Babbitt (novel)
Babbitt, first published in 1922
1922 in literature
The year 1922 in literature involved some significant events and new books.Under the current U.S. copyright law, all works published before January 1, 1923 with a proper copyright notice entered the public domain no later than 75 years from the date of the copyright...

, is a novel by Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis
Harry Sinclair Lewis was an American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. In 1930, he became the first writer from the United States to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of...

. Largely a satire
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...

 of American culture, society, and behavior, it critiques the vacuity
Vacuity can refer to:*Emptiness*Śūnyatā, the Buddhist term about the impermanent nature of form*Vacuity , an alternative rock band from Kitchener, Ontario...

 of middle-class American life and its pressure on individuals toward conformity
Conformity is the process by which an individual's attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are influenced by other people.Conformity may also refer to:*Conformity: A Tale, a novel by Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna...


As is indicated in many editions of the book, the working title
Working title
A working title, sometimes called a production title, is the temporary name of a product or project used during its development, usually used in filmmaking, television production, novel, video game, or music album.-Purpose:...

 of Babbitt was Pumphrey.


The book takes its name from the principal character, George F. Babbitt, a middle-aged partner
A partnership is an arrangement where parties agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests.Since humans are social beings, partnerships between individuals, businesses, interest-based organizations, schools, governments, and varied combinations thereof, have always been and remain commonplace...

, with his father-in-law, in a real-estate firm. When the story begins, in April 1920, Babbitt is 46 years old. He has a wife, Myra; three children (Verona, 22; Ted, 17; and Tinka, 10); and a well-appointed house in the prosperous Floral Heights neighborhood of “Zenith,” a fictitious city in the equally fictitious state of “Winnemac,” which is adjacent to Ohio
Ohio is a Midwestern state in the United States. The 34th largest state by area in the U.S.,it is the 7th‑most populous with over 11.5 million residents, containing several major American cities and seven metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more.The state's capital is Columbus...

, Indiana
Indiana is a US state, admitted to the United States as the 19th on December 11, 1816. It is located in the Midwestern United States and Great Lakes Region. With 6,483,802 residents, the state is ranked 15th in population and 16th in population density. Indiana is ranked 38th in land area and is...

, and Michigan
Michigan is a U.S. state located in the Great Lakes Region of the United States of America. The name Michigan is the French form of the Ojibwa word mishigamaa, meaning "large water" or "large lake"....

. (Babbitt does not mention Winnemac by name, but Lewis's later novel Arrowsmith
Arrowsmith (novel)
Arrowsmith is a novel by American author and playwright Sinclair Lewis that was published in 1925. It won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Lewis but he refused to accept it. Lewis was greatly assisted in its preparation by science writer Dr. Paul de Kruif, who received 25% of the royalties on sales, but...

elaborates on its location.) When Babbitt was published, newspapers in Cincinnati
Cincinnati, Ohio
Cincinnati is a city in the U.S. state of Ohio. Cincinnati is the county seat of Hamilton County. Settled in 1788, the city is located to north of the Ohio River at the Ohio-Kentucky border, near Indiana. The population within city limits is 296,943 according to the 2010 census, making it Ohio's...

; Duluth
Duluth, Minnesota
Duluth is a port city in the U.S. state of Minnesota and is the county seat of Saint Louis County. The fourth largest city in Minnesota, Duluth had a total population of 86,265 in the 2010 census. Duluth is also the second largest city that is located on Lake Superior after Thunder Bay, Ontario,...

; Kansas City
Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City, Missouri is the largest city in the U.S. state of Missouri and is the anchor city of the Kansas City Metropolitan Area, the second largest metropolitan area in Missouri. It encompasses in parts of Jackson, Clay, Cass, and Platte counties...

; Milwaukee; and Minneapolis
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis , nicknamed "City of Lakes" and the "Mill City," is the county seat of Hennepin County, the largest city in the U.S. state of Minnesota, and the 48th largest in the United States...

 each claimed that their city was the model for Sinclair's Zenith. Cincinnati possessed perhaps the strongest argument for such a claim, because Lewis had lived there for a time while researching Babbitt. Lewis's own correspondence suggests, however, that Zenith is meant to be any Midwestern
Midwestern United States
The Midwestern United States is one of the four U.S. geographic regions defined by the United States Census Bureau, providing an official definition of the American Midwest....

 city with a population between about 200,000 and 300,000. Zenith's chief virtue is conformity, and its religion is “boosterism
Boosterism is the act of "boosting," or promoting, one's town, city, or organization, with the goal of improving public perception of it. Boosting can be as simple as "talking up" the entity at a party or as elaborate as establishing a visitors' bureau. It is somewhat associated with American small...

.” Prominent boosters in Zenith include Vergil Gunch, the coal-dealer; Sidney Finkelstein, the ladies'-ready-to-wear buyer for Parcher & Stein's department-store; Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey, owner of the Riteway Business College and “instructor in Public Speaking, Business English, Scenario Writing, and Commercial Law;” and T. Cholmondeley "Chum" Frink, a famous poet of dubious talent.

Babbitt is professionally successful as a realtor. He lives with only the vaguest awareness of the lives and deaths of his contemporaries. Much of his energy in the beginning is spent on climbing the social ladder through booster functions, real estate sales, and making good with various dignitaries. Lewis paints humorous scenes of Babbitt foolishly bartering for liquor (illegal at the time because of Prohibition
Prohibition of alcohol, often referred to simply as prohibition, is the practice of prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, import, export, sale, and consumption of alcohol and alcoholic beverages. The term can also apply to the periods in the histories of the countries during which the...

), hosting dinner parties, and taking clients to view property. All of this is juxtaposed against backdrops of Babbitt's incessant materialism
In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance...

 and his growing discontent.

Gradually, Babbitt realizes his dissatisfaction with "The American Dream" and attempts to quell these feelings by going camping with his close friend and old college roommate Paul Reisling in Maine
Maine is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and south, New Hampshire to the west, and the Canadian provinces of Quebec to the northwest and New Brunswick to the northeast. Maine is both the northernmost and easternmost...

. It has no great effect. After Paul shoots his abrasive, emasculating wife Zilla during an argument, Paul is sent to prison, and Babbitt is devastated by the loss of his best friend and by his contemplations on how equally suffocating and changeless their lives are. In time, he rebels against it all: he jumps into liberal politics with famous socialist
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

 litigator Seneca Doane; conducts an extramarital affair with client Tanis Judique; goes on various vacations; and cavorts around Zenith with would-be Bohemians and flappers, friends of Tanis. But each effort ends up disillusioning him to the concept of rebellion, as when Babbitt vacations in Chicago and encounters Paul's alleged mistress. On his excursions with Tanis and "the Bunch," he learns that even they have just as rigid standards for their subculture. And when Virgil Gunch and others discover Babbitt's activities concerning Seneca Doane and Tanis Judique, Virgil tries to convince Babbitt to return to conformity. Babbitt refuses. His former friends then ostracize him, forming the "Good Citizens' League," which boycott
A boycott is an act of voluntarily abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for political reasons...

s Babbitt's real estate ventures and shuns him publicly from clubs around town.

Babbitt slowly becomes aware that his forays into nonconformity are not only futile but also destructive of the life and the friends he once loved. Yet he continues with them — that is, until Myra suspects Babbitt's affair, though she has no proof or specific knowledge. Unrelated to these events, Myra falls seriously ill. Babbitt, in a near-epiphany, rushes home and relinquishes all rebellion in order to care for his wife, realizing that there is value in marriage even though it not be romanticized or passionate love. In short time, his old friends and colleagues welcome Babbitt back into the fold. The consequence of his disgruntled philosophical wanderings being met with practical events of life, he reverts into dispassionate conformity by the end; however, Babbitt never quite loses hold of the sentimentality, empathy, and hope for a meaningful life which he has developed. In the final scene, all has been righted in his life and he is back on a traditional track. He is awakened in the night to find that Ted and Eunice have not returned from a party. In the morning his wife informs him that the two have been discovered in the house, having been married that night. While an assemblage of friends and family gather to denounce this development, Babbitt excuses himself and Ted to be alone. He offers his approval of the marriage stating that though he does not agree he admires the fact that Ted has chosen to lead his life by his own lights and not that of conformity.

Themes and structure

The novel is divided roughly into thirds. The first seven chapters follow Babbitt closely through a typical workday, from his restless dreaming before he awakens in the morning to his struggle to fall asleep that night. The middle third of the novel reveals Babbitt in various settings: on vacation, attending a business convention, campaigning for the conservative mayoral candidate, giving dinner parties, giving speeches, attempting (in vain) to climb socially, serving as a member of the Sunday School Advisory Committee of the Chatham Road Presbyterian Church, and so on. This section of the novel has drawn criticism about the thread of the plot becoming lost; critics have argued that Lewis seems to move aimlessly from one set-piece to another. The final third of the novel reprises the pattern of Babbitt's midlife crisis
Midlife Crisis
"Midlife Crisis" is a song by the American rock band Faith No More. It was released on May 26, 1992 as the first single from their fourth album, Angel Dust...

: He rebels, is “punished,” and “repents (conforms),” but, toward the end of the story, the possibility of redemptive change is implied in the rebelliousness of Babbitt's son.

Though written well before the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

, the New Deal
New Deal
The New Deal was a series of economic programs implemented in the United States between 1933 and 1936. They were passed by the U.S. Congress during the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The programs were Roosevelt's responses to the Great Depression, and focused on what historians call...

, World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, and the post-war economic boom, Lewis's comic novel
Comic novel
A comic novel is a work of fiction in which the writer not only seeks to amuse the reader, but also to make the reader think about controversial issues, sometimes with subtlety and as part of a carefully woven narrative; sometimes, above all other considerations...

 has remained popular into the 21st century. Critics have posed reasons for the book's continuing accessibility to include Lewis's seeming success in identifying and portraying emotions, challenges, and concerns that remain relatively viable over time. By the 1920s, the United States was already concluding the process described by historian Olivier Zunz as “making America corporate.”

Historically significant is the author's use, throughout, of the political word “liberal
Liberalism is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally, liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights,...

.” The book was written not long after the project of “new liberalism
New liberalism
New Liberalism is a book by Matthew Kalkman that examines the evolution of Liberalism from its early beginnings to its potential future incarnations. The author argues that New Liberalism is the next step in this evolution: the notion that, in order for a society to be maintained and to evolve, it...

” began, and the term had not yet congealed in the United States as a definition of a specific brand of ideology
An ideology is a set of ideas that constitutes one's goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things , as in common sense and several philosophical tendencies , or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to...

 belonging to centre left-wing politics
Left-wing politics
In politics, Left, left-wing and leftist generally refer to support for social change to create a more egalitarian society...

. Babbitt’s warped interpretation of the word, and his (and other characters’) equally skewed practical application of it, are examples of one of the humorous literary devices in which Lewis uses satire to illustrate and simplify complex ideas.


Babbitt was filmed in 1924 as a silent film
Silent film
A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially with no spoken dialogue. In silent films for entertainment the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, pantomime and title cards...

, with Willard Louis
Willard Louis
Willard Louis was an American film actor and director of the silent era. He appeared in 81 films between 1911 and 1926 and he directed 82 films between 1912 and 1916....

 as George Babbitt, and again in 1934 as a talkie
Sound film
A sound film is a motion picture with synchronized sound, or sound technologically coupled to image, as opposed to a silent film. The first known public exhibition of projected sound films took place in Paris in 1900, but decades would pass before sound motion pictures were made commercially...

, with Guy Kibbee
Guy Kibbee
Guy Bridges Kibbee was an American stage and film actor.Born in El Paso, Texas, Kibbee began his entertainment career on Mississippi riverboats and eventually became a successful Broadway actor...

 in the title role. Both films were Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., also known as Warner Bros. Pictures or simply Warner Bros. , is an American producer of film and television entertainment.One of the major film studios, it is a subsidiary of Time Warner, with its headquarters in Burbank,...


External links

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