” I don’t know what ‘rights’ a man has! And I don’t know the solution of boredom. If I did, I’d be the one philosopher that had the cure for living. But I do know that about one times as many people find their lives dull, and unnecessarily dull, as ever admit it; and I do believe that if we busted out and admitted it sometimes, instead of being nice and patient and loyal for sixty years and then nice and patient and dead for the rest of eternity, why, maybe, possibly, we might make life more fun. ” (Ch. V, Section III, p.59)
The eponymous man of the book, George F. Babbitt, is the original American everyman. The novel follows the house agent’s life during a single day in the opening chapters, where by day he is “busier than a bird-dog, not wasting a lot of good time in day-dreaming or going to sassiety teas or kicking about things that are none of his business, but putting the zip into some store or profession or art.” A real estate agent in the fictional Midwestern city of Zenith, which aspires to out-accomplish New York City and Chicago, Babbitt is obsessed with his standing in the community. He takes beaming satisfaction from his association with prominent local figures, and joins every civic association that will accept him.
What I fight in Zenith is standardization of thought, and, of course, the traditions of competition. The real villains of the piece are the clean, kind, industrious Family Men who use every known brand of trickery and cruelty to insure the prosperity of their cubs. (Ch. Vii, Section III, p.92)
Babbitt really is a satire on conformity, hypocrisy, and ignorance endemic to the American middle class. Upon a closer look, aside from its effort to “boost” business, its comfortable homes replete with modern conveniences, Zenith and its citizens are characterized by a depressing sameness and a vicious competition for social status and wealth. When Babbitt comes to resent the middle-class prison of respectability and hollowness in which he finds himself, striving to find meaning in an existence made trivial by mammon, the novel really takes wing. His revolt resolves itself on his return to society after a period of defiance and ostracism. His adventures, narrated episodically, both raise the hair of society and contradict all his defense of dusty and religious patience. Unfortunately, accomplishing this task—in pursuing to be more human, would take more character than Babbitt possesses and he relapses back into the vacuous rituals he intended to leave behind.
All of them agreed that the working classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. (Ch. XXXIV, Section III, p.347)
Babbitt is a straight-forward satire—a scathing portrait of a crass, materialistic nation. Raising thought-provoking questions while yielding hilarious consequences, and just as relevant today as ever, Babbitt’s quest for meaning and desire to transcend his trivial existence force us to confront the Babbitt in ourselves. Lewis even skewers the “bohemian” alternative to middle-class life, displaying its motivations to be as silly and shallow as those of the middle class it hopes to escape.
369 pp. Barnes & Noble Classics. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]