Babbitt is primarily a satire that exposes the emptiness and discontent in the life of its main character, but it is not always clear that Babbitt’s life has no value or meaning. From his occasional pleasant drive to his self-satisfaction with his rise in the social hierarchy, Babbitt sometimes revels in and enjoys his conformity. He has moments of bonding with his children, particularly with Ted, although the children can seldom hold his interest. Although he finds his wife distasteful, he sometimes feels a passionless affection for her. And the various aspects of his rebellion, such as his relationship with Tanis, are initially very exciting until they are revealed to be nothing more than unsuccessful attempts at escapism.
All other relationships fade, however, in comparison to Babbitt’s one worthwhile relationship, with the one person around whom Babbitt feels truly and consistently happy. Paul Riesling is not only Babbitt’s best friend; he represents all that is genuine and valuable in Babbitt’s life, a fact that Babbitt himself acknowledges after Paul is given a three-year prison sentence: “Babbitt returned to his office to realize that he faced a world which, without Paul, was meaningless.” With Paul “dead” to him, Babbitt loses the only person around whom he can express his real thoughts and be silent and calm, and he can no longer face his family or the business world. Babbitt is willing to perjure himself for Paul, ignoring the effect this would have on his career and social status. Paul’s imprisonment sparks a major mid-life rebellion in which Babbitt overturns nearly all of his beliefs and habits to escape his now “meaningless” existence.
Lewis is careful to emphasize that Paul is a misfit whose sensitivity, lack of business acumen, and inability to endure his wife are incompatible with the standardized business world of Zenith. Indeed, the satirist seems eager to stress that Paul represents the genuine side of Babbitt that cannot conform to his outward life. Just as Zilla is a foil (a character whose purpose is to reveal something about another character) that emphasizes the vain, insecure, and nagging aspects of Myra that repel her husband and do not fit into Zenith domestic life, Paul is a foil for his best friend. Lewis makes this point most overtly after Babbitt’s visit to Paul in prison:
Babbitt knew that in this place of death Paul was already dead. And as he pondered on the train home something in his own self seemed to have died: a loyal and vigorous faith in the goodness of the world, a fear of public disfavor, a pride in success.
Paul does not embody these characteristics, but he has always been the one to reveal them in Babbitt. So, in order to drive the plot and test Babbitt’s character, Lewis imprisons him and removes him from Babbitt’s struggle. Paul is an expendable device in Lewis’s satire, which needs to demonstrate that Zenith has no place for him, that Paul’s genuineness, his “moodiness, his love of music,” and his inability to conform are incompatible with Lewis’s satirical vision. The author seems intent on refuting the possibility of a meaningful relationship for someone like Babbitt, although this is initially a realistic possibility. As D. J. Dooley observes in his book The Art of Sinclair Lewis, it is after Paul’s imprisonment that this possibility is extinguished, the plot begins to fail, and the storyline loses its vitality:
But in the melodramatic story of how Babbitt, now a hero, battles his former friends, now villains, the characters are simple and unreal, the plot is full of improbabilities, and Lewis does not come close to pulling it off.
This is because Lewis has abandoned Babbitt’s central hope and purpose, turning the struggle of his main character into a desperate but ultimately futile attempt at escapism. The futility of the...
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