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Well, you can certainly begin with eNotes extensive research on the subject of Babbitt. (See the link included below.) In addition to that, I have some original ideas that might help with interest level:
I always teach excerpts of Babbitt in conjunction with The Great Gatsby because they focus on the very same time period: The Roaring Twenties, a time when both materialism and consumerism abounded in American society. On the very first day of my unit, I have the students turn to these particular excerpts and we discuss how each one reveals middle class participation in consumerism (the theory that increasing simple consumption of goods is economically desirable). The characteristics of consumerism are as follows: parallels an obsession with buying, found at a time of prosperity, almost synonymous with materialism, advocates buying for sheer pleasure, goes hand and hand with promotion of the consumer's interests.
Here are a few (ridiculous) examples that are fun to discuss with students:
Babbitt hadn't even any satisfaction in the new water-cooler! And it was the very best of water-coolers, up-to-date, scientific, and right-thinking. It had cost a great deal of money (in itself a virtue). It possessed a non-conducting fiber ice-container, a porcelain water-jay (guaranteed hygienic), a dripless non-clogging sanitary faucet, and machine-painted decoration in two tones of gold. He looked down at the relentless stretch of tiled floor at the water cooler, and assured himself that no tenant of the Reeves Building had a more expensive one, but he could not recapture the feeling of social superiority it had given him. (Lewis 34)
Babbitt stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was; admitted the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to everyone he met. he did everything, in fact, except stop smoking. (40)
But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church . . . He followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery. (46)
Babbitt, the plump, smooth, efficient, up-to-the-minute and otherwise perfected modern. . . . He knew himself to be of breeding altogether more aesthetic and sensitive than Thompson's. He was a collage graduate, he played golf, he often smoked cigarettes instead of cigars, and when he went to Chicago he took a room with a private bath. (69)
Babbitt cut two tufts of wild grass with his wife's largest dressmaking scissors; he informed Ted that it was all nonsense having a furnace-man, "big husky fellow like you ought to do all the work around the house" and privately he meditated that it was agreeable to have it known throughout the neighborhood that he was so prosperous that his son never worked around the house. (73)
Though he saw them twice daily, though he knew and amply discussed every detail of their expenditures, yet for weeks together Babbitt was no more conscious of his children than of the buttons on his coat-sleeves. (224)
If you couple these examples with current examples of consumerism (that the students can provide for you), a heated discussion always develops. Have fun! : )
Like most novels now, lesson plans are available all over the Internet, usually through a paid site. I've always found those kinds of pre-packaged plans lacking, however. You're the best judge of your students-what works for someone else won't necessarily work for you too. It seems like the trouble stems from your students reactions to the book, & it doesn't really sound like something a different lesson plan will help.
Babbitt is a great novel to discuss with students now, especially with the economic climate of the country. You could focus on how Lewis satirizes the "middle class values": focus on materialism, distance in all relationships, desire to keep up with the Johnsons, etc. If your students aren't responding, talk about what they think is missing. What is in the novel that isn't relevant today? Then you can use that as a starting point to show its relevancy. Also, I have a feeling that every student knows someone like Babbitt, who was idealistic in his youth until he found a comfortable job and comfortable life. So exactly how do wealth and material goods affect us? Can we be changed through money? All of these would probably spark interest in a seemingly irrelevant book written in the 1920's.
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