George F. Babbitt is a conventional man, a real estate agent in partnership with his father-in-law, living in the American city of Zenith with his wife, Myra, and children Verona, Ted and Tinka. Babbitt is a Republican, not very bright, getting his opinions from the local papers, and is a member of the Zenith Athletic Club and various clubs such as the Brotherhood of Elks.
The action of the novel takes place over a couple of years, and starts off with Babbitt’s conventional life, a model of staunch conservativism and business sense, and his somewhat fractious relationship with his family, though which is essentially affectionate. His best friend is Paul Riesling, who once wanted to be a violinist, but is currently selling tar-roofing products and is unhappily married to the overbearing Zilla; but Babbitt has a confraternity of like-minded neighbours and fellow Club members with whom he socialises.
Later in the book, he gains the reputation as an orator and campaigner, tries to social climb (but is not very successful), and tries to mediate between Paul and Zilla – again not very successfully. After a big shock, he goes through a mid-life crisis, quarrelling with his wife, trying to flirt with other women, drinking too much alcohol and going to parties which depress him even as he determines to be a good sort. He flirts with liberalism, standing up for strikers, refusing to join a new association, and bewildering and distressing his former associates.
Zenith could be any city in 1920s America, not big like New York or Chicago, but with its own geography and environs, to which Babbitt is in tune, and the descriptions of which make it sound like a real place. It’s an amusing and sometimes rather touching story; Lewis makes Babbitt – on the face of it, not a sympathetic character – entirely understandable, through showing us his inner life, and how he grew to be the man he is from the once liberal student who vowed he would study law and only help poor people. By the end of the book, Babbitt has come to a realisation that, although he has “sold out” his youthful ideals, to do a job that he doesn’t enjoy (but nonetheless performs conscientiously and thoroughly so that he can make enough money), he can help his son avoid doing the same – except that Ted’s ambitions are completely different from his father’s.
Lewis writes lyrically about the changing seasons, and Babbitt’s love for his city. His characterisation is sharp, yet sympathetic, allowing the reader to see the humanity behind the facades his characters present to the world. Not everything is presented from Babbitt’s viewpoint – occasionally Lewis shows the reader other lives, as though briefly glimpsed through a window – and there are amusing vignettes, such as Babbitt’s encounter with Sir Gerald Doak in Chicago, who isn’t such a terrible swell as Babbitt had thought after their previous meeting, but is a businessman first and a ‘sir’ afterwards.
I enjoyed Babbitt’s rebellion, and his questioning of the truths which he previously found to be self-evident, and though he eventually repents of some of that rebellion (the association with Tanis Judique, for example, and his defence of the radical lawyer Seneca Doane), he does come to a fuller understanding of himself and those round him.
Although quite a long story, Lewis’s plot and prose hold the attention, and I found myself enjoying Babbitt’s journey and its eventual conclusion.