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Chapters 19–21

Summary Chapters 19–21

The chapter ends with a gathering at Pickerbaugh's cabin, where, once again, Martin is confronted with his desires for Orchid.

Pickerbaugh leads Nautilus in "Weeks" like "Pep Week," for example and "Glad- hand Week," in which everyone had to talk to at least three strangers a day. Pickerbaugh is full of ideas and slogans to go along with his "Weeks." Martin observes his boss and comes to certain conclusions about him and about leaders in general in much the same dissenting way that Max Gottlieb had done.

Again, the reader is told that Martin is taken from his lab work time and again to tend to the mundane aspects of his position. And when he is in the lab, he is often visited by the Pickerbaugh children, including Orchid, who praises and flatters Martin and acts with a feigned morality toward him, until Leora goes to visit her family for a week. At this point, which coincides with the beginning of World War I, Martin goes to visit Orchid. The first time he visits her while Leora is away he finds Charley, a twenty-year-old clerk who, after the boy has left, Orchid claims to have been bored by. It is during this visit that Martin and Orchid kiss. Martin thinks about the girl but feels "glum" afterwards and longs for the "sure solace of Leora."


Pickerbaugh is one of the most satirical characters throughout the novel and the chapter of his introduction provides one of our most entertaining experiences in the book. Through Pickerbaugh, Lewis is criticizing the politician, even if it is the "earnest" politician, who feels the need to sell and change his tune, depending on with whom he is speaking. Pickerbaugh thinks himself a clever man when really his kitschy verse is laughable. The satire is further embellished by Pickerbaugh's daughters: the Healthette Octette, who with their Health Hymns spread their father's "mission." What is also being criticized is the tendency of American leaders to "reform" with a puritanical morality. It is important to remember that Sinclair Lewis, himself, was living in Prohibition Era America when this novel was written and that he is also portraying/critiquing the early temperance movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And it is also important to remember that Lewis is not only criticizing the leaders like Pickerbaugh, but the followers as well, as is illustrated with the scene between Martin and the policeman. When Martin, on first arriving in Nautilus, asks a policeman what he thinks of Pickerbaugh, the policeman speaks well of him and admires his "verse."

Although Martin finds fault in Pickerbaugh's tendencies, he is not altogether immune to the temptations of fame and power that come with Pickerbaugh's job. For instance, Martin dwells on having given his first speech and having been received well, he likes the praise and the attention. In short, he likes the power that comes with speech making. It is Leora who has to bring him down to Earth and tell him that he must stop trying to fit in and begin to realize that he will always be an outsider. Dean Silva, in an earlier chapter, had told Leora to keep him to his work. Silva had, ironically meant, to keep Martin dedicated to being a physician. Nevertheless, Leora is, in fact, keeping Martin to his true work—the laboratory.

Martin's temptations do not end in the power of speech making, and they extend to take the shape of Orchid. Martin cannot stop thinking about the girl and almost every subheading ends with his thoughts on her. Her name is archetypal for a temptress, being the name of an exotic yet delicate flower. Martin has a wonderful relationship with the ever-supportive and always-loving Leora, and yet he kisses this girl and falls into yet another trap. Martin says to Orchid that he does not think it is wrong to do what they are doing and humorously "thank[s] God [that he's] a liberal." And yet, it is obvious that Martin feels guilt and that he knows what he has in Leora—companionship, love, and what he calls a "sure solace." In short, it is to the laboratory and to Leora that Martin should be faithful because, in so doing, he would be faithful to himself. However, Martin strays from his path in these chapters and finds himself caught in the spiral of the Nautilus.