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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.