Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Corruption Within American Medicine
In the early 1920's, around 1922 or so, Sinclair Lewis met a man named Paul De Kruif who had worked for the Rockefeller Institute and who had published a series of articles in Century magazine attacking the practices of modern American medicine. Lewis, in his novel Arrowsmith takes the torch carried by De Kruif who had to leave the Rockefeller Institute because of his critique.
It was the early twenties, and America was living through an economic boom from the war, where everything was becoming more commercial—American businesses were booming. And, further, even practices like medicine were becoming "businesses." The consequences of medicine becoming a business is what Lewis criticizes, specifically the commercialism and competition that exist within the profession and which seem to contradict its nature. Instead of being a practice of altruism, discovery, and healing, medicine had become something institutions needed to sell. Lewis uses the Rouncefield Institute, the Public Health Department of Nautilus, and the McGurk institute as vehicles of satire in order to criticize the real institutions that existed in America at this time. In many ways the novel was educating the American public about the maladies of medicine in the early twentieth century.
The Plight of the Scientist
Martin Arrowsmith is a laboratory man, not a physician. The juxtaposition of the laboratory man and the physician are present throughout and are epitomized in the characters of Gottlieb and Dean Silva, respectively. The physician is a public figure and, depending on where he practices, is often trusted and a minor celebrity. The doctor because he heals is therefore generally admired (when he is a good doctor). The scientist, however, is a solitary person, a lonely person. The scientist must work alone in the laboratory, and when he makes discoveries usually only a small sector of the world is aware of it. Sometimes the scientist goes unrecognized for years, as Gottlieb had gone. Further still, if we are to surmise that Gottlieb is to represent "the scientist," then we come to the conclusion that the scientist has a solitary, exhausted, and unhappy end. The plight of the scientist is therefore a difficult one.
And yet, Martin seems, to be able to accept the "failures" that exist in his profession, where he will always be an outsider and never a "success." In fact, he seems almost able to embrace the likelihood of "failure," and it is in the acceptance of the romanticized "plight of the scientist" that the book ends in an ironically optimistic fashion.
The Salvation Found in Retreat
Throughout the novel Martin finds his peace, his happiness, and his adventurous thrills while he is alone in the laboratory. Solitude and retreat become his true companions, aside from Leora whom Martin knows so well that he can be alone even while with her. As soon as Martin becomes a social being, as soon as he accepts luxury and the idea of "success," he begins to stray from his path and eventually becomes unhappy without the solitude of his laboratory work.
Many of the characters we come to like, moreover, are lonely figures: Martin, Terry, and Gottlieb, for instance. Many of the characters we are meant to dislike are very social beings: Tubbs and Holabird, for instance. Moreover, this solitude and retreat is romanticized and even elevated in a Thoreau-like fashion by the time we reach the end. In the end, Martin moves to the woods with Terry Wickett, where they will create a laboratory all their own. There is a "salvation" in this "retreat," for Martin has finally accepted the power of independence. This retreat is what makes the novel optimistic; Martin is finally able to flee form the social and commercial department heads that hinder his true work.
Science Versus Religion
Religion and science seem as if they are opposing forces in the novel, and yet a person like Ira Hinkley lives between both of these forces. Also, both Gottlieb and Martin are seen "praying" in their own ways. Religion requires faith and science requires doubt. Still both of these entities (religion and science) are belief systems, which is what, paradoxically, makes them so similar in their opposition.
There is no doubt that Lewis is criticizing the overzealous Christians like Ira Hinkley, who, in their arrogance and extremes, diminish in the eyes of the viewer. And yet, it is important to realize that the overzealous scientist is also reduced in the novel: Gottlieb ends in a poor and senile state. There are no real conclusions to draw from the opposition of religion and science throughout only that they are similar in their capacities for extremes and in their power. Also, it becomes important that the scientist accept this struggle just as he must accept all the other struggles that exist in his "plight."
Men of Measured Merriment
Men like Holabird and Tubbs (and the sector of the medical world they represent) seem "happy," and yet they are what Martin calls "Men of Measured Merriment." Martin believes that their happiness is measured because it is the happiness that comes with social success and the profits reaped in "business," not Martin's ideal for greatness and discovery. The happiness that comes out of a superficial success does not compare, for Martin, to the solitary success of discovering something that may become a cure or that may help in the search for fundamental understandings. And thus, these "machines," as Martin implies that they are, are measured in their happiness, just as they are measured in everything they do in life. They are proper, correct, successful, and rich—they are everything they are "supposed" to be and yet they are hypocritical and often times dangerous to Martin and others' own search for "truth."
The Idea of Success
Gottlieb tells Martin that he will be lucky if he is not successful because success ruins the scientist. Success would diminish the laboratory scientist to the level of the "men of measured merriment." To insult Martin, Gottlieb calls him a "college president" among other things, illustrating his contempt for "success." The greatest reason for this contempt is that it is a temptation from ones true calling. This is, of course, another element of Lewis's romance and is comparable to the painter or writer that writes magical verse or creates masterpieces on canvas but never sells a line or stroke and dies in poverty with their greatness unknown to man.
The Magnifying Glass
Doc Vickerson, in the first chapter of the novel, gives Martin a gift to "start his training." This gift is a magnifying glass. This is important because it represents the keen eye and curiosity that both the physician and the scientist must have. It represents the careful and deep observation that Gottlieb lectures to Martin about over and over again. Although Doc Vickerson is, himself, a kind of failure in his alcoholism, his gift is nevertheless laden with significance, elevating Vickerson to the status of man who has had "influence" on the reader's "hero."
Terry is the symbol of what Martin could be, and he represents the kind of man that Martin is, in fact, by the end of the novel, the man that Martin follows. He represents the careful scientist who is willing to give everything up for his work. He is Martin without the temptations that have led him astray and, thus, is the true kin of Gottlieb.
Gladys the centrifuge at the McGurk institute is Holabird's pride and joy. She is an expensive piece of machinery and the best of her kind and, thus, represents the commercialism and competition present in American medicine.
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