Themes in Babbitt
Conformity to Expected Social Norms: Sinclair Lewis explores how the pressure of conformity pervades all aspects of the middle-class experience and subverts notions that certain groups are able to break free from this pressure. For Babbit, this life includes a successful career and a stable marriage. To achieve high social status, Babbitt is expected to uphold conservative values. Babbitt finds this world stifling, finding temporary through an affair with Tanis Judique, but he soon discovers that Tanis and her friends also operate under the presumption of conformity to accepted social behaviors. At the narrative’s conclusion, Babbitt’s son Ted elopes with Eunice Littlefield. Instead of scolding his son, Babbitt encourages Ted to leave university to pursue his passion for mechanics and resist conforming to middle-class pressures.
Commercialization of Religion: Although Babbitt has references to religion, there are few instances of “real” or “true” believers in the novel. Babbitt professes that he has no particular religious beliefs and has never read the Bible—despite eagerly recruiting for the Church Sunday School. Both Babbitt and William Washington Eathorne use the Church Sunday School for economic gain, while Reverend John Jennison Drew uses his position to preach conservative values against the labor movement in Zenith. Ex-prize fighter turned evangelist Mike Monday preaches religion in a remarkably un-religious speech that ultimately functions as a parody of religious oratory. Lewis’s biting satire highlights the hypocrisy and commercialization of religion and a marked absence of true religious piety in 1920s United States.
Emptiness of Consumerism: Babbitt and his peers are largely motivated by the acquisition of material goods. In Zenith, modern objects at the forefront of technology serve as status symbols of the owner’s own inherent value. Babbitt is very concerned with maintaining a household that displays all the modern fittings and trimmings and owning a sleek car that makes him feel smart and sophisticated. While these possessions provide him temporary satisfaction, it is ultimately empty and fleeting.
The Loss of the American Dream: Many characters throughout feel a sense of dissatisfaction with their lives, which is ultimately attributed to the loss or abandonment of their dreams and ideals. Babbitt’s friend Paul Riesling dreamed of traveling to Europe to become a famous violinist, but he abandoned this dream once caught up in the middle-class aspirations of Zenith. Riesling feels a great sense of distress when confronted with reminders of his unfulfilled dream, such as the view of an ocean liner. Similarly, jingle-writer Chum Frink speaks drunkenly one evening of his youthful yearning to become a great poet and the deep remorse he feels for never having achieved his dream. Lewis’s entire narrative details the greater loss of The American Dream, as his characters realize that true happiness cannot be achieved through social status or material possessions.
Themes Examples in Babbitt:
"reverence...." See in text (Chapter I)
Babbitt is inspired by the large tower on the city’s skyline. For Babbitt, the gleaming tower embodies strength, integrity, and decision. By connecting these values to the modern office-building, Lewis is also subtly commenting on the glorification of capitalism and wealth. This sentiment is further supported by the following lines which describe the “religion of business.”
"of eternal importance, like baseball or the Republican Party...." See in text (Chapter I)
This is a tongue-in-cheek comment that lists baseball, the Republican Party, and the contents of Babbitt’s pockets as of equal importance. By equating these in such a way, Babbitt demonstrates that he sees no difference between sports, politics, and material possessions. In Zenith society, sports, politics, even religion become mere “possessions” that a character of good standing should accumulate.
"sleep as for a drug..." See in text (Chapter I)
This line establishes Babbitt’s malaise with his current life and his desire for escape. Since he seeks sleep like a drug, readers can understand that he has an addiction to sleep and uses it to avoid dealing with the dissatisfaction in his life.
"New York Flyer..." See in text (Chapter I)
The New York Flyer is a train that zooms along the city railroad. This train is an invention of Lewis’s, assumedly to further highlight the modernity of the city. The image of the train, alongside other description of the city, serves to cast Zenith as the model of successful American industrialization.
"grotesqueries, but the clean towers ..." See in text (Chapter I)
The narrative describes old houses and factories as grotesque, while praising newer office buildings. Here, Lewis introduces the conceit that modernity should be valued whereas the past should be erased.
"Verona been at it again! 'Stead of sticking to Lilidol, like I've re-peat-ed-ly asked her, she's gone and gotten some confounded stinkum stuff that makes you sick!..." See in text (Chapter I)
Lilidol was a type of toothpaste, and here Babbitt uses religious language to discuss the products that he is loyal to. He calls his daughter’s toothpaste “heathen toothpaste” because it is not the right brand. Since a “heathen” is a person who does not belong to a widely held religion and is thought to lack cultural and moral principles, Babbitt is suggesting that loyalty to a brand is akin to loyalty to God, thereby blending religion and consumerism.
"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.
"but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay...." See in text (Chapter I)
Selling houses can be viewed as selling the American Dream. Owning property was a major component that made a man eligible to vote when the country was founded. In this way, Babbitt has an extremely patriotic job. However, Babbitt sells houses to people who can’t afford them. This suggests that the dream he is selling is unobtainable for many of the people he sells it to.
"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.
"He serenely believed that the one purpose of the real-estate business was to make money for George F. Babbitt...." See in text (Chapter IV)
It is unclear whether this idea is George’s alone (not likely) or rather a localized instance of the broader phenomenon of greed as the driving force in American society. Babbitt is merely a small embodiment of this widespread, unconscious trend toward greed—it’s hardly his own doing at all.
"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.
"they're Jews, and they'd lie right down and die if they knew Sid had anted up a hundred and twenty-six bones. ..." See in text (Chapter V)
The information in this line reveals an automatic attitude of anti-Semitism present in presumably white, middle-class Zenith. By stating that the “Old Folks” are “Jews,” and that, as such, they would be disgusted at the idea of paying so much for an “old boat and some upholstery,” the implication is that Jewish people are cheap. This is in line with Sid’s previous line “if a fellow wants to be a Jew about it, he can get cheap junk”...
"overhead of spiritual regeneration may be kept down to an unprecedented rock-bottom basis. ..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Lewis’s narrator describes prize-fighter-turned-preacher Mike Monday in terms of his financial value. Even in spiritual matters, Zenith quantifies value in terms of money and profit, further supporting the commercialization of religion and the impacts of capitalism on how Zenith residents ascribe value to people.
"Deauville..." See in text (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..." See in text (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."
"Everything about the Arms was excessively modern, and everything was compressed—except the garages...." See in text (Chapter X)
Once again, Lewis’s narrator focuses on detailed descriptions of material object, listing them out for readers. This detailed list of objects, including brand names, emphasizes how important possessions are to the citizens of Zenith because such objects grant them status within this material, capitalistic society.
"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.
"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.
"He bought roses for the house, he ordered squab for dinner, he had the car cleaned and polished...." See in text (Chapter XXX)
Babbitt’s preparation for his wife’s return is appropriately focused on appearances rather than substance. He focuses on cleaning the house and orders a fancy food—”squab” is a word for pigeon—to impress Myra when she returns by appearing respectable and middle-class.
"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.
"it seemed to him that General Topics interested Tanis only when she could apply them to Pete, Carrie, or themselves...." See in text (Chapter XXXI)
Babbitt wants to discuss abstract ideas and events, but Tanis prefers to confine her discussion to people. This interaction suggests that the group Tanis belongs to might be just as shallow as the one Babbitt is trying to escape.
"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.
""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.
""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.
"He told them all about those subjects, together with three funny stories about European misconceptions of America and some spirited words on the necessity of keeping ignorant foreigners out of America...." See in text (Chapter XXXII)
Notice that the congressman’s speech revolves around portraying foreigners as unsophisticated and in need of education. Becauses Europeans’ misconceptions are presented comically, the eager audience is able to feel intellectually superior and justified in their anti-immigration stance—and suggests that anyone who does not agree with their stance is unintelligent and anti-American.
"Within two weeks no one in the League was more violent regarding the wickedness of Seneca Doane, the crimes of labor unions, the perils of immigration, and the delights of golf, morality, and bank-accounts than was George F. Babbitt...." See in text (Chapter XXXIII)
Babbitt’s return to shallow conformity is swift. Notice how golf and bank accounts are equated with the concept of morality. This is to suggest that the morality of the League’s members is simply recreation or a status symbol rather than a genuine belief.
"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.
""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.
"One evening a number of young men raided the Zenith Socialist Headquarters, burned its records, beat the office staff, and agreeably dumped desks out of the window...." See in text (Chapter XXXIV)
This is the first instance of the Good Citizens League’s efforts turning violent, completely destroying the socialists’ headquarters. Notable here is the word “agreeably,” which suggests that they are all working together toward what they believe is a righteous goal and have no qualms about their violent methods. This is in direct contrast to their claims of moral superiority, and serves as a tongue-in-cheek way for Lewis to continue to satirize conformity and going along with what groupthink deems is best.
"all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary...." See in text (Chapter XXXIV)
Again, Lewis satirizes what he views as the failings of democracy. Though conformity in most ways is expected, it guarantees no monetary benefits or equal distribution of wealth. There is no room for difference, except in prosperity, making the whole system inherently unfair.