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Historical Context in Babbitt

Roaring Twenties: Many writers of the so-called Roaring Twenties depicted the time to be one of growing disillusionment with social class and material culture. With his critique of middle-class small-town 1920s United States, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt most certainly aligns with these notions. Lewis biting satire provides a poignant political commentary on the commercialization, industrialization, consumerism and conformity of the time.

Prohibition: Conservative social values and religious pressure paved the way for the prohibition laws of the 1920s. Prohibition, the illegalization of alcohol, appears at various moments throughout the narrative. In Chapter 8, Babbitt and his middle-class peers drink the gin that Babbitt has procured from a speakeasy and proclaim that while prohibition is appropriate for the working classes, middle-class men such as themselves should be permitted such freedom. In this way, Lewis uses the context of 1920s to further comment on the stark class divisions prevalent in small-town American society.

Historical Context Examples in Babbitt:

Chapter I


"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..."   (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.

"the Boosters' Club..."   (Chapter I)

Booster clubs are organization that form to coordinate events and raise money for clubs, sports, teams, schools, and other community organizations. They are a particularly popular component of U.S. high schools.

"Phi Beta Kappa..."   (Chapter I)

The Phi Beta Kappa society is the oldest and most prestigious honor society for liberal arts and sciences. It became the first collegiate Greek-letter fraternity at the College of William and Mary in 1776. The “key” is Phi Beta Kappa’s symbol, given to members to display their membership in society. The key is engraved with a pointing figure, three stars, and the three Greek letters of the society's name.

"Legion of Honor..."   (Chapter I)

The Legion of Honor is the highest order of merit in the French military. It was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte. It has five distinct ranks of honor both military and civil.

"the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks..."   (Chapter I)

The Brotherly and Protective Order of Elk is a fraternal order that was established in 1868. A fraternal order is an organized group of men that espouse traits that are religious, chivalric or semi-chivalric, or academic. They typically serve to create social and cultural bonds between men that will be economically or socially advantageous in the future. The Order of Elk at this time was a charitable service and a major organization in the U.S.

"the prohibition-era..."   (Chapter I)

Prohibition was an era in the U.S. in which the consumption, production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcohol was prohibited by the constitution. Between 1920 and 1933, it was illegal for all U.S. citizens to consume alcohol. While this law was supposed to keep citizens safe from alcohol, it actually gave rise to more nefarious ways of consuming alcohol, namely, buying black market booze from gangsters or brewing “moonshine,” an extremely potent and sometimes fatal home-brewed liquor.

"he believed that the earth is flat, that the English are the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, and that the United States is a democracy...."   (Chapter VII)

This sentence is a tongue-in-cheek comment on the state of the political system in the United States. While the United States does classify as a democracy, the narrator associates this idea with two debunked, disproven theories.This suggests that perhaps Lewis sees the way the United States’s political system works as not as democratic as it claims to be.

"Deauville..."   (Chapter VII)

Deauville is an upscale seaside resort in the Normandy region of France, popular with upper-class American vacationers. As referred to here, Deauville seems to be falling slightly out-of-fashion with the “tastemakers” of Zenith. This reference exposes how American society encourages conformity to a number of trivial and largely superficial rules of what is “in” and “out” of accepted society at the time.

"davenport..."   (Chapter VII)

A “davenport” is a type of sofa or couch that became very popular in the United States in the 20th century. Its popularity led Davenport, originally the name of the manufacturer, to become an interchangeable synonym for sofa. Lewis describes the interior objects of the house in great detail in order to demonstrate the importance of certain “in-fashion” material possessions to households of the middle-class Zenith community and to the wider ”‘American Dream."

"This is none o' your neutral spirits with a drop of juniper extract..."   (Chapter VIII)

During Prohibition, alcohol would often be smuggled in from Canada or Mexico. Sometimes buyers would be tricked into buying water or non-alcoholic drinks, such as detailed later in this chapter.

"skunks and reds..."   (Chapter XXIX)

In this context, the noun “skunk” means a contemptible person; that Gunch equates “Reds”—also known as communists—with detestable philosophers like Doane is telling of what he thinks of the labor movement. The color red is typically associated with labor movements to symbolize the blood and sacrifice of hard workers.

"New Thought..."   (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.

"Patience on a Monument..."   (Chapter XXXI)

The “monument” spoken of here refers to a gravestone. During the Renaissance, it was not uncommon for tombstones to include a statue of a virtue at their top. Patience was often represented as a figure of pensive sorrow; Tanis’s mother has mastered the art of making Tanis feel guilty with only a look.

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