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Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis

Chapters 6-7

Chapter 5

Chapters 8-12

Summary

After lunch, Babbitt gives a client a tour of a tenement. They share their mutual worship of all things mechanical and modern. Babbitt peppers his conversation with the language of mechanics, although he hardly understands the phrases he uses.

Afterward, Babbitt meets his father-in-law and business partner, Henry T. Thompson, to help him buy a car. The car salesman, Noel Ryland, belongs to the Booster's Club, so Babbitt secures a good price. Thompson hails from the Northeast, and Babbitt regards him as too "old-fashioned" and "provincial" because he didn't graduate from college. Ryland, a graduate of Princeton and a reader of foreign poetry, strikes Babbitt as an example of taking "civilization too far."

Stanley Graff, a salesman in Babbitt's business, becomes engaged, so he asks for a raise and a bonus. Babbitt criticizes Graff for his lack of gratitude and work ethic. The expressions on the other employees' faces indicate that they believe Graff deserves the raise. Babbitt makes a clumsy attempt to be cheerful before guiltily slinking out of the office. Floral Heights' bright modern appearance dispels his gloomy mood.

At dinner that evening, Babbitt announces that he might buy a new car. Because a family's car indicates its social status, the Babbitts debate at length the proper car to purchase. The debate soon becomes an argument, so Babbitt declares that he doesn't plan to buy the car until next year.

The Babbitt's living room contains the same decorations that furnish the other living rooms in Floral Heights. The books are largely unread, the fireplace unused, and jazz records collect dust. Ted grumbles about his English homework while Babbitt attends to the evening paper, particularly the comic strips. Babbitt believes Ted should study literature because it is necessary to get into college, although he also believes that high schools should teach practical subjects like Business English. Ted complains that he would prefer to take correspondence courses, reading aloud ads for them. Babbitt doesn't know yet what to think about the ads, but he is impressed by the profitable nature of the business. Nevertheless, he points out that his own college education has allowed him to rub elbows with the "finest gentlemen in Zenith." Babbitt declares that going to a real university, even though it means studying useless subjects like poetry and French, has "more class" than declaring one earned a "degree of Stamp-Licker" from "Bezuzus Mail-order University." Ted finally agrees, but he leaves to drive some of his friends to a chorus rehearsal instead of finishing his homework.

Myra points out that Ted is approaching an age at which Babbitt should talk to him about sex. Babbitt thinks it might put the wrong ideas into his head, but he resolves to have a conversation about "morals" with Ted, although he sets no specific date and time. Babbitt ponders the unachieved youthful ambitions he and Riesling once had. Riesling wanted to study the violin in Europe and Babbitt wanted to be a lawyer. Somehow, they both ended up marrying and settling into business. His engagement to Myra happened almost by accident, and their marriage was never characterized by "ardent" love. He wonders if she is as unhappy and discontent as he is. Suddenly, he smoothes Myra's hair, both pleasing and surprising her.

Meanwhile, Horace Updike tries to seduce Lucile McKelvey, and a cocaine- runner murders a prostitute in a speakeasy. Two scientists continue their research into synthetic rubber, and union officials debate a possible strike. A Civil War veteran dies while a tractor factory keeps running on night shift, and ex-prize-fighter Mike Monday, now an evangelist, concludes a revival. Seneca Doane praises the bigness of Zenith while Dr. Kurt Yavitch complains that Zenith has "standardized all the beauty out of life." Jake Offutt, a politician, and Henry T. Thompson hammer out a crooked deal, planning to use Babbitt to push it through. Babbitt gratefully sinks into a dream about his fairy girl.

Commentary

The middle class is extremely insecure about its status. To protect the value of its status, the middle class work hard to keep the working class in its place. The middle class also longs to join the elite circle of Zenith's upper class, but the upper class regards the middle class with the same disdain and snobbery with which the middle class regards the working class. In order to assuage the sting of rejection and to consolidate class identity, the middle class disdains the "highbrow" ideas of the wealthy as well as the uneducated working class. Hence, Babbitt is suspicious of Ryland's Ivy League education, something that he associates with "highbrow" concerns. Babbitt does value a more modest state university degree but only as a status symbol. As can be seen in Babbitt's esteem for the correspondence courses that teach people how to impress others without actually teaching any knowledge, Babbitt values education for what it can get him, rather than for what it represents.

Babbitt is hypocritical in his criticism of Graff's unethical practices because he has participated in much larger, unethical business deals. His unwillingness to pay Graff a living wage forced Graff to be unethical in order to feed himself and his wife. However, like many of his friends and associates, Babbitt refuses to take responsibility for his actions and his own unethical business dealings. Nor does he notice that the average wage worker in Zenith goes hungry on inadequate wages while the prosperous business community spends its money on books, pianos, jazz records, and other material objects that it seldom uses or appreciates.

Lewis's portrayal of the nighttime activities of Zenith exposes the seedy underworld that exists beneath its thin surface of gleaming, sleek modernity. Zenith's middle class likes to tout its city as a moral, upright community, yet murder, drugs, alcohol, and extramarital affairs abound. Moreover, a portion of Zenith's population suffers because their prosperous employees won't pay them adequately, as we see in the union leader's discussion of a possible strike.

Religion in Zenith is hardly about God or spirituality. Mike Monday is invited to speak in Zenith mainly because he has a reputation for distracting the working classes from the concerns of low wages and working conditions. That he is an ex-prize fighter is not insignificant. He had a career bludgeoning his opponents in the ring, and he now has a career bludgeoning the working class into submission. Lewis means to expose the essential brutality behind middle- class Zenith's bright, cheery, eminently brittle appearance of peace, prosperity, and moral righteousness. Thompson and Offutt hammer out yet another corrupt business deal. Such corrupt collusions artificially raise the operating costs of Zenith's business community, and the businessmen then pass on the costs to their customers. This cycle encourages employers to pay their workers inadequate wages as a means to offset the artificial costs produced by graft and corruption.

Doane is a radical lawyer, but he recognizes the potential benefits of industrialization. Unlike Yavitch, he doesn't necessarily believe that mass-produced, standardized products are inherently bad. Standardized mass production lowers the costs of material goods. But Doane does object to the standardized character of middle-class Zenith. He sees the brutal, cannibalistic competition in Zenith as forcing people to conform to a flawed, hypocritical value system that oppresses and exploits the less fortunate citizens of the city.

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