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Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis

Chapters 8-12

Chapters 6-7

Chapter 13

Summary

Business is brisk that spring, so Babbitt and Myra throw a dinner party for Zenith's "keenest intellects." Babbitt visits a speakeasy to purchase gin from the surly proprietor, Healey Hanson. Everyone rejoices when Babbitt brings out the cocktails. In the warmth of alcohol, Babbitt decides his guests are wonderful friends. The men hold forth that Prohibition is fine for the working classes, but it is an infringement on the personal liberty of men like themselves.

When the good cheer of the cocktails wears off, Babbitt admits to himself that he is bored and wishes he could retreat to Maine. Meanwhile, the guests play bridge and hold a séance to summon Dante. After the guests depart, Myra senses that Babbitt didn't enjoy the party despite his protestations to the contrary. He confesses that he has felt rather tired of late and wishes to go to Maine a week earlier than Myra and the children. Myra's feelings are hurt, but when she sees how upset Babbitt is, she understands his need for time alone. She suggests that he take Riesling with him.

Babbitt and Myra visit Riesling and Zilla's impressively modern apartment. When Myra suggests that Riesling go with Babbitt to Maine early, Zilla accuses Riesling of cheating on her. A bitter argument ensues, and Babbitt, roused to his friend's defense, attacks Zilla for being a cruel, nagging wife. Zilla bursts into tears and admits that he is right but only because she gets pleasure out of the whole dramatic scene. Babbitt magnanimously forgives her, and Zilla agrees to let Riesling go to Maine a week early. Later, Myra criticizes Babbitt for being so cruel. She explains that Zilla has nothing to do all day, so she vents her frustration on her husband. Babbitt knows she is right, but he is happy that Riesling can now go to Maine early with him.

On the train to New York, the conversation between the traveling businessmen in the smoking car is full of talk about Prohibition and the world of business. The men complain about the black porter's lack of respect. They are quite happy that there are laws restricting immigration because they feel that the "foreigners" are overrunning the country. Disgusted, Riesling leaves the car; Babbitt stays behind.

Upon their arrival in New York, Riesling asks Babbitt if they can go look at the ocean liners. He wanted to go study the violin in Europe during his youth, and he still hopes to do so one day. However, when they see the liners, Riesling becomes distraught and wishes to leave, much to Babbitt's surprise. They recover their good cheer by engaging in fishing and late night poker games in Maine. When their families arrive, Myra urges them to act as if they weren't there, but her complaining puts an end to the late night poker games. Nevertheless, Babbitt feels refreshed by the vacation. He resolves to do things differently in the year to come, hoping that he will be elected president of the Real Estate Board. Upon his return to Zenith, Babbitt again makes an unsuccessful attempt to quit smoking and to make a hobby of going to baseball games. He does play golf once a week, however, and goes to the movies weekly with his wife and Tinka.

Commentary

The Babbitts throw a party to celebrate Babbitt's successful, likely corrupt, spring business. The dinner party has nothing to do with celebrating friendships but everything to do with showing off and improving one's social status. His attraction to his guests is based on their perceived social status, not their individual personalities.

The Prohibition laws against alcohol and the rampant disobedience to them exposes the essential moral hypocrisy of the American middle class. The middle-class businessmen preach allegiance to the "righteous" laws, but their behavior suggests otherwise. Again, the appearance of moral behavior is more valued than moral behavior itself. Babbitt acts as if his trip to Healey Hanson's speakeasy were a titillating rebellion, but his behavior actually strictly conforms to the standards of his class. Babbitt's guests also act like drinking is a risqué, rebellious activity. However, they came to the party expecting alcohol, so we can be sure that drinking is fairly common among their friends and associates. Despite their support of strong moral values and Prohibition, they believe that only the working class should be expected to really obey them; in other words, they see money and power as the measurement of a person's moral character. The middle class can safely sin because their material success mitigates their less than righteous behavior.

Babbitt calls his guests the "keenest intellects," but nothing about them suggests superior intellectual capacities. The conversation follows the conventional agenda of "required" topics; all the partygoers believe the same things and they say the same things. Further, they have no understanding of art or literature: Chum Frink, a supposedly great poet actually writes clumsy, unimpressive advertising jingles; Dante is dismissed by Babbitt's guests as a "wop." Babbitt and his friends have no real knowledge outside the realms of their jobs, but they feel free to form and espouse opinions on everything.

After the false emotion provided by the alcohol wears off, Babbitt realizes that his guests actually bore and irritate him. His only real friend is Riesling, so he wishes he could escape to Maine with him. The point Lewis is making is that middle-class values actually discourage real human relationships. Instead, it encourages people to become carbon copies of one another, much like the industrial economy produces standardized, mass-produced material objects. Babbitt and his friends live mechanical, dull, conventional lives as if they were robots instead of human beings.

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