Sep 9, 2020 in Literature

Sinclair Lewis Babbitt

The connection between literature and humanity history is undeniable. Historical context, including economic and social issues, provides rich material for writers to consider and interpret. Therefore, literature of a definite period depicts typical characteristics of the society at that time and, thus, it can be commemorated or satirized. The novel Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis is one of the most outstanding pieces of literature that depicts socio-economical contradictions of America in 1920s. It brightly represents consumer society, which is influenced by business culture, and depicts another side of the economic boom from the US historical view.

The main character of the novel is George F. Babbitt who lives in the city called Zenith. At the beginning of the story, the author mentions the age of the protagonist and points to the date when the story takes place, which is April 1920 (Lewis, n. d.). Thus, the character is a part of the definite epoch. In fact, Babbitt to some extant is a collective image of the representatives of consumer society. Therefore, the author’s indictment of the author towards the society is expressed in general. Lewis conducted a deep research to provide a realistic image of the average businessman in 1920s. He points to the society’s attention to materialistic wealth as a main qualifier of social status. The author describes Babbitt’s obsession with his property through his thoughts about the yard that “made him also perfect” (Lewis, n. d.). The cigar-lighter is considered a “priceless time-saver”, which is immediately shown to the audience as an item that ensures social approval (Lewis, n. d.). Through such details, the author criticizes the shallowness of the consumer society, which obsesses with their materialistic and not spiritual wealth. In fact, the main thing judged by the author is total subordination of all aspects of social life to the business culture that appeared in 1920s. However, a number of contradictions interfere with business requirements regarding the social status. For instance, Babbitt claims that university degree is significant regalia and a valuable source of knowledge. When devoting his time to church, he does not have philanthropic intentions, but rather looks for a chance to obtain “praise and good repute” (Lewis, n. d.). In addition, he considers his daughter’s desire to volunteer and help other people as an excuse to be lazy and as something what undermines the basis of capitalism. When complaining about alcohol prohibition, he claims that it is useful for workers as it increases the productivity of the working process. Such hypocrisy is highly criticized by the author as it depicts the direct influence of business values on the public mindset. Another issue, which Lewis critics, is standardization of the lifestyle as a requirement to be accepted into certain successful circle of society. Babbitt’s furniture is described as “samples in the shop” and his thoughts are the product of the newspapers’ editorials (Lewis, n. d.). Lewis intensifies the importance of belonging to a certain community as necessary condition to be introduced into successful business world. Therefore, Babbitt had to agree to join Good Citizens’ League to save his social position and status. In general, Lewis directs his criticism on Babbitt’s subordination to the business culture, which makes him neglect personal freedom and core human values. 

The novel criticizes business world in general, and not only Babbitt’s character. Business provides with such conditions as certain type of relationships, ways of spending free time as an opportunity to meet and interact with useful for business individuals. Therefore, the Athletic Club is described as a place certain social status has to be maintained. Moreover, in most of cases one has to oppress personal desires to fit in the defined social framework. Lewis criticizes business culture and commercial values that overwhelm the society and make them forget about individual peculiarities in order to obtain wealth. In his letter to professor Van Doren Lewis, he claimed that he wanted to show the story about business world that destroyed everything (including individualistic features) that could threaten its “commercial oligarchy”. Although Lewis was not against materialistic standardization, he was against Americans who maintained social sameness in their attempts to achieve success. 

However, it cannot be said that George F. Babbitt has no positive traits at all. Business world requires certain professionalism that can distinguish a person from the community and can attracts customers’ attention. Babbitt is described as a person who “had Vision ... understood Talking Points, Strategic Values, Key Situations, Underappraisals, and the Psychology of Salesmanship” (Lewis, n.d.). In his business, he was one of the best and possessed qualities that were necessary to build a successful career. When omitting personal qualities, Babbitt is described as successful and responsible businessman. He scarifies his desire to build a career of politician to raise wealth of his family. Babbitt is represented as a victim of social pressure (Younkins, 2014, p. 278). In addition, the end of the novel shows that Babbitt does possess real human values when he is ready to accept his son’s Ted life position, as an opportunity to build his own life regardless social prejudices. Although the novel depicts Babbitt as not a hero of his time, but rather a victim, the author does not consider him a bad person. He is a “misguided man”. He contributed his youth ambitions to the business society values that completely took control over him and introduced certain standard instead of his individual intentions.          

The character of Babbitt and his story cannot be accepted as a true image of life. Although the novel sold 1.6 million copies and was a highly valued piece of literature that depicts the reality in satirical manner regarding typical characters, it accepted some negative feedback. In general, the novel was criticized by reviewers in business and club magazines (Gale & Cengage Learning, 2015). It can be explained by the fact that business world cannot admit its predictability as it will discredit the core principle of the business – freedom of market that supposes the freedom of choice. Moreover, according to Lewis’s novel, businessmen had no freedom as their lives and social status were determined by certain consumer surroundings. Therefore, people, advocating the business world, are insulted by such standardized image of business and miserable character of its participants. 

 

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In fact, the events and society described in the novel are determined and directly connected to the historical context of the USA. The economic boom that determined the rise of business activity and appearance of consumer society was conditioned by the policy of the Republican president Warren Harding at the beginning of 1920s. More specifically, he introduced free-market policy and policy of protectionism due to which it was more profitable for Americans to buy national products instead of foreign. Such policy pushed economic boom and improved the social condition of people as it has been depicted in Lewis’s novel. In addition, characters sympathize the Republican policy, what characterizes the mindset of American society in 1920s. Another reference to 1920s is described in the consumer culture of the main heroes who are obsessed with the material wealth and reputation. The policy of protectionism made prices accessible for products, and the most popular items were sold by partial prices. The new style of advertising was introduced during this period, when the advertisers did not only list the features of the product, but created a certain story to attract the customers with the lifestyle the item offered. All these evidence show that Lewis’s novel is a satire of the society in the period of 1920s that depicts its main characteristics in terms of certain historical period. In case of 1930s, the society was depicted differently because of the Great Depression and social conditions that imposed other values (e.g. at least to have a work) than in 1920s, when people were able to take a chance in business and obtain some profit in most of cases. 

Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt is the satire on the society of 1920s obsessed with business success and materialistic values. The author shows how business culture has influenced the society, creating certain lifestyle that is based on the vales of property and monetary profit. He shows the direct dependence of the social status of person on products that create his/her image. Although the novel deals with certain historical details typical for 1920s economic boom, it remains poplar nowadays. Moreover, with new opportunities introduced by the Republican presidents, people experienced business success and its virtues. These values remained to some extant nowadays. The goal of the novel is to prevent people from the standardized lifestyle that is totally controlled by materialistic values.  

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