The main thrust of the novel is social satire. The focus of the satire is the novel's theme, for Babbitt's quest for material success never brings him happiness, a fact that even he comes to realize; and although he tries to change his lifestyle, eventually he must return to it because he knows no other way than the kind of mass vulgarity which he both created and, in his sanest moments abhors.
Babbitt has chiefly been understood as a satire of the prosperous, conservative business class of which Babbitt is a prominent member and a perfect example. At a point in the political and social climate where, Lewis felt, private enterprise and the economic interests of the business and ruling classes were valued above cultural endeavors or basic ethics, the novel struck an important critical tone.
The novel has a host of targets for its business satire, and most of them are institutions of which Babbitt is a member or a co-conspirator: the Boosters, the Elks, the Chamber of Commerce, the Good Citizens’ League, the fraudulent financial powers of big cities such as William Eathorne’s bank, and underhand political interests like the Street Traction Company. Lewis stresses that these institutions create a greedy and corrupt business atmosphere in Zenith. They ruin anyone who seems to go against their agenda (as they begin to ruin Babbitt before Myra becomes ill), they are only interested in cultural endeavors like a symphony orchestra if it brings money to the city, and, as becomes clear during the suppressed telephone-workers’ strike, they ruthlessly exploit the working classes.
Lewis also penetrates the deep hypocrisy of conservative American businessmen (that they say one thing and do another). The men of Babbitt’s organizations preach the value of free competition and then ostracize all those who do not hold the same religious and social values, they support Prohibition but frequently drink themselves, they cheat on their wives, they suppress labor unions but organize into pro-business action groups, and they support religious groups like the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) without holding any real Christian convictions.
One of the most condemning features of the American business class as portrayed in Babbitt, however, is its lack of any culture, imagination, or conviction. Babbitt’s beliefs and those of his fellow Boosters and Elks are simply a conglomeration of the day’s presiding commonplaces, and their only reason for holding an opinion is to fit in with their peers. Babbitt seems briefly to encounter some of his actual feelings in the course of the novel, but these “liberal” sentiments come more from a general discontentment he doesn’t understand than from any genuine conviction. Presenting a culturally destitute society controlled by an insensitive and unthinking business class, Lewis launches a biting attack against the predominant American ideology of the 1920s.
Religion, Marriage, and Social Life in the Prohibition Era
Lewis’s satire is not confined to the business world; he exposes many of the contradictions and absurdities in American private life during the era of Prohibition, focusing on family and social life in medium-sized cities such as the fictional Zenith. Ridiculing Babbitt’s passionless marriage, his uninteresting social clubs, and even his depraved yet ultimately unexciting period of rebellion and adultery, Lewis highlights the emptiness of this social world. It is taken for granted that men do not love their wives, that couples rarely enjoy their dinner parties except as a chore, and that parents show a minimum of care or attention to their children. The alternative, emblematized by Tanis Judique and her “Bunch,” is shown to be equally tiresome.
Religion and spirituality in Zenith...
(The entire section contains 943 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Babbitt study guide. You'll get access to all of the Babbitt content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays
- Teaching Guide