George F. Babbitt
What is George F. Babbitt really like? What kind of a man is he beneath the swagger, the ready handshake, and the expensive clothes? We are never sure, just as Babbitt is never sure — because there is only a small remnant of a vital human being beneath Babbitt's surface.
Beneath Babbitt's exterior, there is a vague nervousness and comfortableness — a temporary nausea, caused by Babbitt's ebbing intelligence, imagination, and integrity. And when the novel ends, Babbitt says that he feels fine and healthy, and to all appearances he is, but the reader knows that Babbitt's last dregs of intelligence, imagination, and integrity have been distilled into the essence of what is known today as "Babbittry."
To be a Babbitt or to be guilty of Babbittry is to behave like George F. Babbitt. It means that in one's private life one should, like Babbitt, read the morning paper and, then, computerlike, store up opinions from the editorial pages to regurgitate later with business associates when it is necessary to impress someone or settle arguments. Babbitt has few opinions of his own; his opinions are articulated by other people. Parroting editorials is Babbitt's way of learning, of acquiring wisdom.
Memorizing phrases and attitudes of politically conservative editorials is done every morning, by rote, over coffee. It is one of Babbitt's daily rituals, similar to his lovemaking — except that his lovemaking is a ritual rarely and only disinterestedly performed. Babbitt's wife is a noisy presence, a housekeeper, and a cook; Myra Babbitt is no longer the lovely or mysterious woman whom Babbitt married. She is Babbitt's domestic anchor and also a millstone around his neck. Babbitt and Myra rarely talk about important matters. They talk on the surface about such things as material possessions and costly knickknacks; this is the substance of their common ground.
Lewis makes little attempt to plot Babbitt's actions for us. He simply presents scenes: A Day in the Life of George F. Babbitt; the Babbitts Entertain with Cocktails and Dinner; Babbitt Plays at Politics; Babbitt Helps the Church; Babbitt and his Children Together; Babbitt and his Best Friend, Paul; The Short-lived Rebellion of Babbitt; and, finally, Babbitt Regained. Other than Babbitt's recurring discontent, there is little conflict in the novel.
There is usually only Lewis' voice, leading us like a satiric tour guide through Babbitt's follies. Repeatedly, we see Babbitt's vast pride in American business and American big bucks and his belief that moneymaking automatically equates with Progress. Simultaneously, like subtitles, Lewis' comments mimic loud, smug, conservative Midwesterners and their "my-country-right-or-wrong" attitudes.
Sinclair Lewis has written an expose, a highly critical social document showing (and exaggerating) how Americans of a certain Midwestern ilk behave, talk, and amass unnecessary material objects. It has been said that Lewis showed Americans "what they are really like" but he does not; Babbitt shows Americans what they are like at their most mediocre.