As the city begins to bustle with hordes of men going to work in the huge factories of the city of Zenith, forty-six-year-old George F. Babbitt awakens in his bed on the sleeping-porch in a residential district of Zenith called Floral Heights. Mourning the retreat from his recurrent, romantic dream about a fairy child, he reflects on how very much he detests both "the grind of the real-estate business" (p. 5) and his family. Begrudgingly getting out of bed at his wife's prompting, he considers his home and congratulates himself because it is almost entirely "up-to-date" (p. 6) with all of the modern conveniences and the latest technology. It is entirely "competent and glossy" (p. 15). But it is far too impersonal to be a real home.
As he performs his morning routine, he finds himself increasingly infuriated by the seemingly normal habits of his wife, Myra, and their children. George and Myra have a humorously mundane conversation about the state of George's suits and about their diet as he completes his regimen. George complains about the lack of occupational direction exhibited by Verona and Ted, but briefly viewing the city from his window fills him with inspiration for "the religion of business" (p. 13).
George is uncharacteristically irritable when he goes down to breakfast. The sense of disliking his family returns as he argues with Verona about the ills of socialism and complains about the food. Ted and Verona proceed to argue childishly. George complains to Myra and tries to speak with her about the news, but she is clearly uninformed and uninterested. Though he betrays a moment of tenderness for her and her humbleness, he leaves the house still feeling disenchanted, cranky, and tired.
Disappointed that he had no trouble starting his car as he had expected, he backs out of his garage and enters a conversation with Howard Littlefield about the weather and about the country's need for a real business administration. Babbitt feels calmer and more cheerful after his conversation with Littlefield, and he rediscovers his love for Zenith. Now energized by routine and self-congratulation, he offers a ride to a "respectable-looking man" who is waiting for a trolley car (p. 28) in an act of selfish benevolence. As he drives, Babbitt actively respects the bigness of Zenith and feels "pretty good" (p. 30) by the time he drops off the passenger.
He peacefully enters the Reeves building and goes up to his office, the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company. Then, as he notices his co-worker Stanley Graff fumbling a deal with a client over the phone, he is reminded of the difficulty of finding competent employees. Suddenly, the "zest of the spring morning [is] smothered in the stale office air" (p. 31). Like his house, Babbitt's office is completely up-to-date, but again he is suddenly overcome by a desire to escape to the wilderness.
Babbitt summons Miss McGoun and provides her with a barely comprehensible dictation of a letter to a client for which, in return, she provides him with a blatantly incomprehensible and mistake-ridden final version. For the most part, Babbitt is pleased with the product. As he looks at Miss McGoun, Babbitt is filled with longing and loneliness. These feelings have predominated during his twenty-three years of marriage, and he identifies her with the "fairy girl of his dreams" (p. 35).
The novel opens with a description of the city of Zenith in all of its grandeur. It is a new city, recently built and freshly gleaming, though with remnants of the "fretted structures" of its inferior past. Although the city seems figuratively to rise above the humans who occupy it, Lewis highlights the fact that it is, indeed, the work of humans. People envisioned it and built it, and people run the factories and offices that make it a functioning city. Even so, to Babbitt it exists on a scale entirely beyond average human existence; it is "a city built--it [seems]--for giants" (p. 4).
The rapid shift from the focus on Zenith to a close-up of George Babbitt asleep in his bed, in whose aspect there is "nothing of the giant" (p. 4), establishes a juxtaposition that reveals Babbitt's relative insignificance and characteristic ineffectuality. He is pink, plump, and in a state of utter inaction, which immediately contrasts with the streamlined, metallic bustling of the city. He knows that it is larger than he can be. Even the exciting and romantic dream that he is having (again) about the fairy child is disrupted by the noise of the milk truck, suggesting that there is nothing transcendent in Babbitt's banal life. His is not a world of pleasure and indulgence but material reality, and even his dreams crash against this mundane reality. Such dreams, however, offer the reader a glimpse into Babbitt's inner life--a consciousness that even he does not fully recognize. His dreams and dissatisfactions reveal his longing for a deeper satisfaction. Although we do not yet know what Babbitt has in his life, we already know that it is not quite what he wants.
Shortly afterward, we do learn about what Babbitt has. He has "the best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks" (p. 5), he has an almost entirely modern and up-to-date house, he has several objects that he carries around in his pockets and never uses, and he has a car that represents "poetry and tragedy" (p. 23) to him. In short, he has an overwhelming tendency to worship objects and technology, which offers him fleeting moments of gratification and self-importance. He is a reverent and unknowing slave to the objects that govern his life, and as the novel progresses, it becomes obvious that this infatuation has replaced the potential for meaningful relationships with other people or with his community.
The emptiness of his relationships becomes evident through the extended conversation that he has with his wife, Myra, about which suit to wear. The exchange is utterly devoid of any substance. Similarly, his conversations with other community members revolve around little more than the weather. He finds even the most innocuous behavior of his family (such as using towels) to be completely unbearable, and he is plagued by dissatisfaction and fatigue that only his love for city and technology can temporarily improve. Whatever a fairy girl might give him, perhaps, could be the key he needs to something more, or in Babbitt's hands she could become just a more idealized kind of boring partner.
At the beginning of the novel, we learn that his dissatisfaction at home has just started to appear at work. As co-owner of the Babbitt-Thompson Reality Company, he has previously enjoyed the work of selling real estate for far more than its worth. Now, however, he feels "smothered in the stale office air" (p. 31). With satiric sarcasm, Lewis indicates that not even the new "up-to-date, scientific, and right-thinking" (p. 32) water cooler satisfies him, as it usually would. At work, he is also depicted as somewhat of a bumbling egotist. Shortly after he silently bemoans the fact that his salesmanship is far superior to that of his employees, he dictates an incomprehensible letter for Miss McGoun to type up. When she edits it and makes substantial improvements, he wishes she would "quit trying to improve [his] dictation" (p. 33) and does not notice that the word "Realty" is mistakenly replaced with "Reality." Despite his minor frustration with her, Babbitt cannot help but be attracted to Miss McGoun, with whom he associates the fairy girl of his dreams. In fact, in his twenty-three years of marriage, he has looked longingly on every other beautiful woman he has seen, and though he has never been unfaithful, it is clear that Babbitt wants more than what he has.