Skip over navigation

Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 4

Chapter 3

Chapter 5

Summary

Babbitt quibbles with Chester Kirby Laylock, the salesman for the Glen Oriole division, over the poetic value of Laylock's advertisement for the Glen. Babbitt considers Laylock disagreeably effeminate, and he likewise disdains Laylock's "poetry" because he wants something more "forceful" and "dignified." Babbitt composes an advertisement for cemetery plots, convinced of his greater literary merit.

Babbitt tries to quit smoking at least once a month by creating elaborate strategies of prevention. Nevertheless, he is always unsuccessful. He arranges to have lunch with Paul Riesling, his college roommate and close friend whom Babbitt regards as kind of "younger brother." Riesling entered his father's business, the manufacture and sale of roofing, after college, but Babbitt muses that Paul would have made a great violinist, painter, or writer.

Babbitt is well-versed in "leases and titles," and he has an astonishing "memory for prices." However, he lacks real knowledge of architecture, landscaping, and economics. He belongs to the Booster's Club, where he preaches about "Ethics." Nevertheless, he is vague and unclear on the meaning of ethics: He dislikes "shysters," but he doesn't believe that one shouldn't sell a house for twice its real value if the buyer is stupid enough to pay it. He doesn't believe it is commendable to be "unreasonably honest," but he disdains those who use outright lies in the service of profit making. He preaches that a realtor should know all about his city, but Babbitt himself knows little about anything other than Zenith's real estate market. He gains his opinions about everything else from the local newspaper and hearsay.

Six months before, Babbitt learned that Archibald Purdy planned to open a butcher shop adjoining his grocery shop. Babbitt immediately advised Conrad Lyte, a real estate speculator, to purchase the lot adjoining Purdy's grocery. Purdy meets Lyte and Babbitt to arrange the purchase of the lot, for which they extract a price twice the lot's actual value. Thus, Lyte makes a nine thousand dollar profit, and Babbitt earns a commission in excess of four hundred dollars. Purdy will pass on the exorbitant cost of the purchase by charging his customers higher prices.

Commentary

By now, it should be clear to the reader that the main thrust of Lewis's satire on the middle class involves its conformity, ignorance, and hypocrisy. When the scene shifts to Babbitt's office, Lewis adds further material for his accusations against middle-class values. Lewis states that Babbitt engages in a morning of "artistic creation." However, this "artistic creation" refers to the compositions of advertisements. Here, Lewis implies that the middle class has little appreciation or understanding of real art because of its obsessive materialism. Babbitt's knowledge is limited to mercenary business concerns. He knows nothing of economics, landscaping, architecture, and even Zenith itself. The only thorough knowledge he has is the selling price he can extract from various properties in Zenith.

Lewis's satire on Babbitt's numerous failed attempts to quit smoking symbolizes Babbitt's other inconsistencies. Babbitt preaches about business ethics, but he has no clear idea of what he means by "ethics." His political opinions reveal his double standard of behavior for the middle class versus the working class. Babbitt disapproves of the working class's attempts to organize labor unions in order to protect their interests, yet he has no problem with the plethora of organizations that protect the business community's interests: the Booster's Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Secret Order of Elks, and so on. He disdains the Doppelbraus for disobeying Prohibition laws, but Babbitt himself likes to drink occasionally. He disdains art and literature as "highbrow," but he praises himself for his "artistic" capacities to write "forceful" advertisements.

Judging from Babbitt's confused thoughts regarding business ethics, it seems that Babbitt's "business ethics" are really about keeping up the appearance of being ethical. Again, Lewis exposes middle-class values as appearance without substance. Babbitt disapproves of people who operate openly as "shysters," but he doesn't disapprove of fleecing an ignorant customer. He certainly doesn't feel guilty for extorting a ridiculous price for a secretly purchased lot that he knew Purdy would need. His partnership with Lyte in enacting this corrupt scheme hints that the supposedly "ethical" business community in Zenith is rife with such collusions.

Despite all of Babbitt's failings, it is important to remember that he is the product of a culture that exerts great pressure to conform. He is not evil, nor is he entirely insensitive, as his affectionate feelings for Riesling indicate. Babbitt's careless, ignorant reinforcement of middle-class values is perhaps an attempt to ignore the fact that his life is unsatisfying. Babbitt's fantasy about the fairy girl hints that he wishes he had a better way to live, but the rampant ignorance and conformity of his class offer few alternative options. Moreover, his belief that Riesling would have made a great artist contains a tone of regret regarding the restricted opportunities offered by middle-class culture.

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