First published in 1922, Babbitt is set during the 1920s (the Jazz Age), the period in America following World War I that is considered especially materialistic and spiritually depraved. Politically, the country was charged with fear due to the communist revolution in Russia, with a burning mistrust of the "Reds." In this climate of doubt and paranoia, strikes and labor unrest seemed to pose a threat of Bolshevik conspiracy. The political rhetoric was thus polarized, and the growing mistrust extended beyond communists to foreigners and any individual with radical or progressive ideas. Not surprisingly, this environment of fear resulted in a widespread urge toward "normalcy" and intellectual standardization.
In Babbitt, Lewis captures the political and personal unrest of the era, as well as the social rebellion at the heart of the Roaring Twenties. The characters include political extremists and those with overt mistrust of the opposite party (especially on the part of the conservatives). Seneca Doane, the novel's progressive liberal, is essentially blacklisted by influential society. Men like William Eathorne and Virgil Gunch view Doane as a communist threat, and when Babbitt suddenly defends Doane and liberal politics, these men are caught between complete disbelief and threatening mistrust.
Lewis's depiction of the labor strike, with all of its potential for mass violence, as well as the often-expressed view that immigrants and foreigners are basically sub-human, presents a harrowingly realistic portrait of post-war life in America. Critics have long considered this novel to be an exceptionally truthful work of realism, both in its creation of flesh-and-blood characters and in its accurate documentation of the 1920s.
In addition to being a seminal work of realism, Babbitt is also a highly effective work of satire. Lewis captures the hypocrisy of the period with a special focus on the distance between public utterance and actual behavior that characterized the decade. (The booming alcoholic trade during Prohibition is one obvious example of this hypocrisy.) Through tone and sentence structure, Lewis deftly reveals both the hypocrisy of the society and its effect on its members. George Babbitt is an embodiment of this divided mindset. Not only do his actions fail to reflect his beliefs, but even his very thoughts seem to contradict each other. He suffers great confusion between morality and the appearance of it, while America, on the whole, suffers confusion over what morality really means.
Lewis also travels into the underworld of Zenith, where the bohemians and the flappers dance and drink through the night and revel in sexual promiscuity. The novel's portrayal of Tanis Judique's group of friends (the Bunch) and, to a lesser extent, of the Dopplebraus, reveals a key social pattern of the period. In many ways, this was a time when the old restraints on personal freedom and morals were dissolving. Lewis captures the appeal of a freer lifestyle and the loss of control that seems inevitably associated with it.
Lewis rounds out his portrait with several other themes of the time: the lure of nature, the influence of advertising and mass media in shaping public opinion, the growing reverence of science and technology, the stifling (yet comforting) social and commercial conformity, and the decline of religion through its commercialization and through ignorance among religious leaders and Fundamentalists. He captures the ambivalence of his characters who wish both to participate in and to withdraw from society. Thus it becomes obvious that Babbitt will never be able to resolve the conflict and confusion that make him unable to find meaningful fulfillment. Indeed, this conflict and this confusion define the era.