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Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis

Chapters 18-20

Chapters 14-17

Chapters 21-26

Summary

Much to Babbitt's dismay, Ted is struggling in school. Moreover, Ted's relationship with Eunice Littlefield, a carefree girl with a deep passion for the movies, is beginning to worry him. In contrast, he happily observes the relationship between Verona and Escott in the hopes of finding signs of a budding romance. Babbitt wants Ted to go to law school, but Ted is interested in girls and mechanics. He even builds a car from spare parts and sells it for a profit.

When Ted throws a party, Babbitt is greatly disturbed to discover that the teenagers are smoking and drinking in secret. Moreover, they exhibit looser standards regarding the relations between the sexes than Babbitt's generation. When Howard Littlefield checks on the party, he is horrified to see Eunice and Ted dancing so close together. He drags Eunice from the party, and the relationship between his family and the Babbitts cools. After the guests depart, the Babbitts argue about the party.

A visit from his mother and half-brother Martin's family increases Babbitt's growing irritation with family matters. Babbitt's mother and his brother do not understand the modern city life that Babbitt leads. Moreover, Myra's parents move into a hotel, so the Babbitts are obligated to have dinner with them every other Sunday. An illness in February gives Babbitt some relief from the incessant demands of his family. Babbitt suddenly realizes that his entire life is "incredibly mechanical" and wishes he didn't have to return to work.

Babbitt uses insider information Prout gave him in return for his campaign work to extort a high price for some land the Street Traction Company needs to build repair shops. The purchasing agent, the vice president, and the president of the company vigorously protest the exorbitant price, but a compromise that benefits everyone is reached. Babbitt's profit comes to three thousand dollars.

Several customers complain about Graff's dishonesty in dealing with them, so Babbitt, horrified to have a dishonest employee, lectures Graff about ethics and fires him. Graff protests Babbitt's hypocrisy and threatens to reveal the details of Babbitt's shady deals if Babbitt tries to make it difficult for him to get a job in another firm.

Babbitt decides to take Ted with him on a short business trip to Chicago. They enjoy themselves immensely while discussing the excruciating pace of Verona and Escott's courtship, but Babbitt feels lonely and depressed when Ted returns to Zenith for school. By accident, Babbitt encounters Sir Gerald Doak, who is feeling just as bored and lonely. At first, Babbitt is intimidated by the British aristocrat, but he finds that they are a lot alike. They go to a movie and spend the night drinking together in Doak's hotel room.

Babbitt's good cheer is destroyed when he spies Riesling, who is supposed to be in Akron, having dinner with a strange woman. Riesling reluctantly introduces Babbitt to May Arnold and tries to dissuade Babbitt from visiting him later that evening. Babbitt insists on waiting for him at his hotel later that night. He bullies the hotel clerk into giving him the key to Riesling's room. He is stricken with an irrational fear that Riesling has committed suicide, but to his relief, the room is empty.

When Riesling returns to his hotel room three hours later, Babbitt criticizes him for having an affair because it will harm Riesling's social standing in Zenith. Riesling complains that Zilla makes him miserable, so he sees nothing wrong with taking refuge in the arms of another woman. Babbitt stops in Akron to mail a postcard to Zilla stating that he saw Riesling there. He visits Zilla as soon as he returns to Zenith to further strengthen his lie, but Zilla is still convinced that Riesling has been seeing another woman. Babbitt defends his friend and urges Zilla to be nicer to him. Although Zilla does improve, Riesling confesses to Babbitt that it is too late to change how he feels.

Commentary

Despite all of Babbitt's faults, he tries to be a good father. Although he wants Ted to fulfill his own failed ambitions to become a lawyer, Babbitt is sincerely concerned about his son's well being and happiness. He hopes that Verona will be happily married. She has more in common with Escott than Babbitt has with Myra. Nevertheless, he is still blind to Ted's own personal ambitions because he wants Ted to achieve high social status.

Although Ted and his friends seem rebellious because they defy their parent's standards of proper behavior, they are really only engaging in the forms of rebellion common to their generation. Moreover, their drinking and smoking are simply imitations of their parents' own vices. Like Verona, Ted and his friends only flirt with rebellious, liberal behavior.

Babbitt welcomes the illness that follows a series of irritating family obligations, but his period of rest and relaxation only exacerbates his dissatisfaction with his life. When he is occupied with the daily concerns of business and family, he has little time to reflect on his life. When he is confined to bed, he has more time to contemplate the monotony of his existence. However, when he recovers, the pressures of routine again take over his time, energy, and attention.

Babbitt finally makes use of the insider information Prout gave him to take advantage of a corrupt business deal. However, the Traction Street Company executives really don't suffer much from Babbitt's manipulation. After the deal is sealed, the purchasing agent buys a new car, the vice president buys a new house, and the president obtains a prestigious political post. The people who suffer are the inadequately paid wage workers and the public. Earlier, Babbitt attributed the company's shoddy, expensive service to the workers' agitation for higher wages. However, we now know that this is not the case. It is men like Babbitt who cause prices to rise through graft and corruption. Babbitt's support of ethical behavior is revealed as hypocrisy or delusion.

Babbitt's encounter with Sir Gerald Doak provides Lewis with an opportunity to parody the Americans' ignorant worship of the British aristocracy. When Doak was a guest of the McKelveys, he was irritated and alienated by their mistaken assumptions about the British aristocracy's tastes. However, Doak also serves as a parody of the British aristocracy. He is just as interested in business matters and as ignorant of art and literature as the Americans.

Although Babbitt agrees with a lot of Riesling's criticism of the middle-class lifestyle, he urges Riesling to preserve his social status. He does not realize that Riesling does not really take pleasure in status. When Babbitt lies for Riesling, we again see that he values the appearance of moral behavior over real moral behavior. Although he self-righteously criticizes Riesling for having an affair, he is willing to lie to help cover the affair up.

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