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 swear that they have not an ounce of race prejudice; they blame communism and socialism for labor unions that get out of hand. Paul soon tires of the discussion and goes to bed. Babbitt stays up late, smoking countless cigars and telling countless stories.
Maine has a soothing effect upon Babbitt. He and Paul fish and hike in the quiet of the north woods, and Babbitt begins to realize that his life in Zenith is not all it should be. He promises himself a new outlook on life—a more simple, less hurried way of living.
Back in Zenith, Babbitt is asked to...
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make a speech at a convention of real estate men, which is to be held in Monarch, a nearby city. He writes a speech contending that real estate men should be considered professionals and called realtors. At the meeting, he declaims loudly that real estate is a great profession, that Zenith is God’s own country—the best little spot on earth—and to prove his statements, he quotes countless statistics on waterways, textile production, and lumber manufacture. The speech is such a success that Babbitt instantly wins recognition as an orator.
Babbitt is made a precinct leader in the coming election. His duty is to speak to small labor groups about the inadvisability of voting for Seneca Doane, a liberal, in favor of a man named Prout, a solid businessman who represents the conservative element. Babbitt’s speeches help to defeat Doane. He is very proud of himself.
On a business trip to Chicago, Babbitt spies Paul sitting at dinner with a middle-aged and pretty woman. Later, in his hotel room, Babbitt indignantly demands an explanation for Paul’s lack of morality. Paul tells Babbitt that he can no longer stand living with Zilla. Babbitt, feeling sorry for his friend, swears that he will keep Paul’s secret from Zilla. Privately, Babbitt envies Paul’s independence. Babbitt is made vice president of the Booster’s Club. He is so proud of himself that he brags loudly when his wife calls him at the office. It is a long time before he understands what she is trying to tell him: Paul shot his wife, Zilla is still alive, and Paul is in prison.
Babbitt’s world collapses about him. He begins to question his ideas about the power of the dollar. Paul is perhaps the only person Babbitt ever loved. Myra long since became a habit, and the children are too full of new ideas to be close to their father. Babbitt suddenly feels alone. He begins to criticize the minister’s sermons. He no longer visits the Athletic Club and rarely eats lunch with any of his business acquaintances. One day, the pretty widow Mrs. Judique comes to his office and asks him to find her a flat. Babbitt joins her circle of Bohemian friends. He drinks more than ever. He spends money wildly. Two of the most powerful men in town request that he join the Good Citizen’s League—or else. Babbitt refuses to be bullied. For the first time in his life, he is a human being. He makes friends with his archenemy, Doane, and discovers that he likes his liberal ideas. He praises Doane publicly. Babbitt’s new outlook on life appeals to his children, who at once began to respect him as they never have before. Babbitt, however, becomes unpopular among his business-boosting friends. When he again refuses to join the Good Citizen’s League, he is snubbed in the streets. Gradually, Babbitt finds that he has no real resources within himself. He is miserable.
When Myra becomes ill, Babbitt suddenly realizes that he loves his colorless wife. He breaks with Mrs. Judique and joins the Good Citizen’s League. By the time Myra is well again, there is no more active leader in the town of Zenith than George F. Babbitt. Once more he announces his distrust of Doane. He becomes the best booster the club ever had. His last gesture of revolt is private approval of his son’s elopement. Outwardly he conforms.