Through portrayals of religious leaders in Babbitt, Lewis comments on the relative lack of real, substantive piety in 1920s America. Although church membership remained high during this decade, the depth of commitment to spiritual matters was waning among many. For them, science and technology became the ascendant gods of the era, and machines had so revolutionized American life that many segments of American culture experienced a shift in values. Whereas spirituality used to provide the main source of meaning and explanation for these groups, science was now taken as a powerful tool for understanding the world, and these people lost a great deal of their interest in the transcendent. In Babbitt, religion becomes merely a vehicle for social conformity, and it no longer provides the spiritual guidance that Babbitt and others seem to need. Both the loss of religion and the rise of amoral technology contribute to the void that Babbitt seeks to fill.
Lewis uses biting satire to demonstrates the relative absence of real religion and the hypocrisy surrounding much of the social practice of it. Babbitt claims that his membership in the church is very important to him, but we learn immediately thereafter that he does not really understand or practice his religion--he cannot explain his own religious beliefs, and he is completely unfamiliar with the Bibie. He "worships" only science and technology and leaves very little room for even the appearance of religion. When he later becomes involved with fundraising for the church, his relationship with religion becomes entirely commercial. His self-proclaimed plans for a sort of "Christian Incorporated" encapsulate how far removed his religiosity is from any form of spirituality.
The novel's leading religious figures are portrayed with even greater satire. Mike Monday (a very thinly veiled reference to Billy Sunday, a baseball player turned evangelist) delivers a parody of religious oratory that is viciously unreligious. He vulgarly comments on his foul-mouthed dissenters. He does not deny the claim that he became an evangelist for the money. In fact, there is not a single moment of his speech that bears any recognizable relationship to genuine religion. Even his final benediction seems completley incongruous. Though Dr. Drew is praised for the "intellectual quality" of his sermons, the one that Lewis offers is a wash of vacuous optimism without any substantive message. The same is true of Mrs. Mudge's sermon, which mesmerizes the audience but provides no actual ideas or guidance.
Worship of Science and Technology
The religious void characteristic of many in post-war America was partly created and partly refilled by a worship of science and technology, as Babbitt portrays. Babbitt is enamored of his "best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks, with all the modern attachments" (p. 5), and he is obsessed with the idea of his house being modern and up-to-date. He even usually derives pleasure from the newest water-cooler in his office. It does not matter what the object is; Babbitt primarily responds to how technologically advanced it is. The intelligence of the design and the refinement of technological objects provide Babbitt with a sense of meaning and self-worth that he does not find anywhere else. In his sleek car, he feels streamlined and smart. He even considers the pickup of the engine a reflection on himself in a way that is presented as unequivocally ludicrous. Babbitt's infatuation with the city of Zenith is another facet of this worship of science and technology.
Being surrounded by technologically modern objects and structures of modern society is one of the only things that provides Babbitt with any strong sense of satisfaction. But this satisfaction is existentially empty, even beyond the relative absence of religion. For instance, for many people this world is also devoid of meaningful human relationships.
Babbitt seeks different forms of escape. Unable to fill the spiritual void that leaves him fatigued and dissatisfied, he searches for things outside of himself that, unfortunately, only temporarily provide distraction and give just an illusion of fulfillment. Babbitt views nature as an escape from the daily grind, providing a way to clear his mind of all of the troubles and anxiety of modern life. He escapes to the woods of Maine with Paul (and, later, by himself) when he can no longer bear the reality of his existence.
Bohemianism is another form of escape for Babbitt. He uses the parties, the dancing, the alcohol, and even the hangovers to distract himself from his greater sense of unhappiness and the emptiness of his life. Finally, liberalism also becomes a form of escape. He devotes himself to a cause when other forms of escapism fail, and though his commitment to politics is weak and his inner conflict over the issues is great, he latches onto Seneca Doane briefly in order to find some kind of guidance, some kind of order and meaning in his actions.
For Babbitt, nature promises more than an escape. Though Babbitt does not worship nature in itself, it promises rejuvenation, restoration, relaxation, and a return to basic human pleasures. Throughout the first section of the novel, he yearns for his trip to Maine with Paul, where he expects to be entirely cured of the nagging sense of dissatisfaction that is making him exhausted and irritable.
Even so, nature in Babbitt's eyes seems somewhat two-dimensional and undeveloped. Whereas the city of Zenith is powerful to him, the woods only seem to exist when Paul and Babbitt are in them. The natural world, for him, is mainly a place for human indulgence and luxury.
Babbitt also seems to have no place in nature. In Maine, he has the pink skin of a man who spends every moment indoors. Yet, he returns early from his final trip to Zenith (the trip that he thought would be a permanent move) because he realizes that he has too entirely internalized the habits and rhythms of city life.
Babbitt as Quixote
A quixote, as literary critic Martin Light explains it, is someone who transforms what he sees to fit the vision of the world projected by what he reads. The quixote is romantic, imaginative, fanciful, adventuresome, and given to enchantment. Despite the routine banality of his daily life, Babbitt is a character who expresses the underlying, unconscious dreams of a quixote. It seems that every time his head hits the pillow, it is filled with images of frolicking through fields and groves with a young and beautiful fairy girl. He looks for (and thinks that he finds) the fairy girl in many of the beautiful women he meets, and, like a true romantic, he maintains a belief (in spite of his passionless marriage) that a woman he can love and be truly intimate with really does exist. He uses his imagination to convince himself that Tanis is this woman.
Babbitt's mind is shaped by reading poetry and editorials, and he keeps a copy of one of his favorite poems by Chum Frink in his wallet. Even his bathtime playfulness and the enchantment that he feels when beholding Zenith reveal the imagination and rich mental world of a quixote. Martin Light claims that we can find in the work of Sinclair Lewis the "perennial conflict between romance and realism" (p. vii), and he is correct in the case of Babbitt.
Many characters in Babbitt suffer from a sense of unease and dissatisfaction resulting from their acknowledgment that they have abandoned the ideals of their youth. Paul Riesling is perhaps the most powerful example, since he seems to regret daily that he did not fulfill his dream of going to Europe and studying the violin. He is unable even to look at an ocean liner without nearly having an emotional breakdown, because he is so distraught by this sense of missed opportunity. Chum Frink also expresses remorse over his career choices. As he stumbles by Babbitt's house, completely drunk, he speaks with agitation about the poet who he wanted and had the potential to be but never became. He realizes that he will never fulfill the expectations that he once held for himself, and this is a deep source of dissatisfaction for him.
Babbitt had dreams of becoming a liberal, progressive lawyer and politician. When at the end of the novel he finally recognizes the fulfillment of one's ideals is one source of life's meaning, he urges Ted not to make the same mistake of giving up on his dreams.
The Emptiness of the American Dream
In many ways, Babbitt points out a possible emptiness if not also a betrayal in the American Dream. According to popular opinion, George Babbitt should be a very happy man. He is successful, has a family, has a nice house and car, belongs to an elite club, and is a respected salesman. Together, these elements constitute the fulfillment of many essentials of the American Dream. Yet, as Babbitt explains to Paul over lunch, despite the fact that he has everything he ought to have and everything that he has been taught to want, he feels empty and dissatisfied. The attainment of wealth, power, and possessions leaves him with a spiritual void and without meaningful connections to others or to the larger community. Wealth and power do not necessarily signal virtue. The outward signs of success are not enough.
Thus the novel, though it is a realistic portrait of a single man, also speaks to broader cultural themes. It suggests that striving to fulfill some of the American ideals without others will leave a person in constant longing for the remaining elements, but inattention to those ideals will mean that a person is seeking something he cannot understand. Babbitt is never able to consciously name the thing that he wants. Nevertheless, he passes along to Ted his partial ideal, that of pursuing one's individual vision of success. Ted represents the next generation and, perhaps, a new hope for a more full appreciation and achievement of the American Dream.
Babbitt Questions and Answers
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