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Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis

Chapters 21-26

Chapters 18-20

Chapters 27-31

Summary

Babbitt is elected vice president of the Booster's club. When he returns to the office, gloating over his new success, Miss McGoun informs him that Myra has been calling for him. Myra informs him that Riesling has been arrested for shooting Zilla, who may not survive. Babbitt hurries to the city jail, but Riesling refuses to see him. Babbitt succeeds in getting Prout to order the warden to allow Babbitt to see Riesling anyway. Riesling explains that he simply snapped under Zilla's bitter nagging, but he refuses to allow Babbitt to blame Zilla. At home, Babbitt refuses to allow his family to discuss the matter. Thankfully, his friends at the Athletic Club tactfully do not discuss it in Babbitt's presence either. Babbitt offers to perjure himself to save Riesling, but his lawyer advises against it. Zilla recovers from her wound, and Riesling pleads guilty. After he is sentenced to three years in the State Penitentiary, Babbitt feels that the world is "meaningless."

Babbitt throws himself into his work to avoid thinking about Riesling. When Tinka and Myra go on vacation, he settles into a restless depression. He is unable to feel at ease with his friends, and neither movies nor Verona's books can keep his attention. One day, he encounters a very drunk Chum Frink on the street and listens to him complain that his career as a poet is not as good as it should have been. Sitting in his house, pondering his discontent with his life, Babbitt realizes that he wants his fairy girl in the flesh. He flirts with Miss McGoun, but she rebuffs his advances. Failing at that, he flirts with Louetta Swanson who likewise rebuffs him.

When Babbitt visits Riesling in prison, he is depressed to see that Riesling's face is "pale and without expression." He senses "that in this place of death Paul [is] already dead." He returns to Zenith full of dissatisfaction with his whole life. When an attractive widow, Tanis Judique, comes to his office, Babbitt personally takes her to see an apartment. They flirt during the expedition, but Babbitt is too timid to really come on strong. When he later stops in a barbershop, he flirts with a young manicurist, Ida Putiak, who accepts his invitation to dinner. The dinner fails to lead to an illicit affair, so Babbitt feels like a fool.

Babbitt continues to fantasize about a fairy girl in the flesh. When Myra and Tinka return home, the pressure to act happy wearies him. Babbitt tells Myra that he needs to go to New York on business, but he actually takes a trip to Maine. He unsuccessfully attempts to establish a rapport with Joe Paradise, one of the woodsmen who works as a guide. Babbitt considers abandoning his family and living alone in the wilderness, but he returns to Zenith, filled with a greater restlessness than ever before.

On the train back to Zenith, Babbitt encounters Seneca Doane. Because he is the only person Babbitt knows on the train, they strike up a conversation. Doane assures Babbitt that he holds no grudge against Babbitt over the mayoral race. He reminds Babbitt that in college Babbitt had been liberal while Doane had been conservative.

Babbitt visits Zilla in Zenith and attempts to persuade her to get a pardon for Riesling from the governor. Zilla is much thinner and her shoulder is partially paralyzed from the gunshot injury. She has become religious, but she remains bitter toward her husband. She states that what he did was evil and deserved punishment.

Babbitt shocks and disturbs his friends by defending Doane at the Athletic Club. Escott and Verona finally become engaged. Escott takes a job with a commission house, a business that he formerly attacked in his articles. Ted enrolls in the State University, but he is more interested in fraternities and sports than he is in academics. Babbitt refuses his son's request to transfer to the School of Engineering.

Commentary

Riesling refuses to see Babbitt at first because he fears that Babbitt will fall in line with the self-righteous hypocrisy that characterizes Zenith's middle class. However, Babbitt surprises him by not offering criticism. Riesling is his one real friend, so Babbitt is able to relate to him on human terms rather than the shallow, conformist values that characterize his other relationships. Myra, however, is eager to discuss the scandal until Babbitt forbids it. Like many people in Zenith, she hopes to alleviate her boredom with the titillating details of other people's suffering. Babbitt is clearly desperate to save Riesling because he offers to commit perjury. His restlessness and dissatisfaction will only increase after Riesling's imprisonment in the State Penitentiary. His friendship with Riesling had provided him with an outlet for his frustration, but now it is absent.

Babbitt is unable to enjoy Verona's books because they criticize the lifestyle he leads. He is already extremely unhappy, but he wishes to deny and repress his rebellious feelings. However, Babbitt is not the only self-deluded person in Zenith. He meets a drunken Chum Frink, who is complaining to himself about his disappointed ambitions to be a real poet.

When Babbitt flees to Maine after failing to find his fairy girl in the flesh, we learn that his romantic illusions about living at one with nature are based on false assumptions. He worships the woodsmen as real men living independent, free, exciting lives. However, Joe Paradise is not a hardy lover of nature. He only hikes to the camping ground because Babbitt wants to. When Babbitt asks him the name of a particular flower, Joe doesn't know the answer. Paradise is also largely uncommunicative until Babbitt turns the conversation to money. Suddenly, he becomes animated and discusses his ambition to open a shoe store. He wants to live the same life that Babbitt does. He is just as materialistic as any city businessman.

Babbitt's newfound respect and interest in Doane may seem rebellious. However, it is likely that he latched onto Doane's liberal opinions because his other attempts at rebellion have failed. Babbitt's rebellion is largely aimless. It seems that he wants to rebel simply for the sake of rebellion. He is also lonely, and Doane is the only person he knows on the train. Babbitt is still strongly influenced by the pressure to conform. He will not seriously debate with Doane. He simply agrees with Doane's opinions without really understanding his philosophy. Although Babbitt is disgusted with his lifestyle, he is still obsessed with what other people think of him.

Escott and Verona begin to follow the path of conformity despite their liberal leanings. The offer of a better salary prompts Escott to assume conservative opinions. It would not be too presumptuous to predict that Escott will probably become another Babbitt by the time he reaches his middle age. Like Babbitt, he is willing to compromise the idealistic ethics of his profession if he stands to profit from it.

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