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Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 3

Chapters 1-2

Chapter 4

Summary

Babbitt disdains his neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Doppelbrau as "Bohemian," but he respects his neighbor Howard Littlefield, Ph.D. as a "Great Scholar." Littlefield "proves" to the businessman the "perfection" of "their system of industry and manners" with elaborate arguments grounded in "history, economics, and the confessions of reformed radicals." Babbitt and Littlefield make empty small talk about the weather and the upcoming presidential nominations. Littlefield voices a keen desire for a solid "business administration."

On the way to work Babbitt stops for gas. The attendant makes Babbitt feel like a "man of weight." They engage in an empty discussion of politics, and Babbitt states his desire for a solid "business administration." Babbitt gives a ride downtown to someone waiting for the streetcars. The man praises Babbitt for his generosity and Babbitt complains of those who make too much fuss over their charitable efforts. He complains about the service of the streetcars, and the man chimes in. Babbitt quickly defers his earlier criticism and explains that the Traction Company faces many difficulties because of the labor union's call for higher wages.

Babbitt speeds to work, admiring Zenith's slick, modern, bustling appearance. He dictates a letter to his secretary, Miss McGoun. She reminds him of his fairy girl, but Babbitt's longing discomfits him. Ever since he married, he was uneasy in his admiration of women other than his wife.

Commentary

Lewis further parodies the middle-class obsession with material objects in describing Babbitt's worship of his car. For Babbitt, his car represents "poetry and tragedy, love and heroism." Every other prosperous businessman in Zenith ascribes the same poetry, tragedy, love, and heroism to his car. Lewis portrays even the passions of the middle class as mass-produced standards of empty commercialism. Babbitt attaches fantasized notions of poetry, tragedy, love, and heroism to a material possession because his life actually lacks all these characteristics. Moreover, these notions sound like the undefined, empty buzzwords of advertising.

Babbitt contemptuously views the Doppelbraus as "Bohemian," a term for people, usually artists, who rebel against social conventions. Lewis's parody of middle-class values becomes even more ironic with his description of Babbitt's shallow understanding of this term. Babbitt disdains the Doppelbraus because they drink a lot of bootleg whiskey, drive fast, and engage in "midnight music and obscene laughter." Babbitt, however, has no room to complain: He spent the previous night playing poker and drinking with Vergil Gunch. Throughout Babbitt, Lewis satirizes the middle class's double standard regarding Prohibition laws. The Doppelbraus probably see themselves as "rebels," but their "rebellion" against social conventions sounds like it is a flirtation with liberal behavior rather than real opposition to middle class conformity. After all, they live in the same affluent neighbor as Babbitt, and since all the houses in Floral Heights are the same, they are not really that different from their neighbors.

Littlefield is supposedly an intellectual, but just like Babbitt, he expresses little capacity to form original opinions. His title as a Ph.D. merely gives him the appearance of intellectual authority. Babbitt's later repetition of Littlefield's words is an ingenious method by which Lewis can demonstrate and mock the inanity of middle-class society.

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