In this novel, Lewis’s protagonist, Martin Arrowsmith, is much more fully developed—more of a three-dimensional person—than are the characters in his earlier books. From the first, when he is shown as an adolescent, Martin makes mistakes; he is not always the perfect hero. He is, in fact, recognizably human.
The locale (Elk Mills, in the state of Winnemac) represents Lewis’s midwestern roots. There is the inevitable Main Street and the feeling of transition from rural life to that of a small town; there is also the alcoholic Doc Vickerson, who encourages the fourteen-year-old Martin to “study medicine, go to Zenith, and make money.”
Martin goes to the state university as a medical student and has a professor, Dr. Max Gottlieb, who is to influence significantly the rest of his life. He also meets a number of other students who continue as characters throughout the novel. There is Ira Hinkley, the future medical missionary, Angus Duer, the future surgeon, and Clif Clawson, the practical joker, whose dismissal from medical school and subsequent appearance as an automobile salesman give Lewis a fine chance to satirize hucksterism. At this point Martin also meets the love of his life, Leora Tozer, a young nursing student.
As Dr. Gottlieb’s assistant, Martin is becoming very interested in the research area of medicine, but he makes a mistake, argues with Gottlieb, and after a night drinking, tells Dean Silva that he will not apologize, so he is suspended from the university. With little sense of direction, and a lot of drinking, Martin actually becomes a hobo, but he finally heads west to Leora, who has returned to her hometown at her parents’ insistence. Her family opposes their marriage, but they elope, and the Tozers must accept it.
In the flush of graduation and a decision to set up practice in Wheatsylvania (Leora’s hometown), Martin’s devotion to research (and to Max Gottlieb) is temporarily forgotten. Gottlieb has been discharged from the hospital; his wife is ill, and the doctor is nearly at his wit’s end when he is offered a position at a pharmaceutical firm, formerly a target of his scorn. From this time on, Arrowsmith deals largely with the commercial exploitation of scientific findings versus the need for pure research.
When Gottlieb refuses to turn his incomplete research into a salable product, he is fired from Hunziker Pharmaceutical, but he finds a place at the McGurk Institute almost immediately. Lewis criticizes the politics common at such institutions, based on Paul de Kruif’s actual experience at the Rockefeller Institute.
Bored with his small-town practice, Martin obtains a position as second-in-command to the director of public health, Dr. Almus Pickerbaugh, in Nautilus, Iowa, and becomes director himself after Pickerbaugh is elected to Congress, but his role there is short-lived. Next, he obtains a position at Rouncefield Clinic in Chicago, through Angus Duer, and changes his goal of becoming a researcher to becoming a material success. He does qualify this new ambition by thinking that after he has made enough money, he will be able to have his own laboratory. Nevertheless, Lewis makes him very believable in his desire to be a monetary success rather than a man dedicated to pure science who is frustrated at every turn by those holding the purse strings.
A paper published by Martin reaches Gottlieb, who then invites him to McGurk, and the two are reconciled. All goes well despite the factions at the institute. Then the bombshell hits: Martin has been working tirelessly and has made a significant discovery. Those in power, eager to enhance the reputation of the institute, want to make the research public at once. Finally, with Sondelius and Terry Wickett, Martin is able to work on an antidote for bubonic plague just when such a plague is breaking out in the West Indies. Sondelius, Martin, and Leora, who insists on going along, will represent the McGurk Institute, while Gottlieb has been made the director in New York.
Dr. Ira Hinkley, now a medical missionary in the West Indies, returns to the cast of the novel as he tries to thwart Martin’s work by lying about Martin’s days at Winnemac and by referring to the plague as “the wrath of God.” Martin, however, continues his mission and succeeds, although both Sondelius and Leora die. Martin is devastated and returns to New York, little comforted by the success of his research. Max is no longer director of McGurk, and once more there is a conflict between Martin and the new director, who wants immediate publication to glorify the reputation of the institute.
In due time Martin decides to remarry, this time to a wealthy socialite, Joyce Lanyon, whom he had met briefly in the Islands. The marriage does not work out, however, despite the couple’s having a son. Joyce is not unsympathetic to his work, but she is not the ever-patient Leora, who truly understood that science was Martin’s first love, his true passion.
Finally Martin decides to refuse the directorship at McGurk, to get a divorce from Joyce, and to defect to Terry Wickett and a simple life in the woods, dedicated to pure scientific research. It is the most romanticized ending of the four Lewis novels discussed, representing Lewis’s rather naïve notion regarding a person in a natural setting, in the tradition of Huck Finn. In this same sense, it shows Martin as an eager adolescent akin to George Babbitt when he takes his vacation in the Maine woods with Paul, his one true friend.
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