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Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 13

Chapters 8-12

Chapters 14-17

Summary

Babbitt is elected as an official delegate to the annual convention for the State Association of Real Estate Boards. When Cecil Rountree, the chairman of the convention program-committee, asks Babbitt to write a paper espousing his views about real estate for the convention, Babbitt eagerly accepts the honor. However, he encounters trouble in writing the paper because he becomes mired in concerns about "Style, Order, and other mysteries." Finally, he dispenses with all of these concerns and produces a concise, clear presentation on his thoughts about the real estate business.

Babbitt reads his paper before the convention and is instantly hailed as the equal of Cecil Rountree, who is known as a "diplomat of business." Babbitt revels in his newfound respect and decides not to return home right away. He remains behind to drink, smoke, attend a burlesque show, and visit a brothel with some of the other delegates. Afterwards, Babbitt never tells anyone about that evening. When he returns to Zenith, it is business as usual.

Commentary

When Babbitt is asked to write a speech, he is forced to actually organize his opinions and beliefs. Unsurprisingly, he finds it extremely difficult. The basic thrust of his speech is that real estate brokers should have more respect and status. The S.A.R.E.B. convention exposes the shameless competition for status in the middle class. The convention has little to do with market analysis. Mostly, it serves as an opportunity for real estate businessmen to tout the virtues of their respective cities. While they live it up at someone else's expense, Lewis notes that they are surrounded by the less fortunate members of the working class. These individuals serve as a reminder that not everyone enjoys the benefits of the post-World War I economic prosperity.

Throughout Babbitt, Lewis contrasts the opulence of his characters lives with the emptiness that they sense in their lives. Many of these characters, like Babbitt and Riesling, are unsure that the price for material success was worth paying. And yet the physical rewards, and the status those rewards provide, are too enticing for the characters to pass up. They have given up their personal dreams for a broader dream of social success, and when they discover that this new dream affords them no real happiness, they are unable to return to their original plans or desires. In this emptiness, the middle class characters become even further engaged in protecting what they do have: status. Babbitt, disillusioned with the constant search for status, nonetheless tries to move himself up through the ranks by talking with Lucile McKelvey. When he is snubbed, he lessens the pain by acting haughtily toward those of status below his. Through these incidents, Lewis charges middle-class values with perpetuating a cycle of petty antagonism and insensitivity.

In the midst of the empty optimism and banal slogans of the convention, Lewis shows how many of the delegates suffer the same dissatisfaction that plagues Babbitt and Riesling, even as they tout the glory of the middle-class lifestyles. One delegate wanted to be a chemist in his youth, but he somehow ended up as a middle-aged salesman. Riesling wanted to be a violinist, and Babbitt once dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Therefore, disappointed dreams and lost opportunities are a recurring theme in Lewis's satire on the American middle class.

Babbitt and some of the delegates stay behind to engage in activities that would inspire great disapproval in their hometowns. This outright rebellion against the moral values of their class reveals their moral hypocrisy, as well as their dissatisfaction with their lives. A foreign town allows the men to break free of the repression embedded in their home communities; their response is juvenile, unenlightening, and quite similar to the behavior of the working class that these middle class men so ruthlessly despise.

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