Babbitt By Sinclair Lewis Summary and Analysis Chapter 5

Summary

Before leaving the office for lunch, Babbitt hustles about importantly, giving unnecessary instructions to his employees. He lights a cigar, forgetting that he has just determined to give up smoking, and despite his many resolutions to get more exercise, he decides to drive to lunch, rather than walk three blocks.

Summary

Before leaving the office for lunch, Babbitt hustles about importantly, giving unnecessary instructions to his employees. He lights a cigar, forgetting that he has just determined to give up smoking, and despite his many resolutions to get more exercise, he decides to drive to lunch, rather than walk three blocks.

As Babbitt rides through the busy downtown area, he observes the buildings and streets with fond familiarity. The city is really no different from many others throughout America, but to him it is unique and a source of pride. While driving, he reviews the morning's transactions with pleasure and evaluates his financial condition. He feels that his income is more than sufficient, but also that his family is guilty of much foolish and wasteful spending. Despite his decision to cut out needless expenses, he stops and purchases a costly electric cigar lighter for the car, feeling that even if he does stop smoking, this would be an impressive luxury to show his friends and clients.

Babbitt's luncheon appointment is at the Zenith Athletic Club, to which he and Paul both belong. It is the second most exclusive club in the city and all the most respectable business and professional men are members. Eventually Paul arrives, and when he and Babbitt enter the dining room, they are greeted boisterously by all their friends and are teased unmercifully when they decide to sit alone.

Despite his resolution to diet, Babbitt orders a heavy, fattening lunch. While eating, he and Paul discuss business and politics until Paul finally confesses that Zilla, his wife, is still nagging him and that, as a result, he is beginning to despise her. He cites a few recent examples of his wife's cruelty and states that he is not satisfied with his life anyway, particularly because he always wanted to be a violinist and not a manufacturer. He longs to leave Zilla, but lacks the courage to do so. Babbitt and Paul have been friends since college and have a strong friendship. Although they are the same age, Babbitt has always viewed Paul as a younger brother and constantly seeks to provide him with a strong shoulder to lean upon. Now he gives Paul a good deal of conventional, moralistic advice that is of little real value, but nonetheless Paul gains confidence and faith from this display of friendship. Babbitt also tells Paul about the strange yearnings and feelings of discontent that he has been having lately. At Paul's suggestion, the two men decide that they will precede their families to Maine on their summer vacations in order to share some time together.

Analysis

Babbitt's club, the Zenith Athletic Club, is filled with fellow nonathletic Babbitts who use the club merely as a place to eat and talk. Clearly, the Zenith Athletic Club, like its members, is not what it appears to be. The members are not really friends; they are mechanized things. They are talking accessories of their mechanized houses, mechanically conversing with one another. Babbitt obviously needs them, but only in the way that he needs other mechanized things.

Concerning real people, Babbitt does have a need for one person in particular: Paul Riesling. Paul is an old friend and, in Babbitt's opinion, Paul could have been a great violinist or painter, but failed. Had he been successful in either of those fields, however, Babbitt would probably have had nothing to do with him. But, as it is, the two men are friends because they are contrasts — Babbitt, a successful businessman but a failure as a mature, independent-thinking man; and Paul, a moderately successful businessman but a failure as an artist. Paul is slim and is characterized by his hesitant speech; Babbitt is pudgy, pink, and characterized by his positive, hollow declamations. Thus Paul is, besides an old friend, a man whom Babbitt can feel infinitely superior to, can afford charity to, can excuse to his friends on grounds of everlasting friendship, and can confide in without feeling silly, weak, or inferior.

Babbitt confides to Paul about a matter that he can discuss with no other man: something is wrong. Babbitt is a success, has gained every material goal — nice house, nice car — and his family is exemplary (at least on the surface), yet Babbitt is unsatisfied. Paul, however, cannot help Babbitt. Paul calls Babbitt a "simp" (simpleton; a fool), then rails non-stop about his own life being unbearable. Ironically, it is Babbitt who must finally nurse Paul back into good nature. The confession scene is reversed. It is Babbitt who is left to heal himself, and he does so by lecturing Paul on "a man's duty" (magic words, to Babbitt, meaning "work hard and don't worry").

Far from being helped by his friend Paul, Babbitt is left frightened, yet thrilled. Paul's reckless mood is dangerous; Babbitt has dared Paul to kick out — to try and grab some real joy for himself. Vicariously, Babbitt also experiences a taste of recklessness. But Babbitt wonders: has Paul exaggerated the situation between himself and Zilla? Babbitt does not want his loyalty to Paul tested by an irresponsible act. Their talk dissolves with Babbitt uttering clichés.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

At the end of the novel, Babbitt rotely endorses the notion that America's world-famous equality




Quiz