’s skyline is barren and unpleasant to behold. That Babbitt believes that Tanis could improve Bellevue simply through her presences shows how he still ascribes too much importance to looks and sophistication.
"Myra Babbitt never slid on the ice...." See in text (Chapter XXIX)
In comparison to Tanis, Myra is boring, unwilling to venture outside her comfort zone and make mistakes. While Tanis is carefree, cheerful, and willing to try new things, Myra remains at home, as duty dictates. It is not hard to see why Babbitt is attracted to Tanis in comparison to his wife: Tanis represents the freedom he so desperately craves.
"while she lamented her feminine ignorance, and praised his masterfulness, and proved to know much more about bonds than he did...." See in text (Chapter XXIX)
This is an interesting passage to examine the gender dynamic between Tanis and Babbitt. Deferring to Babbitt’s ego, she lets him advise her on how to handle her finances, but eventually she reveals that she is more knowledgeable than he is without boasting of it. Notice the use of the word “feminine”—it implies that Tanis is pretending ignorance and deferring to Babbitt due to the expectations of her gender rather than her ability. This instance of conformity to social norms shows that Tanis is not as above popular culture as she pretends to be.
"New Thought..." See in text (Chapter XXX)
Meetings for this philosophy, popularized in the early 1900s, focused on meditation because it taught that one’s mental state directly affected everyday existence. The basic tenets of this philosophy were belief in an omnipotent, benevolent God, the existence of souls, a subsequent divinity of every human being, and the certainty of an afterlife. That Myra wants to learn more about the philosophy suggests that she is looking for a way to better her mental state.
"You have the chance to get all sorts of culture and everything, and I just stay home—..." See in text (Chapter XXX)
Notice how the oppression Myra experiences is arguably more suffocating than that of Babbitt. Though Babbitt, as a man, has to freedom to go out and meet other people, Myra is confined to the home if she wants to remain part of polite middle-class society. It is telling that Babbitt can participate in the creation of a new cultural landscape but Myra must wait for the changes to filter down to her.
""Don't you suppose I ever get tired of fussing? I get so bored with ordering three meals a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, and ruining my eyes over that horrid sewing-machine..." See in text (Chapter XXX)
Because Babbitt has been caught up in contemplating his own sacrifices, he has completely overlooked Myra’s comparable unhappiness. Myra’s accusation is meant to remind him that society’s conformity does not only affect men: it also overwhelms women with its repetitive monotony, a fact which Babbitt has selfishly ignored.
"As he began to drift away he also began to see her as a human being, to like and dislike her instead of accepting her as a comparatively movable part of the furniture,..." See in text (Chapter XXX)
Babbitt’s view of his wife is changing, albeit slowly. Instead of viewing her as part of the decor—something he keeps around for show, beneath him and not necessitating interaction—he’s beginning again to see her as an actual person worthy of his attention, as noted in the simile of Myra as similar to furniture. It’s paradoxical that it takes distance from her in order to again regard her as an equal.
"In matrimonial geography the distance between the first mute recognition of a break and the admission thereof is as great as the distance between the first naive faith and the first doubting...." See in text (Chapter XXX)
This comparison of marriage and faith is appropriate when considering Babbitt’s character. As indicated in the comparison, Babbitt is experiencing a “break” between both—he doubts the superiority of nonconformity while at the same time Myra grows increasingly suspicious and combative. While his conviction in his new lifestyle wanes, so does his wife’s confidence in him as a faithful husband. The power of the simile also suggests that it is unpleasant to come to terms with these difficult truths.
"Oh, damn these women and the way they get you all tied up in complications!"..." See in text (Chapter XXX)
Babbitt’s insistence that his troubles are rooted in women’s meddling rather than his own choices reveals his latent sexism and view of responsibility. When confronted with the slightest bit of resistance or inconvenience, Babbitt resorts to blaming external factors—or those considered less powerful than him, such as women—rather than his own weakness.
"Old! He noted how the soft flesh was creasing into webby folds beneath her chin, below her eyes, at the base of her wrists. A patch of her throat had a minute roughness like the crumbs from a rubber eraser...." See in text (Chapter XXXI)
Now that Babbitt has realized that Tanis is no less small-minded than his colleagues, the formerly alluring woman is revealed to be flawed and aging. He suddenly finds her physical appearance and neediness revolting—again he rejects the pull of someone’s demanding comfort from him. He previously viewed Tanis as a cheery refuge from everyday dreariness; seeing her as old and unattractive completes his disillusionment with her brand of nonconformity.
"She writes a swell hand. Nice-looking stationery. Plain. Refined...." See in text (Chapter XXXI)
Notice how the smallest details—like Tanis’s neat handwriting and stationery—sway Babbitt’s decision-making. He is not a man of strong convictions, subject to the influence of those around him even still.
"Darn these women, the way they make demands!..." See in text (Chapter XXXI)
Babbitt wavers, unsure in his will to break up with Tanis and indignant that she would presume to ask things of him. Notice how he blames Tanis’s desire to see him as a cause for his problems rather than his own befuddled uncertainty.
"Stir 'em up! This old burg is asleep!" Eunice plumped down on Babbitt's lap, kissed him,..." See in text (Chapter XXXII)
Following the rejection of his acquaintances, business partners, and mistress, Ted finds unexpected yet sincere comfort in Ted and Eunice’s approval. Notice that Babbitt, though, is typically stirred to action by others’ approval, not due to his own strong convictions. In this way Ted’s and Eunice’s support means little when contrasted with the overwhelming opposition he faces from the majority of the town.
"Then he heard that Miss McGoun had, a week after leaving him, gone over to his dangerous competitors, Sanders, Torrey and Wing...." See in text (Chapter XXXII)
This is not the first tangible instance of Babbitt’s supposedly loyal colleagues deserting him, but it appears to sting him more than others, perhaps because she lied about her reason for exiting his company. His discovery of her deception kickstarts Babbitt’s paranoia and is one factor that propels him toward rejoining polite society.
""But I mean NICE people!"..." See in text (Chapter XXXII)
Notice the assumption that there are nice—here meaning wealthy, sophisticated, and well-connected—people and others whose opinions don’t matter. To offend the first group is social suicide; to offend the second is of no consequence. Myra, though saddened by the ruling conformity of the time, still believes in its relevance and the possibility of good through their adherence to it.
"at the thought of their forcing him he felt a stirring of anger against even these princes of commerce...." See in text (Chapter XXXII)
That Babbitt resents being invited to the Good Citizens’ League due to feeling pressured into joining is significant in that he’s still making a somewhat sincere show of resisting conformity. Though joining would be good for his business reputation—since the invitation was extended by “princes of commerce,” we can assume they would profitably assist his real estate ventures—at this point he is willing to accept the consequences of rejecting the League.
""Four-flusher! Bunch of hot air! And what's the matter with the immigrants? Gosh, they aren't all ignorant, and I got a hunch we're all descended from immigrants ourselves."..." See in text (Chapter XXXII)
Babbitt’s insults toward the congressman (a “four-flusher” is one who bluffs at poker, having four of a kind instead of the five required for a flush, whereas being full of “hot air” means someone who talks passionately without saying anything substantial) show that he is still able to think critically rather than just conform to expected opinion. He also astutely observes that he and his compatriots owe their existence to immigrants, and that immigrants are not by default uneducated—an unpopular notion in this group, which will cause him to quickly take back his observation.
"With true masculine wiles he not only convinced himself that she had injured him but, by the loudness of his voice and the brutality of his attack, he convinced her also, and presently he had her apologizing for his having spent the evening with Tanis. He went up to bed well pleased, not only the master but the martyr of the household...." See in text (Chapter XXXII)
Lewis satirizes Babbitt’s perceived masculine dominance in this passage. It’s absurd for Myra to take responsibility for Babbitt’s affair, but he bullies her loudly enough that she concedes that she has somehow wronged him anyway. Readers will note that Myra, not Babbitt, is the true long-suffering martyr of the family, and that Babbitt’s mastery is achieved through unsavory means.
"We have some corking times together, and we need your advice."..." See in text (Chapter XXXIII)
Notice Gunch’s way of tempting Babbitt into joining the League. Earlier, Babbitt refused because he felt as though he were being pressured into joining. Now, Gunch invites him rather than insists on his attendance, suggesting that the League needs Babbitt’s help, which makes him feel valuable and superior to the League’s members.
"He'd have no more wild evenings, he realized. He admitted that he would regret them. A little grimly he perceived that this had been his last despairing fling before the paralyzed contentment of middle-age...." See in text (Chapter XXXIII)
Although Babbitt’s marriage appears to be mending, it is a bittersweet moment. Here Babbitt comes to the conclusion that he must leave behind his individualistic pursuits because his family depends on him and his social respectability—and that he regrets even trying out a more nonconforming lifestyle. Notice the word choice surrounding Babbitt’s realization: “grimly” and “despairing” suggest that he is resigned to his fate rather than wholly accepting.
"As she drowsed away in the tropic languor of morphia, he sat on the edge of her bed, holding her hand, and for the first time in many weeks her hand abode trustfully in his...." See in text (Chapter XXXIII)
In contrast to the wild nights of parties and affairs, notice how still and unchanging this scene of Babbitt and Myra is. Myra sleeps, drugged, while Babbitt holds her hand. It’s a scene of quiet devotion and a settling into a marriage unit rather than a search for individualistic meaning.
"little trouble, eh? How is she now?" he said busily as, with tremendous and rather irritating cheerfulness, he tossed his coat on a chair and warmed his hands at a radiator...." See in text (Chapter XXXIII)
The doctor’s casual treatment of his household possessions and unhurried attendance to Myra contrast with Babbitt’s newfound urgency and care for his wife’s wellbeing. Since the doctor’s offhanded comments about Myra’s health indicate he does not view her illness as serious, readers are able to see how much more devoted Babbitt has become—though it is not clear if this emerges out of sincere concern for his wife or because her illness is a welcome distraction from his internal conflict.
""O Lord, thou seest our brother here, who has been led astray by manifold temptations. O Heavenly Father, make his heart to be pure, as pure as a little child's. Oh, let him know again the joy of a manly courage to abstain from evil—"..." See in text (Chapter XXXIV)
Notice how insincere Drew’s prayer is. Instead of earnestly believing his prayer will help Babbitt, he uses this opportunity to subtly relish his social position and supposed moral purity. This speaks to Lewis’s frequent portrayal of characters using religion for social advancement or commercial ventures rather than sincerely believing in religious tenets.
"I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life! I don't know 's I've accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I've made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you'll carry things on further...." See in text (Chapter XXXIV)
Babbitt’s long rebellion is reduced in this passage to support for his son. Though he may never directly rebel again, he supports the choices of the next generation. In this way, the ending is happy, though readers will note that Babbitt must live vicariously through his son as opposed to chasing after his own happiness.
"Tinka Babbitt, who was the only pleased member of the inquisition...." See in text (Chapter XXXIV)
Tinka Babbitt, ever the optimist, is the only family member who is happy with Ted and Eunice’s marriage. She continues to be a source of support—whether out of kindness or naivete is unclear, however.
""Well, he'd carry out one more deal for them, but as soon as it was practicable, maybe as soon as old Henry Thompson died, he'd break away from all association from them...." See in text (Chapter XXXIV)
Note that Babbitt still retains some of his critical thinking ability. Though the whole group wants to do work with Traction, Babbitt is uneasy about the morality of their business dealings. Ultimately, the lure of money and the ease of remaining in the group trumps his conscience.