Babbitt deploys a series of detailed episodes that critique a whole way of life in a typical American city of its day. The main character, George Babbitt, is depicted as an average middle-aged American, living the good life in the bustling commercial city of Zenith, Ohio. Equipped with a house, car, two children, modern conveniences, modern gadgets, and a healthy bank account, Babbitt finds that the meaning of life has somehow eluded him. Although he is proud of his home and fond of family, he is undergoing a midlife crisis. A successful real estate salesman, he secretly hates himself for using bullying and dishonest tactics in order to make a profit and is stifled by a homogenous group of equally chubby, boisterous businessmen with similar homes and families. The lack of joy and freedom in his life is obvious from the moment he wakes up in his comfortable but somehow soulless household. To all appearances, Babbitt is on top of the world, soon to consolidate his rising business and social status with a speech before the prestigious Real Estate Board. This speech, delivered with bumptious energy and peppered with the folksy slang of the day, is a model of mindless self-congratulation and narrow, know-nothing bigotry. The speech is a resounding success.
Beneath Babbitt’s buoyant, optimistic surface is an emptiness and desolation that is registered at first through the character of his best friend Paul Reisling. Paul, a disaffected roofing...
George F. Babbitt is proud of his house in Floral Heights, one of the most respectable residential districts in Zenith. Its architecture is standardized; its interior decorations are standardized; its atmosphere is standardized. Therein lies its appeal for Babbitt. He bustles about in a tile and chromium bathroom during his morning ritual of getting ready for another day. When he goes down to breakfast, he is as grumpy as usual. It is expected of him. He reads the dull real estate page of the newspaper to his patient wife, Myra. Then he comments on the weather, grumbles at his son and daughter, gulps his breakfast, and starts for his office.
Babbitt is a real estate broker who knows how to handle business with “zip and zowie.” Having closed a deal whereby he forced a poor businessman to buy a piece of property at twice its value, he pockets part of the money and pays the rest to the man who had suggested the enterprise. Proud of his acumen, he picks up the telephone and calls his best friend, Paul Riesling, to ask him to lunch. Paul should have been a violinist, but he has gone into the tar-roofing business in order to support his shrewish wife, Zilla. Lately, she makes it her practice to infuriate doormen, theater ushers, or taxicab drivers and then asks Paul to come to her rescue and fight them like a man. Cringing with embarrassment, Paul pretends that he did not notice the incident. Later, at home, Zilla accuses him of being a coward and a weakling.
Paul’s affairs seem so sad to Babbitt that he suggests a vacation to Maine together—away from their wives. Paul is skeptical, but with magnificent assurance, Babbitt promises to arrange the trip. Paul is humbly grateful. Back in his office, Babbitt refuses a raise for one of his employees. When he gets home, he and his wife decide to give a dinner party with the arrangements taken from the contents of a woman’s magazine and everything edible disguised to look like something else.
The party is a great success. Babbitt’s friends are exactly like Babbitt. They all become drunk on Prohibition-period gin, are disappointed when the cocktails run out, stuff themselves with food, and go home to nurse headaches.
Some time later, Babbitt and Myra pay a call on the Rieslings. Zilla, trying to enlist their sympathy, berates her husband until he is goaded to fury. Babbitt finally tells Zilla that she is a nagging, jealous, sour, and unwholesome wife, and he demands that she allow Paul to go with him to Maine. Weeping in self-pity, Zilla consents. Myra sits calmly during the scene, but later she criticizes Babbitt for bullying Paul’s wife. Babbitt tells her sharply to mind her own business. On the train, Babbitt and Paul meet numerous businessmen who loudly agree with one another that what this country needs is sound business administration. They deplore the price of motor cars, textiles, wheat, and oil; they...
Rebecca West, in her 1922 essay “Babbitt,” makes a statement that encapsulates Lewis’s attitude toward the world of his novel Babitt: “To write satire . . . one must hate the world so much that one’s hatred strikes sparks, but one must hate it only because it disappoints one’s invincible love of it.”
This statement also illustrates strikingly the novelist’s disappointment in its protagonist, Babbitt. Here is a man with a dim perception that what he has accepted as the “good life” is not entirely satisfying; yet he lacks the power to do more than dream of the “fairy child” who beckons him to a better way. For Lewis, George F. Babbitt is the Everyman of his time.
In the real estate business with his father-in-law, Babbitt has convinced himself that he is indispensable as a facilitator. He does not think himself dishonest when he “puts over a deal” whereby a client receives information about a piece of property before the seller is aware of its increased value. He loves his wife, Myra, and their three children, but it is only in times of crisis that he gives them an honest thought. Supposedly a graduate of the state university, Babbitt is really quite ignorant, and in the “poetry” created by one of his fellow Boosters Lewis has created a hilarious put-down of popular taste in the arts through the verses of T. Cholmondeley Frink, who also writes “Ads, that Add.”
George Babbitt thinks that he has many friends, whereas in reality he has but one, Paul Reisling, and it is with Paul on a few days vacation in the Maine woods th Babbitt finds his only true happiness. It is the closeness of a friendship that temporarily frees Babbitt from his boring life in Zenith, but this scene serves also as the author’s insistence that nature has a salutary effect on all human beings, even the silliest. Paul’s wife, Zilla, is a vindictive shrew...