Summary and Analysis
Although he is now a prominent citizen, Babbitt is not fully satisfied, for he has not received the social recognition that he feels he and his family deserve. He looks forward to his university class dinner since he will have an opportunity to mingle with such Zenith aristocrats as Charlie McKelvey, the millionaire contractor, Irving Tate, the tool manufacturer, and Adelbert Dobson, the fashionable interior decorator. In theory, these men are all his friends because they attended college together, and they are still on a first-name basis, despite the fact that Babbitt is never invited to their homes.
The banquet is held in a private room at the Union Club, and although Babbitt is dressed and groomed properly, he enters these sacred precincts with nervous awe. Gathered in the room are some sixty people. The successful ones (like Babbitt) wear evening clothes, while the others are dressed in their best business suits. The different outfits soon divide the men into two groups.
With Paul following, Babbitt seeks out the company of Charlie McKelvey, and later he sits alongside the millionaire when they eat. The former friends seemingly enjoy recalling their college pranks and discussing business. Babbitt invites McKelvey to his house, and Charlie vaguely agrees that he will come sometime. To Babbitt, this is as good as a definite promise, and his spirits rise as he visualizes himself entering Zenith's most fashionable circles.
Early in December, the Babbitts ask the McKelveys to dinner. After changing the date several times, the McKelveys actually do arrive for dinner. Naturally, Babbitt and his wife are very excited about this opportunity to impress the monied McKelveys. They also invite a prominent physician and a well-known attorney and their wives, hoping that such admirable guests will impress the McKelveys. Babbitt's chest swells with pride as the McKelveys drive up only fifteen minutes late in their chauffeured limousine. Although Babbitt and his wife are on their best behavior, the McKelveys are obviously bored and leave early after making a poor excuse. Myra tries to hide her sorrow, and Babbitt attempts to comfort her. Finally, Myra cries herself to sleep. During the next few weeks, the Babbitts eagerly await a return invitation from the McKelveys, but it never arrives.
At the reunion dinner, Babbitt also greeted Ed Overbrook, another classmate. Overbrook has been a failure since leaving school, and he presently operates a small insurance business. Overbrook and his large family live in an old house in an unfashionable section of Zenith. Ed reacts to Babbitt in much the same way that Babbitt did to McKelvey. He evidently believes that through Babbitt, he and his wife will be able to advance their social status. The Overbrooks invite the Babbitts to dinner, and after changing the date and putting the dinner party off, the Babbitts finally accept. At dinner, Babbitt and his wife unwittingly behave toward the Overbrooks and their friends in the same condescending way that the McKelveys behaved toward the Babbitts. In this case, the Babbitts arrive late and leave early, after unsuccessfully hiding their boredom and making lame excuses and vague promises.
For a time, the Babbitts consider inviting the Overbrooks to their house in return. They never do, however, feeling that the Overbrooks would be an embarrassment in front of their own friends and, besides that, the poorer couple would probably be ill at ease in the Babbitts' company. The Babbitts never realize that this is precisely the way that the McKelveys feel about the Babbitts. Shortly thereafter, Babbitt and his wife forget about the Overbrooks.
The mood in this chapter, instead of being bitterly sarcastic, is softer and more comic. Lewis structures the scene in this way: first, the Babbitts idolize and cater to the very successful McKelveys, then are snubbed by them. Later, the Babbitts are idolized and catered to by the not-quite-so-successful Overbrooks, who are snubbed by the Babbitts. The lesson is clear: the so-called classless American democracy is really made up of several territorial strata, and each social class jealousy guards its boundaries from interlopers.
At the class reunion, Babbitt stays close to the heels of Charles McKelvey (a great success in big business and a former Big Man on Campus). He hangs onto McKelvey's every word while noting how the failures of the class all look enviously at him (Babbitt). He doesn't recognize the parallel in adulation, but we do. And we also note that when the Babbitts dismally entertain the Overbrooks that the Overbrooks say the same wrong things to the Babbitts, the same kind of things that the Babbitts said earlier to the McKelveys.
For example, during dinner, Overbrook praises Babbitt, just as Babbitt praised the McKelveys; Babbitt is asked what New York and Chicago are really like, and in the same way, Babbitt asked Lucille McKelvey about Europe. In both cases, both Babbitt and Lucille reply that their interest in these cities is food — not culture — as their questioner supposed. Thus, as the long, tedious dinners are finished, Lewis tells us that the McKelveys did not speak of the Babbitts again and that the Babbitts did not speak of the Overbrooks again.