Summary and Analysis
Babbitt and Paul spend a few hours in New York between trains. They visit the Pennsylvania Hotel, the city's newest, because Babbitt, as a realtor, is interested in seeing it. Afterward, at Paul's suggestion, they go to the docks to see an ocean liner. Babbitt is impressed by the majestic vessel and expresses a sudden desire to see Europe, but he is not serious. Paul, on the other hand, is strangely silent.
The two men continue their trip and eventually arrive at their destination — Lake Sunasquam, in the mountains of Maine. They hasten to change into their camping clothes and demonstrate their independence by openly using the chewing tobacco that both their wives consider vulgar.
The next week is spent sleeping late, fishing, boating, and hiking. At night they stay up late, drinking and playing poker with the Indian guides. As the days pass, much of their tension and nervous talkativeness — byproducts of life in Zenith — disappear. They become quieter and more relaxed, and they fall back into the closeness and mutual understanding of their college days.
As the time draws near for their wives to arrive, Babbitt begins to get restless. Paul, however, has made resolutions and plans to try to live harmoniously with Zilla. When the wives appear, they both insist that the 'boys" continue their "activities," and, indeed on the first two nights, Babbitt does stay out and play cards, but soon both he and Paul return to the routine of being married men again.
After two more weeks, they all prepare to return to Zenith. The relaxed living and fresh air have done a lot to calm Babbitt and make him feel healthier. He is not eager to leave the mountains and go back to the office, but he is full of confidence and anticipates a great year.
On the trip home, full of new assurance, Babbitt vows to give up smoking again, but his determination lasts no longer than it ever has. Within a few days, the busy regimen of his office prevents him from even remembering his resolution.
After returning to Zenith, Babbitt decides to expand his recreational activities. He is an ardent baseball fan and vows to deepen this interest by attending three games a week. Despite his love of baseball, however, he is unable to find the time after the first week.
Every Saturday, Babbitt plays golf at his country club and finds that the game is a source of relaxation and healthy exercise for him, and one evening each week, Babbitt, his wife, and Tinka go to the movies. Babbitt particularly enjoys three kinds of films — those with pretty girls in bathing suits, those with policemen or cowboys and lots of shooting, and those with slapstick comedians. Myra prefers society romances set in New York or London. Besides baseball, golf, and the movies, Babbitt's other recreational activities include bridge, long auto drives, and conversations with Paul.
Paul Riesling tries to be a regular guy; he tries to say friendly things to other men, but somehow he never sounds "friendly." Either he is too spontaneous or he is too reserved. Babbitt tries to help; he tries to bolster and cheer Paul, but Paul does not have Babbitt's capacity of really enjoying off-color stories nor does he enjoy bragging. Paul's values are not Babbitt's and at no time is this difference more evident than during Paul and Babbitt's sightseeing in New York. Of all the things they do and plan to see in New York, Babbitt wants to see the Pennsylvania Hotel. For Babbitt, it is the only thing worthwhile for strangers to see because it is America's biggest hotel. But Babbitt does not marvel at its magnificence; instead, he marvels at the number of dollars that the hotel must surely gross every day. A true materialist, Babbitt is awed by the amount of money involved.
Paul, on the other hand, wants to go down to the docks and see an ocean liner. To him, the floating ship is a symbol of escape, something that is capable of taking him away from his nagging wife and his boring, if successful, business. Babbitt is too insensitive to realize that Paul is emotionally overwhelmed by the possibility of sailing away and leaving his unhappy life behind him.
In contrast to Paul, who certainly does not "need" Zilla's nagging, Babbitt "needs" Myra's nagging because it is constant and secure. Myra may be a fat and unattractive component of Babbitt's life, but foremost she is a stabilizer and a source of great strength. When Myra appears at the camp, Babbitt automatically takes himself to task: he has been lazy and he is anxious for familiar things and familiar routines. He wonders about his business: is it able to function without him? He takes himself in hand as though he were lecturing an errant friend; he sells himself on his coming success in the New Year. This runaway trip to the Maine woods has accomplished the rebirth of a salesman.
While relating Babbitt's reorganization of priorities, Lewis tells us in an aside that he thinks that America's love of baseball is actually just a cover, sublimation for the country's homicidal instincts. And later, in other asides, he attacks more examples of standard Americana — for example, the American habit of doing things at top speed. Lewis believes that Americans eat too fast, work too fast, and talk too fast — in order to make more money. Americans join country clubs and play golf, as Babbitt does, not because they enjoy them, but because it is expected and because it is part of being a solid citizen, a social American.
Often, satirists of Middle America assume that merely because one is a member of a country club and lives in a ranch-style house in the suburbs that one's life is automatically sterile and meaningless. Lewis is making such sweeping generalizations here, and one should avoid being converted too quickly to Lewis' too-narrow perspective. There are flaws in America and there are flaws in Babbitt himself, but one cannot take Lewis' view of Babbitt as the testament of truth about America. One should approach this novel as Sinclair Lewis' testament about America.