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Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis

Chapters 14-17

Chapter 13

Chapters 18-20

Summary

Warren G. Harding is elected president, but Zenith is more concerned with its own mayoral race. Seneca Doane, a lawyer running on the labor ticket, runs against Lucas Prout, a conservative manufacturer of mattresses. Babbitt earns a reputation as an orator by delivering speeches in support of Prout's candidacy. Verona asks him to explain why a socialist policy should necessarily be doomed to failure, but Babbitt pleads that he is too worn out to "explain these complicated subjects."

Prout defeats Doane, and Babbitt's fervent campaign work is rewarded with insider information about the "extension of paved highways." At the Annual Address for the Zenith Real Estate Board, Babbitt delivers a speech praising Zenith as "the finest example of American life and prosperity." When Vergil Gunch notes that the local paper frequently publishes portions of his speeches, Babbitt wonders why he was ever dissatisfied with his life.

Babbitt is not invited to join the Tonawanda Country Club or the Union Club, so he places his hopes for social advancement on his college reunion, held at the Union Club. He makes a special effort to speak to Charles McKelvey, inviting him and his wife to dinner. McKelvey agrees only when Babbitt promises insider information about some real estate. However, the dinner goes badly, and the McKelveys leave as early as possible. Myra cries herself to sleep that night, and the McKelveys do not extend a return invitation for dinner.

Ed Overbrook, one of Babbitt's college classmates, is considered a "failure." Eager to develop a relationship with Babbitt, Overbrook invites the Babbitts to dinner. Babbitt and Myra accept as reluctantly as the McKelveys accepted their invitation. The Overbrooks' dinner goes badly, and the Babbitts leave early without extending a return invitation.

Babbitt throws himself into his various club meetings to assuage his disappointment regarding the McKelveys. The clubs are important to Zenith society because they provide men an escape from the fussy domestic sphere, as well as a means to network with other businessmen. Babbitt also spends his Sunday evenings with Riesling. When the Rieslings visit the Babbitts, even Zilla is silent while Riesling pours out his soul on his violin.

Reverend John Jennison Drew, the pastor at Babbitt's church, invites Babbitt, Chum Frink, and William Eathorne into his office to discuss ways to promote the Sunday School. When Drew asks Babbitt to help him promote the Sunday School, Babbitt eagerly accepts the task. Babbitt attends the Sunday School classes, but he finds them as dull as the Sunday School classes of his youth. His interest in the project is sparked by the bustling business of Sunday School journals, which are written in a business-like language.

Eathorne holds a meeting for the Sunday School committee in his mansion. Babbitt, conscious of Eathorne's status as a member of an old, wealthy Zenith family, curbs his impulse toward informal humor. Babbitt suggests that the Sunday School increase its attendance by giving out cash prizes or other similar awards to children who recruit new members. In addition, he suggests hiring a press agent to publicize the Sunday School in the paper and organizing the Sunday School into armies based on age. He suggests awarding military ranks to children based on the success of their recruitment efforts. To Babbitt's pleasure, Eathorne gives his approval to the suggestions.

Babbitt hires the local newspaper reporter, Kenneth Escott, as press agent for the Sunday School. With Escott's help, the Sunday School achieves second place in Zenith for attendance. Escott and Verona meet and take a keen interest in one another, spending their time in the discussion of "Ideas." Babbitt's successful efforts in the Sunday School mission earn him high status in the church. He is successful in arranging a dinner that includes Eathorne, who later lends him money for a questionable business deal from which they mutually profit.

Commentary

Because he supports the working class's call for higher wages and better working conditions, Doane's political platform threatens the middle and upper class's tight hold on power and wealth in Zenith. Therefore, Babbitt, his friends, and his associates support Prout because he promises to preserve their hold on power and wealth. Prout wins easily, and the specter is raised that politics are dependent on money and power rather than democratic ideals. Moreover, Zenith politics are characterized by the same corrupt cronyism that characterizes Zenith's business community. Babbitt lends his newfound clout as an orator to Prout's campaign in return for a chance to take advantage of a corrupt business deal.

Babbitt's campaign work earns him even greater social status because he is asked to deliver the annual address to Zenith's real estate board. Basically, Babbitt here implies, status is not achieved through honest hard work but through the corruption of such values. Babbitt is not popular because he actually has anything intelligent to say about Zenith's business community. They like him because he reinforces the political opinions they already have. Babbitt doesn't even understand the arguments of the opposing side. When Verona asks him to justify his opposition to Doane's platform, he avoids the subject because he can't rationally explain or justify his position.

Babbitt's speeches themselves are full of vague, empty optimism. He praises Zenith and its citizens for being the best examples of American civilization. He predicts that everyone will want to be just like them. The point is that the middle class is already the same all over the country, as we saw when Babbitt and Riesling took a train to New York. But this similarity is one of circumscribed ignorance: Babbitt's speech in praise of Zenith's greatness reveals how little he knows of his own town outside of the issue of real estate. Despite his own dissatisfaction with the monotony of his life, Babbitt praises the conformity of Zenith and expresses hope that it will spread all over the country.

In Zenith, religion is just as false and corrupt as business and politics. Babbitt agrees to join the committee devoted to increasing Sunday School attendance not because he cares about the souls of Zenith's youth but because he is eager to rub elbows with Eathorne, a man of even greater status than McKelvey. Babbitt's ideas about religion are vague and undefined, but his greed for social status is clear. He attends church because it gives him the appearance of moral character. The one thing that might provide Babbitt with an exit, which in its very nature is supposed to convey a larger, objective understanding, is sucked down into the depths of middle-class jostling and pettiness. In the end, church allows Babbitt just another corrupt business deal.

Although Verona and Escott think of themselves as liberals, they are actually concerned with the same things as their parents. Escott gets paid to compromise his journalistic integrity. Verona gets to show off her liberal arts education by discussing "Ideas." However, it is questionable that she is any more intellectually sophisticated than Babbitt. Her opinions are as vague as his.

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