It cannot be said, in this biography of a young man who was in no degree a hero, who regarded himself as a seeker after truth yet who stumbled and slid back all his life and bogged himself in every obvious morass, that Martin's intentions toward Madeleine Fox were what is called "honorable."
These are the opening lines to the third section of Chapter 5 and they carry with them a great deal of weight for many reasons. First, it sets the tone for much of the novel as well as setting up the novel as a bildungsroman. We are told that this is a biography and, thus, the story of one man's personal development—of one man's life; the life, in this case, of Martin Arrowsmith. Further, the quote carries with it some humor which sets up the satirical tone that the novel so often takes on. This is not to say that the novel is, as a whole, "funny," for it is not. It is simply a satire with its pieces of humor and its pieces of sharp wit.
Then there is the word "hero" to assess. Martin Arrowsmith is and is not a hero. A hero is someone who has to overcome great feats, who journeys, and who is courageous. All of this applies to Arrowsmith, who is, in fact a "seeker of truth." Nevertheless, he is not a "hero" in that he is not divine or pure or lacking faults. In fact, Martin is full of faults as is evidenced by this quote, as he is constantly falling into temptation and "stumbling," back and forth until the very end. Martin is, in short, a kind of modern hero.
Are you going on for the rest of your life, stumbling into respectability and having to be dug out again? Will you never learn you're a barbarian?
Leora says this to Martin in the third section of chapter 20 when Martin is going on about his speech and asking Leora why she had not liked it and why she had told him, on another occasion, that he had spoken to much. This is important because attempting to fit in is Martin's grandest fault. Martin is an "outsider" from the beginning, as many laboratory scientists are—he is an outsider at social gatherings and he is even an outsider in medical school and in the medical world at large. Nevertheless, Martin tries to fit in and is constantly tempted by success, power, and the praise of those that surround him. It is not until he is able to give this temptation up, not until he is able to give up his urge to fit in, can he truly concentrate on his real work.
Also important to this quote is that Leora knows this and, aside from all of the above, this quote points to Leora's understanding of Martin and her ability to bring him to where he is meant to be. Although, at the beginning, she is why he has to give up the lab in order to become a doctor in Wheatsylvania, in the end, she understands him and his need to research and is ever supportive of these needs.
I make many mistakes. But one thing I keep always pure: the religion of a scientist.
Gottlieb says this to Martin in Chapter 26 upon Martin's arrival at McGurk's. There are many instances in which there seems to be a struggle between science and religion in the novel. For instance, Martin, the advocate of "pure science" has an aversion for Ira Hinkley's preachings. Science seems opposite to religion because one must be able to prove science and, as Martin claims, to be a good scientist one must have the strength not to "trust God." This does not mean, however, that science is not a religion all its own. Both Martin and Gottlieb are seen "praying" at different points in the novel. And yet the two men are most "religious" when they are alone in their laboratories, in silent retreat. For, their science, when it is true, is a whole belief system. It is a stubbornness, a desire, a curiosity, a restlessness, a humility, and a desire to do ones best—all of which can also describe religion. And thus, the two forces that seem to be at odds are quite paradoxically similar.
Nonsense! That attitude is old-fashioned. This is no longer an age of parochialism but of competition, in art and science just as much as in commerce .
Tubbs says this to Martin in Chapter 29 when Martin feels it is not time for him to publish the results of the phage yet because he is not altogether sure about his results. This is important because it puts forth the main purpose of Lewis's satire and critique of the modern medical profession. Lewis had met a doctor who worked for the Rockefeller Institute before he had written this book—a man named De Kruif who had particularly critical views of the commercialism involved in science. This commercialism exemplified by Tubbs should not belong in science because science should not be a business. Unfortunately, the fact that scientists must be attached to institutes in order to survive makes science a business and it is this very "competition" that Tubbs finds necessary that both De Kruif and Lewis are criticizing.
It is for this reason that it is so difficult for someone like Martin or someone like Gottlieb to be happy because their natures—their desire to seek "truths"—is constantly being undermined and interrupted by the machinery of the medical world that surrounds them: that of salary raises and publications, of interviews and directorships, of expensive "centrifuges" and notoriety.
I feel as if I were really beginning to work now," said Martin. "This new quinine stuff may prove pretty good. We'll plug along on it for two or three years, and maybe we'll get something permanent - and probably we'll fail!"
These are Martin's words—the words with which the novel ends. They are important because they point to the fact that Martin's learning process has been long and difficult and one that is not likely to end. Martin and Terry both feel as though, after all they have done, they are just beginning because they have had an "education" not only in science but also in the world. They are at last now free, accompanied by all their accumulated knowledge, to do the kind of research that they wish do, independent of any institutions.
Somehow it does not seem to matter if they fail, for the truth is in the search and the faith that they may one day find something. If Martin does not attain fame or a great scientific discovery, at least he has been true to himself. It is the nature of the trade to fail and fail again and for this reason, and patience is key. Patience is something that Gottlieb had but that none of the department heads that passed through Martin's life ever had.
And so the novel does not end at an ending but at a beginning. Lewis has written about the personal growth of one man who still may have more to learn. The novel ends, nevertheless, optimistically, even if the last word is fail, for failure is something Martin has come to accept in a world where "success" is the enemy.