Babbitt Summary and Analysis

Chapters IV-VI

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Chapter IV:

Babbitt writes an advertisement for a cemetery on Linden Lane before returning to the monotony of "routine details" (p. 37), which include constructing an illogical and futile scheme to quit smoking. He calls an old friend, Paul Riesling, and they decide to meet for lunch at the Athletic Club.

Babbitt reflects on his own expertise in the real estate business, yet it is clear that he lacks the exhaustive knowledge of the city required of a truly informed salesman. In fact, his actions and beliefs seem to challenge each other in constant hypocrisy. He has a conference with Conrad Lyte and Archibold Purdy in which he convinces Lyte to buy to lot adjacent to Purdy's grocery store (where he is hoping to open a butcher shop) for thousands of dollars more than it is worth, and subsequently he convinces Purdy to buy the lot for several times its worth.

Chapter V:

As Babbitt makes his elaborate preparations to leave the office to go to lunch at the Zenith Athletic Club, he continues to make promises of self-improvement (such as quitting smoking and getting more exercise) that he blatantly and continuously breaks. At least the promises make him "feel exemplary" (p. 48). As he drives, he takes pride in the familiar setting and in his role in it. On impulse, he stops to buy himself an expensive electric cigar-lighter for the car.

At the club, Babbitt makes small talk with Sidney Finkelstein and Vergil Gunch until Paul Riesling arrives. Babbitt hastens away to greet him like a proud and admiring "older brother" (p. 53). In the dining room, Babbitt decides not to sit with his friends, because he wants Paul "to himself" (p. 55). Babbitt confesses to Paul that he sometimes feels dissatisfied with his otherwise complete, successful, and moral life. Paul reacts in strong agreement, describing his resentment for his controlling wife Zilla and suggesting that "this sweet, clean, respectable, moral life isn't all it's cracked up to be" (p. 57). He speculates that many of Zenith's most upstanding men are restless, miserable, and bored with their lives and wives. Though Babbitt counters Paul's claims with appeals to integrity and a work ethic, he begins to agree with Paul in a way that contracts "all his defense of duty and Christian patience," producing a "curious reckless joy" (p. 60). In a fit of rebellion, Babbitt decides that he will scheme to make it possible for himself and Paul to go up to Maine for their annual Babbitt-Riesling trip a few days earlier than their families--for a real vacation.

Chapter VI:

After showing a prospective client a tenement in the Linton district, Babbitt picks up Henry Thompson to find him a discounted Zeeco car from Noel Ryland, a fellow member of the Boosters' Club. Back at the office, he denies Stanley Graff a bonus. He perceives a mocking coldness from his employees as he leaves for the evening.

At the dinner table, George Babbitt argues with his three children about what kind of car to buy, leaving him discouraged again and longing for his trip with Paul. Ted argues that traditional college will only teach him impractical knowledge and that he would be better served by taking correspondence courses designed to teach him the arts of public speaking, toast-making, story-telling, and manliness. Though George is nearly convinced by the many advertisements that Ted has collected, he finally decides that having a B.A. provides too many social advantages to ignore.

In the sun parlor, George reflects that his engagement to Myra was unintentional. He always knew that he did not love her, but he never had the courage to disappoint her. Realizing that she has most likely been as dissatisfied as he has, and admitting that she has been a "Good Wife" (p. 81), he offers her a brief gesture of affection by smoothing her hair.

Analysis

Babbitt's ineptitude, inner conflict, and constant hypocrisy are perhaps most evident in his alleged attempts to quit smoking. He stops smoking "at least once a month" (p. 38) by coming up with a new elaborate plan involving several steps and a very detailed schedule. He does most of what he sets out to do--except stop smoking. He consistently forgets that he has resolved to quit. He even buys himself an electric cigar lighter. This is more than mere hypocrisy. Lewis's biting sarcasm here indicates that Babbitt's behavior is a reflection upon his lack of inner resolve and his inability to determine what he wants and believes.

Appropriately, his professional life is also devoid of integrity and meaning (as well as the self-reflection to make it better). Although he considers himself an honest and competent salesman, Lewis makes it clear through the plot and satire that he is, in fact, regularly unethical in his business dealings and that he does not know nearly "everything about his own city and its environs," despite his claim that this is the "duty and privilege of the realtor" (p. 40). He relies on newspapers and the Church to tell him what to think and believe. His drive toward conformity has completely obliterated his agency as an individual.

Babbitt shows how easily persuaded he is during his conversation with Ted about getting his education by correspondence. Despite the fact that these advertisements, included in full, are the victims of brutal satiric ridicule, he is nearly convinced that with minimal effort and money, his son really can learn the art of "Prosperity and Domination" and can hold all the secrets of a masterful personality. In addition to the ways in which these ads undermine themselves with ludicrous rags-to-riches stories of expensive automobiles and unparalleled social status, Lewis offers an unexpected blow with the address listed on the posting: "Shortcut Educational Pub. Co., Desk, WA, Sandpit, Iowa" (p. 72). These courses offer nothing more than a shortcut to nowhere, and Mrs. Babbitt is the only one sensible enough to notice (although her objections are not acknowledged in Babbitt's final decision) that Ted must go to college in order to attain money and prestige. Far from the decision is any idea that an education is a good in itself as part of an individual's personal development.

The Zenith Athletic Club is subject to a similar brand of satire. Lewis notes that it is "not athletic and it isn't exactly a club" (p. 50). It also has a fireplace without a fire, musicianless musicians, and members who criticize other clubs but join a club the moment they are invited.

Despite the focus on Babbitt's complacent conformity and inept hypocrisy, these chapters also hint at the rebellion that is floating through his consciousness. At lunch with Paul, he reveals that, though he feels guilty about it, he is significantly dissatisfied with his wife and family. He explains that he has fulfilled the requirements of the American Dream ("I've pretty much done all the things I ought to; supported my family, and got a good house and a six-cylinder car, and built up a nice little business... And I belong to the church... and I only associate with good decent fellows" [p. 55]), yet he feels that his life is empty. Paul explains that he, too, is dissatisfied and unhappy, and he suspects that plenty of the other upstanding gentlemen whom they know are in the same position. Their conversation is a reflection on how the merely external aspects of the American Dream, once achieved, leave the superficial person (even the technologically adept person) feeling restless, unhappy, and betrayed.