Author Background

Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 in Minnesota. He was a lonely and withdrawn child who lost his mother when he was only 6. He went to Yale where he wrote for the University magazine. For many years, he drifted, holding odd jobs. Fame came to him with the publication of his first novel, Main Street. With this novel, he established himself as a critic of the romanticized American way of life encountered in Midwestern small towns where pursuit of wealth and conforming to established norms were considered noble.

Relevance of the Title

The hero of the novel George F. Babbitt was a type of character that Sinclair Lewis set out to satirize in his book. Babbitt followed traditions and behavioral patterns blindly even when he had doubts about them. Most readers will recognize in Babbitt someone they know though many decades have passed since the publication of the book.

Main Themes

Family

Though Babbitt displays a lack of understanding of what moves his family, for most part, he is a family man. Family was important in the Midwestern set of values but its superficiality becomes obvious when we see that most men in the novel have affairs on the sly.

Friendship

Babbitt takes pride in the number of friends he has in town. He believes they prop each other up and help their businesses prosper. The hollowness of this belief becomes apparent when Babbitt diverges from the set patterns of conduct. Friends drop him in a hurry. Riesling and Babbitt have a deeper friendship. When Riesling goes to prison, Babbitt is left rudderless.

Satisfaction

Babbitt is satisfied and dissatisfied by turns; it depends on his moods and circumstances. He is not sure of what he wants.

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Characters

George F. Babbitt

Babbitt is a middle aged real estate broker who typifies the average citizen of Zenith. Like the rest of the upper middle class population, he considers the pursuit of wealth, material possessions and membership of select clubs is what makes a man a good citizen of America. But in spite of doing all this, somewhere inside he feels dissatisfied. He is a popular man with a large circle of friends but is closest to his class-mate, Paul Riesling. It is when Riesling is sent to prison for shooting at his wife that Babbitt’s dissatisfaction comes to a head and he embarks on an affair with a client, Tanis Judique. He pitches his lot with her companions who profess liberal politics. Babbitt finds that his friends desert him as word gets around of his new philosophy. Soon, Babbitt is disillusioned with Tanis and her friends. When his wife Myra falls ill with acute appendicitis, Babbitt realizes that non-conformity is difficult to achieve and sustain. He goes back to his earlier routine and his friends accept him again.

Ted Babbitt

For most part of the novel, Ted Babbitt is chasing girls and driving expensive cars. Towards the end, he does the surprise thing – he elopes with Eunice Littlefield and marries her. What makes Babbitt admire his son is the courage he has to go against the mores of the society in Zenith.

Myra Babbitt

She is George’s staid wife who goes through life without having a spark in her. She is devoted to her husband but that does not keep him from straying. She takes the news of his affair with equanimity.

Paul Riesling

He was Babbitt’s friend in college. When young, he wanted to be a professional violinist but as he grew older pitches for a safer career in business. Though he still rues it, he lacks the conviction to follow his heart. To add excitement to his life, he has a long running affair with a woman in another town. His wife is a nag; one day in a burst of anger, he shoots and injures her. For this, he spends three years in prison.

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Summary

George F. Babbitt is a pillar of the society in Zenith. He considers the values he cherishes with the rest of the upper middle gentry will help make them richer and their country strong. Babbitt’s devoted wife is the unimaginative Myra while the children, Ted, Verona and Tinka are a mixed bag. Ted spends his time chasing girls when he is not driving flashy cars. He does not want to do university, a decision that does not please his father. Like all upper middle class men, Babbitt uses his clubs and social occasions to climb the success ladder. His friends support him just like he supports them. Though outwardly everything is fine, somewhere inside him, Babbitt is dissatisfied. Babbitt goes on a camping holiday with his college classmate Paul Riesling, hoping it will clear his mind. Soon after, he hears that Paul has shot and injured his wife Zilla who used to nag him endlessly. Paul is sentenced to a three year term in prison. This unsettles Babbit; with Myra and Tinka leaving to visit relatives, he is left alone to brood. A recurring reverie about “a fairy girl” propels him into an affair with an attractive client. He begins interacting with her friends who are nonconformists like her. Initially he finds all this liberating. But when his friends get to know about his affair, they drop him. Babbitt’s business suffers consequently. He also realizes that the non-conformists have their own rules and conventions. It is Myra’s illness arising out of an infected appendix that forces a rethink. Family is still vital for him and he does not want to neglect his wife. He leaves Tanis and comes back into Zenith’s society. His friends welcome him back with offers of help. His business picks up again. Then comes the sensational news that Ted has eloped with his girlfriend Eunice Littlefield and married her. While there is much criticism of Ted’s hasty marriage in social circles, Babbitt is happy that his son was able to resist society and chose his own path, something he did not do himself.

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Metaphors

Boosters’ Club Button

Babbitt, like the rest of the businessmen in Zenith belongs to the Boosters’ Club. They wear the club button like a badge that proclaims their values and philosophy. The one thing that unites them is their narrow and insular concerns. It makes the club button appear like a flag that proclaims their conformity.

Fairy Child

This is a reverie that Babbitt had from time to time. The Fairy Child made him feel young and gallant. For a long time it remains a harmless dream but as time goes and middle age catches up, he begins looking for the fairy child in the women around him. Soon, he believes that Tanis Judique is his fairy child in flesh and plunges into an affair with her.

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