Study Guide

Arrowsmith

By Sinclair Lewis

Arrowsmith Introduction

Ahh, satire. The literary form that makes fun of the cruelest, most power-hungry demons that plague mankind: greed, war, corruption, hatred, sexism, genocide, aspiring doctors…

Wait, what was that last one? Oh yeah, the "aspiring doctors" thing? Arrowsmith is, in short, a great American Pultizer-Prize winning novel that satirizes medical professionals.

Now usually we think of satire as poking fun and something heavy and dangerous, say, British Imperialism. The idea of satire, after all, is to portray something powerful as ludicrous and make readers rethink why they give that powerful thing (the British Empire, for example) so much respect. So why on earth would someone want to satirize doctors?

History lesson in brief, y'all: When Sinclair Lewis published Arrowsmith in 1925, the U.S. medical community was going through a big ol' upheaval. Something called the Flexner Report of 1910 caused American universities to lower the number of doctors they were training (uhh, never a good idea), and the report also called for all medical schools to get rid of rebellious ideas and to fall in line with "mainstream science."

Right. Because innovation in the medical field is such a bad thing, right? Medical innovation leads to craziness like heart transplants and the polio vaccine and chemotherapy… all sorts of weird nonsense that saves lives.

Arrowsmith follows the exploits of Martin Arrowsmith, an idealistic young doctor who wants to seek the capital-T Truth above all else. But the medical community's narrow-mindedness and endless politics keep thwarting Martin.

It's not just Lewis' white-hot satirical wit that makes Arrowsmith an awesomesauce read, though. After all, Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humour, new types of characters". These round and nuanced characters, including the titular Martin Arrowsmith, are part of the reason that they tried to give Sinclair Lewis the Pultizer Prize for Arrowsmith.

What's that? Yeah, they tried to give him the Pulitzer Prize but he refused, saying, "All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous."

It seems like Sinclair Lewis—just like his hero Martin Arrowsmith—was idealistic and wary of politics. He talks the talk and walks the walk.

What is Arrowsmith About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever gotten super-into something, only to find that the people around you are doing it for the wrong reason?

It starts, like everything, in high school. You love jazz band, but find out that most other people are just doing it to please their mommy or daddy. You love rugby, but find out that most of your teammates are just doing it because they couldn't make it into football. You love baking class, but find out that everyone else is just taking it in order to eat delicious cake…

Oh wait. That really is the only good reason to be in baking class.

Your boy Martin Arrowsmith has the exact same problem. He wants to be a great doctor in order to understand science and capital-T Truth, but everyone around him is out to make top dollar and gain power over other people. And this seriously icks Martin out. Arrowsmith follows Martin from the time he enters med school until he's middle aged, and he's perpetually surrounded by freaking jerks.

Arrowsmith makes it hilariously and painfully clear that you'll be surrounded by fools your entire life. It's like The Office for the world of medicine, if The Office included WWI, bacteriology, a bunch of outlaws masquerading as a squeaky-clean model family, and a bubonic plague-infested Caribbean island.

Of course, because this is a Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by a Nobel-Prize winning author (Sinclair Lewis wasn't playing around), it never rests on simple satire or easy laughs. Martin Arrowsmith is a bit of a prig, and sometimes you want to smack him around because he's so high-and-mighty. But don't worry: any time you're tempted to reach into the pages of Arrowsmith and give Martin a one-two punch, the plot of Arrowsmith is already hard at work doling out punishment for its eager-beaver hero.

Oh, and if you're a science nut, don't worry about a Lit nerd like Sinclair Lewis messing up the science facts. Lewis basically co-wrote Arrowsmith with a scientist/writer named Paul de Kruif (and gave him 25% of the book's profits) so the science is watertight. Sinclair Lewis, unlike most of the characters in Arrowsmith, isn't one to take a shortcut or adopt a quick-fix solution.

Arrowsmith Resources

Websites

The Sinclair Lewis Society
In an ironic twist of fate, some people decided to start a club based around Sinclair Lewis. Let's hope they're not like the Boosters' Club or Athletic Club that we find in Babbitt, because Lewis would have hated that.

Sinclair Lewis' Novels for Download
Who wants to go to a land down under?

Lewis at St. Cloud State
Check out this site for a great bibliography and some solid online resources related to Sinclair Lewis.

Movie or TV Productions

Arrowsmith (1931 Film)
It's pretty old and it deals mostly with Martin's trip to the Caribbean. But be sure to take a look if you get a spare minute.

Articles and Interviews

Reflections on Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith
Sinclair Lewis' book has had a big impact on people's thinking about public health over the years, and this article tries to give us a rundown of how it has impacted this area of thinking.

Interview with Lewis' Biographer
Follow this link to an interview with Richard Lingeman, a man who wrote a biography about Lewis called Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street.

Sinclair Lewis Vs. Wallace Stegner
In a move that Lewis himself would have hated, The Guardian newspaper decides to put Lewis in head-to-head competition with American novelist Wallace Stegner.

Audio

Science Book Review: Arrowsmith
Many people don't know that Lewis' Arrowsmith was really the fist modern novel that explored scientific themes in a serious and rigorous way.

Radio Drama of Arrowsmith
Check out this link to listen to an old timey radio play version of Arrowsmith.

Images

Young Lewis
Here's a picture of Lewis in his younger years. Can you say intense?

Later Lewis
It looks like after all those years of great writing, Lewis just wants a minute to chillax.

Sinclair Lewis on the cover of Time Magazine
Yup, there he is. Thinking away and being ominous.