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:
"of eternal importance, like baseball or the Republican Party...." See in text (Chapter I)
"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)
"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)
"but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay...." See in text (Chapter I)
"You have the chance to get all sorts of culture and everything, and I just stay home—..." See in text (Chapter XXX)
""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)
"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)
"Stir 'em up! This old burg is asleep!" Eunice plumped down on Babbitt's lap, kissed him,..." See in text (Chapter XXXII)
""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)
"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)
"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)
""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)
"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)
"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)