On a morning in April 1920, George F. Babbitt, a 46-year-old real estate dealer, awakens in his house in the exclusive Floral Heights section of Zenith, a medium-sized, Midwestern city. Zenith is a typically expanding modern city with new factories and office buildings, modern homes, fine roads and express railroad service, as well as the usual slums and other urban paraphernalia.
Babbitt is pink-skinned and baby-faced, with a slight tendency toward heaviness. He seems prosperous, although he is a businesslike and unromantic person in appearance. He has awakened unhappily this morning — partly because he is suffering from a hangover following last night's poker game, and partly because, as usual, he has dreamed about a fairy girl with whom he is able to escape his dull, mechanical existence. This morning, he is forced to face reality and it takes him awhile to adjust.
Babbitt arises at 7:20 a.m. and carries out his regular morning ritual of washing and dressing. His actions and thoughts are the same as those on nearly every morning of his life. Myra Babbitt, his wife, also rises and begins her household duties. She is a chubby, mature woman, dressed in a housecoat. After a typical quandary concerning whether Babbitt should wear his brown or gray suit, he finishes dressing.
Before Babbitt leaves the bedroom, he views himself in the mirror and takes pride in his eminently respectable and executive-like bearing. He glances out the window and catches a glimpse of downtown Zenith, three miles away. The functional beauty of the tall, shining skyscrapers inspires him; he feels a nearly religious feeling of awe for the modern, urban way of life in America.
Babbitt's house is moderately expensive and modern. It has all the latest conveniences and appliances and was designed, decorated, and furnished by the finest and most stylish contractors. It is quite similar, both inside and outside, to nearly all the other houses in Floral Heights. The only fault with the Babbitt house, the author comments, is that it is not a home.
At breakfast, the Babbitts are joined by their three children — Verona, 22, a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr and very conscious of her culture and sophistication; Ted — Theodore Roosevelt — Babbitt, 17, a student at the local high school; and Tinka — Katherine — 10, a somewhat spoiled yet sweet little girl. Throughout the meal, the family bickers about a number of minor issues. Babbitt is suffering from his usual morning irritability, and it is finally necessary for him to shout them into silence.
The children leave for school or work, and Babbitt sets out for the office. As he drives to work, he meets his neighbor Howard Littlefield, an executive of the Zenith Street Traction Company and the holder of a doctorate in economics. Howard is one of the most highly educated men in Floral Heights, and Babbitt is one of the many admirers of his learning. The two men engage in a short, cliché-filled discussion about the weather and current politics.
Continuing his journey, Babbitt derives an adventurous feeling of personal heroism from driving recklessly. At the gasoline station where he stops, the mechanic is attentive and respectful. This behavior, as usual, tends to increase Babbitt's self-esteem, and he becomes a bit more cheerful. As on all other mornings, the drive to work through the city's many varied and industrious districts excites and inspires him.
Babbitt's office is in the Reeves Building, a modern, downtown skyscraper. The Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company (Thompson is Babbitt's father-in-law) has nine salesmen and several office clerks, most of whom are already busily at work. For some unknown reason, however, Babbitt feels out of sorts this morning and does not derive the usual satisfaction from viewing the modern fixtures of his office. Nonetheless, he settles down to the day's business. He continues, however, to feel restless. Babbitt muses for a while about the fairy girl of his dreams, and then feels ashamed, for he is a highly respectable family man and has never yet done anything to endanger his reputation in the community.
As the morning progresses, Babbitt composes several additional advertisements, including a rather tasteless one for a cemetery of which he is the agent, These ads are written in tortured and misleading purple prose, but Babbitt is proud of them and considers them to be stylistic masterpieces. When this work is finished, he becomes bored and, as is his habit, he decides once again to stop smoking. Afterward, he telephones Paul Riesling, his closest friend, and arranges a luncheon appointment.
The remainder of Babbitt's morning is filled up with petty and routine details. After describing these, Lewis comments that Babbitt is a successful real-estate broker because he is reasonably honest and dependable, has a good sales personality, and is diligent. Unfortunately, however, like many men in his field, Babbitt is ignorant of the most elementary and important matters pertinent to real-estate, such as the principles of scientific sanitation, the nature of adequate educational facilities, police and fire services, and so forth. Nonetheless, Babbitt understands real-estate values, and he is not above making a slightly shady deal once in a while if it is profitable and has an air of respectability. As a result, Babbitt's firm is one of the most prosperous in Zenith.
Babbitt is seemingly a highly virtuous man. He advocates and praises the wisdom of many laws, although he does not always observe them. He is a regular contributor to his church and other reliable charities. He does not believe in cheating — except when everyone else is doing it, or when it is necessary in order to protect himself.
The balance of the chapter contains a detailed account of the way in which Babbitt and Conrad Lyte, a local speculator, pull off a slightly dishonest real-estate deal and make a nice profit, at the expense of a helpless grocer in one of Zenith's residential districts.
Lewis begins Babbitt by describing the setting — the city of Zenith — then placing the main character, George F. Babbitt, in the setting. The portrait is of an unimaginative Midwestern America and its middle-class protagonist, and so Lewis introduces them in the best possible way: within the Babbitt-Zenith mentality. Already the standard of utility is at work.
Zenith, the city's name, is indicative of Lewis' attitude toward contemporary America. A zenith denotes a pinnacle, an ultimate, but if this city that Lewis describes is man's best effort, then the result is sorry and disappointing. Besides Zenith's towers — suggesting modern man's self-imposed prisons — man has built himself other meaningless and grotesque buildings. Mansard roofs "torture" the structures beneath. Everywhere in Lewis' description of Zenith, the houses and machines seem more alive than the people who use them.
It is dawn in the opening scene, but there are no bird songs; they have been replaced by factory whistles. The morning sun is "splintered" by the glare of steel. Man has created a monster, a metal forest hundreds of thousands of times his size. The enormity of man's creations has diminished man instead of doing what his creations were originally designed to do: ennoble him.
After a long-distance view of Zenith, Lewis focuses on the sleeping figure of George F. Babbitt. Asleep, Babbitt is not the solid citizen that he is when he is awake; instead, he is the remnant of the credulous dreamer that he was as a youth. And it is with this initial stroke of characterization that Lewis humanizes Babbitt. Granted that our first impression of the man is not wholly sympathetic, we never wholly forget that Babbitt — however fraudulent and hypocritical he proves himself to be — can dissolve at unguarded moments into a romantic who longs for peace and beauty (the world of the fairy child).
Babbitt's dream is threatened by the noises of milkmen, furnace men, paper carriers, and automobiles, and when the dream finally breaks, we witness the metamorphosis of the once-sleeping Babbitt into the now-awake Solid Citizen Babbitt.
Immediately on awakening, Babbitt begins to change. He takes strength from the fact that he is awakened by an expensive alarm clock. Significantly, the clock is one in which cathedral chimes have been shrunk to man's secular needs. In other words, cathedral chimes no longer call one to prayer; instead, they call one to work. And it is the price of the clock, not its tone, which pleases. Babbitt most. Babbitt's god, Lewis tells us, is modern appliances.
Having mentioned modern counterparts of paradise and God, Lewis next turns his satire to the matter of sin in Babbitt's Theology of Things. Before breakfast, Babbitt battles the steel, chrome, and glass controls of the bathroom; he rails at his daughter's using a smelly "heathen" toothpaste; he slides against the tub and, frustrated, wipes his hands and face on a never-before-used guest towel. With this act, Babbitt commits a household "sin" and is censured by his wife.
Babbitt's metamorphosis continues. First, he was observed in bed in baby-blue pajamas; his wife awakened him by calling him "Georgie boy," and later, dressed in his BVDs, he still looks like a little boy. Slowly the facade is applied; note the words that Lewis uses to describe Babbitt's dressing process: adornment, embellishment, donning words suggesting special, sacred vestments instead of the ordinary business suit which Babbitt is putting on.
After his suit is on, Babbitt pockets such trinkets as an elk's tooth, a pen, some keys, a knife, some notes written to himself, and again Lewis points out the seriousness of the task. These are Babbitt's modern-day holy medals. And besides the "holy medals," Babbitt carries the modern-day equivalent of a missal to guide his thoughts and deeds; he carries editorial clippings. His values are determined on the basis of printed dogma, learned by rote from his collection of newspaper editorials.
This particular morning, Babbitt continues to be out of sorts. He worries about his digestion, wondering why his apple-a-day has failed to keep him feeling fit. He worries until he looks out at the towers of Zenith. These towers of steel quiet his nerves; like silver, silent priests, they give him peace.
The Babbitts' house is described in much the same way that the Babbitts' clothes were described: both house and clothes are good, solid, and uniform; best of all, they are respectable. The house has an abundance of electrical outlets for lamps, for vacuum cleaners, toasters, and electrical fans, but between the Babbitts themselves, there is no "spark" of love. The analogy between the excess of modern electrical appliances, their outlets, and the Babbitts' lack of love seems obvious.
Myra Babbitt is described as being "as sexless as an anemic nun"; she bulges in corsets, fastens her clothes with safety pins, and takes no interest in her femininity. She treats her husband much as a fussy mother might. As for Babbitt, Lewis says that he appears "extremely married"; that is, the magic has gone out of his sex life with Myra. Babbitt is the man who pays Myra's bills; he is her solid citizen protector, but he is not her lover.
At the Babbitt breakfast table, Verona, a Bryn Mawr graduate, expresses her discontent with her paltry job as a filing clerk. Babbitt, however, is unconcerned about his daughter's desire to do something "worthwhile"; he is repulsed by Verona's naive dream of opening a small chintz-decorated welfare corner in a department store. "Rone," the Babbitt's eldest child, is a dreamer, and now that Babbitt is fully awake, he scoffs at dreams.
Ted, the Babbitts' second child, is also a dreamer. He dreams of shortcuts to success and also of becoming an adventurous secret agent. Neither of Babbitt's older children respects work as much as their father hoped they would. Ted's dreams and Verona's socialistic ideals are out of place in Babbitt's solid, common-sense household.
Commenting on the state of the world, Babbitt growls that "we got no business interfering with foreign governments"; then, seconds later, disgusted by a hint of change in the Russian power structure, Babbitt wonders why "we don't just step in there and kick those Bolshevik cusses out." Babbitt has no consistent system of values; however, he believes that his values are consistent for one reason: because he has worked hard. Hard work automatically equals wisdom in Babbitt's scheme of things. He uncritically quotes platitudes and scrap ends of editorials. Babbitt's mind only seems to think, just as the Babbitts' furniture only seems to be made of mahogany and the toilet articles only seem to be made of solid silver.
After Babbitt leaves for work, several things boost his spirits. On his way into Zenith, Babbitt has his car filled with gasoline, and, similarly, he stuffs himself with platitudes for the day. At the filling station, Babbitt collects the chatty respect of the attendant; all of these things — well-being, wisdom, and respect — help fill out Babbitt's image of himself.
Finally, one last quality — manly courage — is infused into Babbitt before he assumes his daily role of businessman. Besides the battle that Babbitt waged in his bathroom this morning, he wages two more battles before he checks into his office. He battles a streetcar (a valiant effort) and battles to park his car (a virile adventure).
Once Babbitt arrives at his office, the tones of Lewis' satire changes. It is no longer funny to watch Babbitt because now Babbitt is engulfed in a building filled with other Babbitts. All individualism has been removed, and it is from these offices that the energy that moves America is discharged. Here is the nerve center of Zenith's and Babbitt's money-making.
The motto for Babbitt's real-estate business is "Homes for Folks," an especially fraudulent motto because the houses which Babbitt sells are not "homes," nor do "folks" buy them. Lewis implies that they are cells for robots; the development, for example, at Glen Oriole contains neither a glen nor an oriole. Glen Oriole is merely a clever tag to snare prospective home-buyers who dream of living in a glen with trees filled with orioles. But Babbitt's business functions — it sells houses and it makes money.
After sharply and satirically creating for us a picture of Babbitt's narrow-minded drive to make money, Lewis cajoles us into giving more sympathy to Babbitt. Babbitt is not a happy man. He is a frustrated man. Despite the fact that Babbitt's intellect and values have greatly atrophied, his sense of sex still flickers and underneath Babbitt's clichés and posturings, he is mildly alert to every pretty ankle he sees. We enjoy seeing that Babbitt is not yet an empty husk, that while he is able to calculate the cost of repapering a room, he can also calculate the cost of an interoffice affair with his chirpy-voiced secretary.
In Chapter 4, Lewis gives us a multitude of details about Babbitt's business ethics; then he ends the chapter with a long scene in which we see these ethics illustrated. We learn, first of all, that in Babbitt's code, a businessman is not acceptable if he is not sufficiently broad-shouldered, deep-voiced, and hearty-humored. Success is attracted to such manliness, and Babbitt's buying-and-selling business is, Lewis says, a "manly" business. Zenith is manly beauty to Babbitt; it is manly poetry literally measured by the height of its buildings. Babbitt responds to the poetry of the material — the shine of steel and the energy of restless automobiles.
Babbitt begins his day manfully; he is assertive, exercising his authority. His "Do You Respect Your Loved Ones?" is rhetorical, attempting to fill readers with guilt if they have not bought a plot in Linden Lane. Note, however, that Babbitt is not wholly untainted from things "unmanly"; he enjoys a fancy word or two and indulges in such purple-prose expressions as "daisy-dotted" and "smiling fields," even though most of his advertisement is written in "manly" prose.
Babbitt has made money; that is a fact. He is a success, so he is not completely ignorant of sales maneuvers. His right hand may scribble pretentious lures for real estate, but his left hand is realistically set on making money.
A quality of Babbitt's, pointed out already but particularly evident in this chapter, is his self-deception. A resolution to take better care of his health comforts him. Likewise, an unanswered letter that he intends to answer seems already answered; and instead of using willpower and determination to stop smoking, he hides his cigars from himself. Babbitt, the great booster of willpower, is a fraud.
Concerning Babbitt's business ethics, it is not surprising to learn that Babbitt's concern is not really for the community, as he claims, but for himself and the money he will extract. He "chants" lies; he has "ironed" a meadow into a sunburnt housing development, and he has bribed health inspectors and fire inspectors. And his excuse? He is "as honest as the next guy" — that is, he is "conventionally honest." In other words, he cheats only if cheating has been "sanctified by precedent."
Point by point, Lewis indicts Babbitt as a philistine, stopping only briefly for a point of humor concerning Babbitt's worrying about sewage disposal. Babbitt regularly boasts of the efficient sewage pipes beneath the Glen Oriole housing development, just as he regularly worries about his own bowels. Lewis notes that Glen Oriole's sewage pipes are not washed clean; they do not even function well; in short, they are very much like Babbitt's life. Both are full of stagnation.
In the scene involving the small grocer, Mr. Purdy, Babbitt's "conventionally honest" ethics are in full display. Babbitt's buying of land and offering it to the grocer at many times its value, disguising his greed as a gesture of friendliness, is fiendish. When Lewis has him call Purdy "Brother" and force cigars on him, Babbitt becomes almost too villainous. In this episode, Lewis' Babbitt is too hypocritical, too overbearing, and too greedy to be anything more than cartoonish even after he collects his $450 commission.