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 salesman, is unhappily married to a woman who personifies the most venal and self-serving aspects of Zenith. When Paul finally attempts to murder the exasperating Zilla, Babbitt loses heart, seeing in Paul’s gesture some of his own sense of despair and entrapment. Babbitt begins to understand more clearly the falsity of his life and tries to change by launching an affair with Tanis Judique, a free spirit who introduces him to a bohemian set of friends. This new life, however, brings Babbitt little pleasure; he is still restless and discontented and begins to suspect his rebellion is a typical, empty middle-class gesture that does little to change the status quo. When his wife Myra becomes ill, he returns to the security of his home with some relief and joins The Good Citizens League, an intolerant group of white Protestant businessmen devoted to a narrow “Americanism.”
Babbitt’s cultural identity has lent his name to the language; a Babbitt is a smug, middle-class conformist. Babbitt returns meekly to the fold but has enough spirit left at the end of the novel to urge his son to resist the social pressures and codes of his day and to be true to himself.
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,...
(The entire section is 2,735 words.)