Summary and Analysis
Two significant events take place during the spring of 1920. First, Babbitt is able to secretly purchase several real-estate options for himself and the company executives before the Street Traction Company publicly announces its plans to extend a particular streetcar line. The deal is sure to bring in a big profit. The other event is a formal dinner that Mr. and Mrs. Babbitt decide to give. They plan a real "highbrow" affair with evening clothes required, and for a long time all their energies are devoted to making plans for the party.
After several weeks of soul-searching discussion, the Babbitts conclude their plans for the dinner and select the final list of guests. They invite Chum Frink (the newspaper poet) and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Orville Jones, Mr. and Mrs. Howard Littlefield, Mr. and Mrs. Vergil Gunch, and Mrs. and Mrs. Eddie Swanson. All of these people are highly respectable and prosperous members of Zenith's upper middle class.
The morning of the dinner party is one of confusion and chaos in the Babbitt household. An extra girl has been hired to assist the regular maid; Mrs. Babbitt is busy supervising and organizing the two servants; the children try without complete success to keep out of the way; and Babbitt is assigned the "responsible and manly" tasks of picking up the ice cream and buying the liquor.
Since this story takes place during the era of Prohibition, Babbitt has to drive to the worst section of town in order to purchase the liquor illegally. He is cheated badly by the bootlegger and treated condescendingly, but he accepts these embarrassments in a good-humored manner, for he takes secret pleasure in frequenting the haunts of criminals and having the courage to break the law.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Babbitt supervises the household chores. Babbitt returns from the office early and dresses in his evening clothes, although even that morning he said that he would not wear a "monkey-suit." The guests arrive, and after the usual latecomers finally turn up, the drinks are served. Babbitt has mixed the cocktails himself and, as usual, is proud of the masculinity that he feels this skill demonstrates. The guests have their drinks amid much jesting and gaiety, most of which is caused by the knowledge that federal law forbids the use of liquor. The men knowingly discuss Prohibition and rationalize that it is good because it prevents the shiftless working class from obtaining alcohol and thus becoming subject to all the vices caused by drunkenness. However, the men feel that respectable and reliable people like themselves should be allowed to drink whatever and whenever they choose, and that Prohibition is an infringement on their own personal liberties.
The meal consists of the foods customarily found at most middleclass formal dinners, and after dinner, everyone gathers in the parlor. Conversation of a very uninspired and conventional type ensues. The jokes that the men tell are crude and unsophisticated. Everyone seems to be having a wonderful and stimulating evening.
Chum Frink reads the group some of his latest poems and advertising copy. The poetry of advertising, he says, is far superior to any of the difficult, "longhair" stuff they were supposed to read in school the "arty stuff" that foreigners and people who put on airs profess to appreciate.
Babbitt has always enjoyed being a host, and he has always been sincerely respectful of Frink's brilliance, but tonight something is bothering Babbitt. Meanwhile, the guests eventually run out of conversational material and start to grow restless until someone suggests that they play bridge. While a game is going on, Babbitt does something unheard of; he privately admits to himself that he is bored. This realization troubles him. He knows that he is hosting Zenith's most respectable citizens.
The interest of the guests in the card game is slackening when Mrs. Frink proposes that they conduct an experiment in spiritualism. They all gather around the table in the darkened dining room under the leadership of Chum Frink in order to hold a séance. Somehow Frink is able to make the table move. Everyone grows a bit uneasy, but they all try to seem unimpressed.
After the séance has ended, the guests chat for a while about spiritualism and psychic research, as well as the high state of American morality and the comparative quality of various makes of automobiles. Babbitt agrees with all that is said, but he is still bored and he quietly hopes that they will leave soon. Eventually the guests depart, after complimenting Mrs. Babbitt and enthusiastically assuring her that they had a wonderful time.
When everyone is gone, Myra proudly beams with pleasure and starts chattering about what a success the party was and how well everything went. Babbitt only half-heartedly agrees, and she becomes upset. He explains that he is overly tired and in a state of extreme tension, caused by the strain of his business. Originally, in order to get away alone with Paul, Babbitt had planned to tell Myra that he had to go to New York to see a client; now he breaks down and blurts out the truth: he and Paul are going to spend part of their vacation without their wives in order to calm their frayed nerves. As Paul had predicted, Myra is unable to understand this notion, but at last she consents and promises to help convince Zilla Riesling that their husbands are doing what is best for them. She also does her best to comfort Babbitt because the strain of confession has badly upset him. Babbitt is put to bed by his wife and as he lies waiting for sleep to envelop him, he suddenly realizes that he has gained freedom. But this curious and unexpected thought only makes him more uncomfortable.
After Lewis shows us A Typical Day in the Life of George F. Babbitt, he now focuses on one of the favorite targets of America's satirists: the American cocktail-dinner party. George and Myra Babbitt give a party for 12 people, and it is, Lewis says, one of the "great events" of Babbitt's spring. Lewis, however, intends for this section of the novel to be more than just an excuse for him to laugh at Americans trying to be very clever and important; he uses this party to bring to a crisis some of the discontent that we have seen festering within Babbitt.
After the guests have gone home and Myra has given Babbitt permission to go early to the Maine woods with Paul, Babbitt is faced, for the first time in his life, with an entirely new challenge: freedom. His frustrated longing to escape has been gratified, and he has never been so frightened.
Lewis prepares us for Babbitt's emotional crisis in three steps: first, he shows us Babbitt's solid citizen self reduced to a bumbling Mr. Milquetoast as he begs liquor from the bootlegger; then he shows us Babbitt restoring his self-image as he gloats over his cache of liquor; later, Babbitt's sense of importance expands as he sips the cocktails, greets his guests, and plays host. Then his self-esteem shrivels: too much rich food and liquor sicken him, and his ache of discontent returns. Very simply, Babbitt is a man of routine, and today his routine has been violated. First, there was the humiliation at the bootlegger's; then, during the evening, there was the strain of being a host. The veneer of the hearty, hale-fellow solid citizen begins to crack and, at the chapter's end, we watch a frightened Babbitt trying to hide in sleep.
Returning to the party scene, note that Lewis is showing us that in addition to being hypocrites, the Babbitts are also bigots. Babbitt prides himself on being a "compassionate" conservative; his friends include an intellectual and a poet; that is, Babbitt has intellectual and poetic friends — but only if they dress like regular folks, make money, and are inoffensive. Babbitt is pleased that his party will include Howard Littlefield, Ph.D., and Chum Frink, poet. Babbitt's wife is not pleased, however, that the party includes the owner of a mere laundry.
Lewis also mocks Prohibition in this chapter, calling it the "reign of righteousness," and showing us how degrading Prohibition was when an ordinary businessman, such as Babbitt, wanted to buy a bottle of liquor. Babbitt must leave the safe districts of Uptown, drive through the narrow, tenement-and-brothel-lined streets of The Arbor, carrying the guilt of a criminal. He realizes that his $125 suit carries no clout, and note that he uses a forced, uncertain speech with the bootlegger. Lewis has Babbitt "stalk plumply" up to the bar, follow the bartender "as delicately as a cat," then pay more than the value of the liquor. Babbitt seems unbearably uncomfortable, but Lewis shows us Babbitt's even further discomfort in an entirely different kind of establishment — when he stops at the blue, frilly Vecchia's for ice cream. These two scenes — where Babbitt was supposed to perform a "man's work" for the party — contrast significantly and work together beautifully to aggravate Babbitt's temper just prior to the actual party.
At last, Lewis serves up The Party for us; and, with the aid of silk socks and silver studs, he transforms Babbitt again. Lewis uses satire so effectively because no one before him had mined this rich vein of Americana. Lewis was a pioneer in mimicking American mores and, for that reason, his cocktail party may seem overdone today, yet the Babbitts' party is a very different sort of party from the kind of cocktail party satirized today. The men at Babbitt's party roar, guffaw, josh broadly, and say, "Oh, gosh"; they call cocktails "breaking the law a little"; their giggling wives dutifully refuse a second drink. These men have worked hard, made money, and silently pride themselves on their hard-earned eliteness; after a few drinks, they pride themselves aloud. The masses of shiftless workmen, they say, need Prohibition, but as far as they themselves are concerned, Prohibition is an invasion of "personal liberty." They say this with booming profundity, while Lewis points all the while to their coarse manners, their smutty jokes, and their fumbling attempts at flirting with one another's wives.
As the liquor-warmed gaiety wears thin, Lewis leaves the various guests and concentrates on the metamorphosis that is taking place within Babbitt. Never before has Babbitt admitted to himself that he is bored by his friends, but tonight he has taken too big a dose of food and friends. He is overpowered and an easy prey for "the curst discontent." It is no wonder that after the party Babbitt dissolves in tears. In a way, we understand. Lewis has made Babbitt's friends so sickeningly smug and Babbitt's home situation so barren of warm, personal love that almost anyone would break down.