Summary and Analysis
After lunch, Babbitt returns to work and takes a prospective customer out to see a property. Afterward, he and Henry T. Thompson, his father-in-law and partner, go shopping for a new car for the older man. Babbitt is able to get a discount on the price through a fellow member of the Boosters' Club who is sales manager of the Zeeco Auto Agency.
Back in the office, Babbitt continues his daily routine. Late in the afternoon, he has an argument with Stanley Graff, his outside salesman. Graff has worked earnestly for Babbitt for a long time and regularly puts in extra hours. Now that he is planning to get married, he asks for an increase in his commission and a bonus for a particularly difficult sale that he has just completed. Babbitt angrily turns on Graff and gives him a stern, moralistic tongue-lashing, criticizing Graff's lack of fairness, ideals, enterprise, and vision. Graff is not satisfied with this answer, but there is little he can do since Babbitt openly hints that he can easily get another salesman. Graff withdraws sullenly.
Babbitt feels guilty when he sees that the other members of his staff are sympathetic to Graff, but he will not alter his decision.
Babbitt returns home for dinner. As usual, the family squabbles about a number of small things, including the need for a newer and more stylish car. Babbitt promises to get one next year, but this solution only partially satisfies Verona and Ted. After the meal, Verona leaves to meet some friends; the others settle on the porch. Ted does his homework, Myra sews, and Babbitt becomes deeply engrossed in his favorite light reading, the comic strips in the evening newspaper.
After awhile, Ted begins to complain about the uselessness of the things that he is forced to learn in school — plane geometry and the works of Shakespeare, Milton, and Cicero. He says that he doesn't want to go to college because learning has no cash value; he is interested in making lots of money. He consults some ads for correspondence courses, ranging from fingerprinting to public speaking; all of them guarantee to increase one's earning capacity. His parents are impressed by the ads, but nonetheless they say that Ted must stick to his schoolwork and go to college. A college degree has great material value in terms of social status and personal polish, even if the courses are dull and impractical. Ted willingly accepts his father's advice and then goes out to meet some friends, leaving his homework undone. Babbitt feels a warm glow of pride when he considers how adult and reasonable his son is.
After Ted leaves, Babbitt and his wife chat aimlessly for a while about Ted's rapid maturation and his girlfriend from next door, Eunice Littlefield. Babbitt once again promises to have a heart-to-heart talk with his son someday about morality and manhood. For the rest of the evening, he reminisces about how he once aspired to be a lawyer and politician, but gave up these dreams in order to get married. He never claimed to love Myra, but they got along well, so, rather than let her be hurt, Babbitt married her. Myra has always been a good and faithful wife to him, although she is a bit unimaginative and unromantic. He feels sorry for her momentarily when he realizes that she too might have complaints or feelings of discontent, and he caresses her hair gently. Myra is surprised at Babbitt's gesture; it makes her happy.
As the evening continues, Babbitt and his wife sit in the parlor reading magazines. The parlor is furnished like most other parlors in the area, as well as those in most middle-class houses throughout America. Soon, bedtime arrives and the couple goes up to their room. While Babbitt is falling asleep, Lewis describes a number of things that are going on at that very moment in different sections of the city of Zenith. For instance, the wife of the town's richest citizen is committing adultery, a narcotics pusher in a fit of temper murders a prostitute, two scientists are up late in their laboratory conducting experiments on synthetic rubber, four leftist union officials are planning a coal miners' strike, an aged Civil War veteran who has never even ridden in an automobile lies dying, a tractor factory is working a night shift to fill a rush order, and a prominent, fundamentalist evangelist is just ending a tent meeting on the edge of town.
In another part of Zenith, Seneca Doane, a "radical" lawyer, and Kurt Yavitch, a histologist, are drinking and discussing the philosophical condition of contemporary America. At the same time, Jake Offutt, a political boss, and Henry T. Thompson are planning a crooked real-estate deal based on their secret knowledge of the projected extension of service by the Zenith Street Traction Company. They expect to realize a large profit from their illicit manipulations and plan to use Babbitt as their henchman.
Elsewhere in the city of Zenith, nearly 350,000 people are fast asleep. Most of them are unaware of the many things going on around them and many do not even care. In a slum near the railroad yards, a young man who has been out of work for six months kills himself and his wife. George F. Babbitt rolls over in his bed and dreams of his fairy nymphet, who offers him her hand and invites him to join her in an exotic midnight garden. She welcomes him eagerly, and, once again, Babbitt is gallant, wise, and uncritically adored.
Lewis has shown us scenes of Babbitt in bed, Babbitt at breakfast, and Babbitt at business. Now he shows us Babbitt back home.
The Babbitts' evening meal is, as breakfast was, accompanied by quarreling. Again the subject is the same: the family automobile. Ted wants a new car because he wants to show it off; furthermore, Ted doesn't want to wait until he is his father's age to do so. He wants big money now, and he wants to spend it and show off. He wants a job that requires no study and no preparation, its only qualification being the desire for wealth, success, and adventure. Ted is looking for shortcuts.
Ted is indeed his father's son — only more verbal and more naive. Babbitt is also a man of shortcuts; he has exchanged original thinking and reasoning for the opinions of Howard Littlefield and the editorials in the daily newspaper. Ted does not want to earn financial success; Babbitt does not want to earn an independent mind. To Ted, Milton and Shakespeare and Wordsworth are "old-fashioned junk"; to Babbitt, poetry (and all art for that matter) are suspect subjects that wasted a lot of Babbitt's time during his stint at State U. Ted finds beauty in chrome and horsepower; Babbitt, in Zenith's skyscrapers. There seems to be no real difference in their dreams, only in the focus.
At this point, Lewis allows himself some extra space for satirizing advertising copy. The springboard is Ted's praise of the Shortcut Educational Pub. Co. — a business that operates out of Sandpit, Iowa, an obviously unsuccessful address but a fact not considered by either father or son. The home-study courses promise many benefits — such as masterful originality, a quality that Ted will probably never have. And as for the "talking right up to the boss" idea, we have just witnessed Ted's father savagely upbraiding an employee who sincerely believed that he had a right to "talk up" and ask his boss for a better salary. Lewis' mimicking of the shortcut, get-rich-quick pamphlets is a tour de force, but it is pathetic that Babbitt cannot even begin to evaluate the leaflets that Ted is drooling over. Babbitt is such a run-of-the-mill, conventional fraud that he is unable to discern that these showy pamphlets offer nothing, that they too are fraudulent.
Babbitt's advice — that Ted get a college degree for prestige's sake in order to be able to associate with the best people, the best clubs, etc. — is one of the most damning things that Lewis puts into Babbitt's mouth. But Babbitt is only saying, in bold print, what many American parents think. They send their children to the best schools and colleges they can afford — not for the education, but for the prestige. They say they want "the best" for their children, but too often they delude themselves as to the meaning of the phrase, and for whose benefit "the best" is.
Only when Babbitt knots up inside, restlessly confessing that he wishes he'd been a pioneer, and then admitting that he couldn't be happy without his modern house — only then (and rarely does Babbitt have these insights into himself) are we responsive to the man. Most of the time, Babbitt is too monstrously mediocre for us to care about. But when Babbitt verbalizes his feelings of being lost, there seems hope for him — a chance for revelation as he peers into his inner self. But this happens infrequently, and we despair when Babbitt compares himself with his "lean Yankee" father-in-law and with the Princeton-educated Noel Ryland — and then declares that he, Babbitt, is a better man than either of them; he is the all-American mediocre man.
It would help us to care more deeply about Babbitt's fate in these first few chapters if Babbitt were more aware of what he has become. There is only passing reference, for instance, to Babbitt's early dream of becoming a lawyer, then governor of the state. Babbitt was a country boy with dreams, but he compromised for a job in a good-paying real-estate business and for a marriage to a "dependable companion." Babbitt, at this point in the novel, appears to be the embodiment of the American success story. But Babbitt's iron garage and his longing for the fairy child stain the immaculate surface of his vision of himself. Both irritants remain, and this section closes with Babbitt reverting to the child he was when he awakened. He plays in the tub with his shaving gear, making his cheeks youthfully sleek. He even shaves a swatch down his calf, creating a path of hairless, youthful skin. He readies himself for the fairy child — purifying himself, playing with the soap, lulling away the businessman persona, and then, out of the tub, he hastily says "Goodnight" to his wife and drops off to the land of the fairy child.