Analysis of Major Characters
The title character of the Arrowsmith is Martin Arrowsmith, a young man whose curiosity and stubbornness make him perfect for the realm of scientific research. And yet, Martin becomes distracted and often sways from his path. He is constantly criticizing the commercialism of the medical profession as well as the "machines" that are made in the medical school "mills."
And yet, Martin is, himself, tempted by the very things he criticizes: money, success, fame, notoriety, respect. When, for example, Martin is forced to make a speech in Nautilus, Martin thrives on the respect of the audiences and gets quite a thrill from the applause. It is Leora that has to bring him down to Earth. Later, Martin, seems to ease in to the lap of luxury, taking limousine rides to work, for example, while he is married to Joyce Lanyon. And yet, though Martin sways and attempts to fit into high class society, into Joyce's lifestyle, and into the world of institutions and social gatherings, Martin is nonetheless always an outsider and only truly happy when he is able to work in the lab.
Martin's curiosity for science and "truth" begins at an early age, and it is what Gottlieb so praises in him. This curiosity is what saves him and keeps him going, even if he occasionally ventures off his track. Martin holds within him a plethora of contradictions that are difficult to fuse, and this is epitomized by his love for both Dean Silva ("the good doctor") and Max Gottlieb (the stern and unrelenting scientist). These contradictions are also exhibited in Martin's love for Leora in spite of the temptation of girls like Orchid and Joyce. His name encompasses all of these contradictions. The name Arrowsmith, upon first reading, may seem to recall only the "arrow." The reader believes that the name is meant to symbolize a straight and stubborn path. Yet, Martin's name is not Arrow, it is Arrowsmith, representing the person (craftsman) who makes the arrows—the person who melds it out of difficult steel or iron. Further, because this is a novel of a single man's education and personal development, this name suits Martin because it illustrates that Martin is "learning" how to make his arrows and how to create that straight path out of the contradictions and the tough iron that life gives him.
The symbol of pure science throughout the novel, Max Gottlieb stands out as Martin's greatest mentor in the novel, and yet, Gottlieb remains one of the saddest as well. Gottlieb is a German Jew, dedicated to the practice of research, a practice that he illustrates with the utmost patience, diligence, and belief. He is seen as an eccentric and is talked about in gossip rings everywhere he turns. He is, of course, German, and in the early twentieth century Americans believed that most "true scientific" research, at least that which was of great importance, came from Germany. Lewis makes Gottlieb German for this reason and also for the reason that it places him as an "outsider" of the utmost extreme, completely lacking a place in society. Gottlieb does not fit into the medical world because he believes in perfection and is angered by mediocrity and commercialism. Lewis adds to this the fact that he is not only European, but German in the middle of a wave of American anti-German sentiment from World War I. And, not only is he German but he is a Jew, always an "outsider," expelled from this place and that.
And thus, Gottlieb is the eccentric scientist with the cold heart except that he is not altogether cold, for he does love Martin in his own way, just as he loves his daughter, Miriam, and had come to depend on his wife. And yet, it is important to realize that there is a certain coldness in Gottlieb's aloneness. He is a lonely man who is destined to be unhappy. Life hands him miseries and though he has made important discoveries, he remains somewhat unappreciated. And, finally, he ends a senile old man. His genius is eradicated from him through a sad senility, and he is left with nothing except his daughter's undying care.
We may ask what it is that Lewis is trying to say by painting such a dim portrait. Perhaps he is saying that the scientist is doomed to failure, perhaps he is saying that extremes do not work and that Martin needs to find a balance. Perhaps he is simply romanticizing the self-sacrifice of the "truth seeker." Or, perhaps Lewis had to simply remove Gottlieb from the narrative so that Martin could be truly free. It seems that all these things are true.
When the reader first meets Leora, she is a sharp-tongued and witty nurse in training, ready to rebuff Martin's arrogance. She is a working, down-to-earth woman with a mind of her own. And yet as the novel progresses she seems to become less forceful. She gives up nursing although she does take up stenography, and she seems, at times, ambitious and self-effacing, giving her life over to her love for Martin.
There is no doubt of Leora's love, faithfulness, and support for Martin. She is always willing to move for his work and she understands his need to be a "laboratory man." In fact she often accompanies his sleepless nights at work. It is true that Leora gives up her career for Martin, but, then again, from the beginning she had claimed that she did not have much ambition and did not really have a passion for nursing. However, it would be unfair to say that Leora loses her strength as the novel progresses because she never loses a moment's chance to tell her husband exactly how she feels. She also is constantly reminding him of who he is, and their marriage is one of true companionship and love, despite Martin's temptations elsewhere (Orchid and Joyce).
As the novel progresses it becomes apparent that Martin cannot live without Leora. He is constantly thinking of his need for her and his gratitude towards her. And yet, it was because of Leora that Martin had to give up the lab initially and move to Wheatsylvania. And, further, it is not until Leora dies that Martin is able to raise himself up in courage against the institutes he has worked for and join Terry Wickett in his independence.
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