Skip over navigation

Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis

Chapters 1-2

Characters

Chapter 3

Summary

On April 20 1920, dawn breaks over Zenith, a Midwestern town bustling with new skyscrapers, automobiles, and factories. George F. Babbitt, a 46-year-old real estate broker, reluctantly awakens from a recurring dream about his fairy girl, a slim maiden who fulfills his fantasies of being a "gallant, romantic youth." In reality, Babbitt is a middle-aged, rather pudgy family man. His home, replete with all the modern conveniences, is located in Floral Heights, the middle-class residential section of Zenith.

The sounds of Zenith's morning activity, Babbitt's alarm clock, a pleasing example of the latest technology, and Myra Babbitt's cheerful morning greeting dispel the last vestiges of Babbitt's fantasy world. Babbitt sulkily embarks on his morning shaving ritual, grumbling that there are no dry towels. He resorts to the untouchable guest towel that even the guests do not normally use. Babbitt also has a headache because he spent the previous evening drinking Vergil Gunch's illegal home-brewed beer, smoking cigars, and playing poker. He resents having to leave the virile world of manly activities. Myra helps him dress, and then the family, composed of the Babbitts and their three children, Verona, Ted, and little Tinka, convenes in the kitchen for breakfast.

Verona, a graduate of Bryn Mawr, works as a filing clerk, but she yearns for a socially responsible career. Babbitt views charity institutions as a threat to the work ethic of the poor, who he believes should learn to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. He prefers that Verona earn a promotion to secretary, a far more practical use of her expensive college education in his opinion.

Ted, a junior at the local high school, isn't sure whether he wants to go to college. Ted's main concerns are nice clothes, girls, and cars. He and Verona bicker over the car while Tinka cries out that Babbitt promised to drive them all to Rosedale. Ted and Verona belittle each other's "social engagements," greatly irritating their father. Meanwhile, Tinka satisfies her voracious sweet tooth with heavily sugared cereal, much to Babbitt's displeasure. He has lately been concerned with the digestive health of his family.

After the children depart from the table, Babbitt bemoans their incessant chattering. The morning newspaper calms his agitated nerves. He reads it aloud to Myra, but only the popular society column interests her. Babbitt grunts at the praise heaped on Charles McKelvey's parties at his lavish home. Myra hesitantly ventures that she would like to see the inside of his home. Babbitt asserts that Myra is "a great old girl" and states that it is regrettable that he didn't keep in touch with McKelvey after they graduated from college. Babbitt kisses her before leaving for work.

Grumbling to himself at Myra's desire to associate with "this millionaire outfit," Babbitt exits his home to start his beloved car. He wishes he could dispense with "the whole game." He doesn't mean to be irritable, but he constantly feels tired.

Commentary

Babbitt is first and foremost a parody of post-World War I middle-class American culture. The name of the town, Zenith, implies that Babbitt's community views itself as the highest point of American civilization. Zenith worships the world of business: its skyscrapers, factories, and automobiles are symbols of rampant commercialism. Babbitt's home is a miniature representation of the American middle class's worship of material objects. It has all the modern conveniences, including an alarm clock blessed with all the latest technology.

One might think that Zenith's gleaming, modern skyline and Babbitt's slick, modern home imply that Zenith is indeed a wonderful, interesting place to live. However, Babbitt's fantasy fairy girl reveals that Babbitt is dissatisfied with his life as a middle-class family man. The description of his house reveals that its sleek, modern appearance is just that--appearance. It is designed to show off the occupant's wealth more than anything else. Lewis states that Babbitt's house lacks the aura of a home, that it is as impersonal as a hotel room. He compares it to an ad in a magazine for "Cheerful Modern Houses for Medium Incomes," further emphasizing Zenith's empty commercialism. Lewis's description of Babbitt's house reveals the monotonous conformity of the American middle class. All of Babbitt's modern household appliances are the "standard" possessions of his class. Babbitt's house is simply a mass-produced, standardized symbol of middle class affluence. It is like every other prosperous middle-class house in Zenith and presumably like middle-class houses all over the country.

It is not only the Babbitts' possessions that are homogenized. In his mass- produced, standardized suit and shoes, Babbitt looks like the Solid Citizen, a standardized, mass-produced product of middle-class American culture. Myra also looks like the standard, middle-aged housewife. The Babbitts' marriage, like their house, is mostly appearance with little substance. Their morning conversation has a feeling of monotony; while there might have been genuine feeling in it at one time, it is now an empty routine carried out for the sake of creating the appearance of married contentment.

Nor does Verona's gushing desire for a socially responsible career have any substance. She wants to convince a department store to create a welfare department complete with a nice restroom and wicker chairs. Her entire outlook on life is heavily influenced by the middle-class worship of material objects, as her argument with Ted about the family car further reveals. Like many other middle-class college graduates, she is more in love with the idea of liberalism than anything else. Ted is obsessed with nice clothing, cars, and girls like other middle-class sons. Again, Lewis emphasizes that the materialistic middle class favors appearance over substance.

Babbitt's diatribe against Verona's "liberal" opinions and his reaction to the morning paper clearly indicate that he has few original opinions. Rather, his entire belief system is based on the opinions of his community, often absorbed without question from the newspaper headlines. His middle-class hubris is revealed in his empty diatribe against giving the poor "notions above their class."

Although Babbitt is quick to demand that the poor stay in their assigned place, he and Myra harbor a desire to move into the elite circle of the McKelveys. Myra wants to be invited to their parties. Babbitt criticizes the McKelveys as snobbish highbrows, but it seems that his criticism is merely a means to salve his bruised ego at being excluded from their world. Lewis implies here that typical Americans, regardless of their class, are obsessed with excluding those less fortunate, as well as gaining the acceptance of those more fortunate.

Babbitt exhibits a capacity for sensitivity when he tries to soothe his wife's disappointment at their exclusion from the McKelveys' party, but it passes almost as soon as it arises because he gives her a passionless, perfunctory kiss before he goes to work. Moreover, despite the pleasure he seems to take in his affluent lifestyle and its accompanying symbols, he seems rather dissatisfied. He mutters that he would like to dispense with the "whole game" as he leaves the house.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us