Anticipation Stage and "Fall" Into Other World
Sinclair Lewis opens this book with a description of Martin Arrowsmith's great-grandmother, drawing a connection between her hearty pioneer ways and Martin's pioneering attitude toward science.
When we first meet Martin, he's just a teenager reading anatomy books and hanging out in a local doctor's office. We can tell already that Martin is a curious young man whose dream is to become a doctor. At this point, though, his personality is still an unshaped lump of clay. It's not until he reaches medical school that he grows into his adult personality.
Initial Fascination or Dream Stage
Martin's arrival into med school fills him with all kinds of curiosity and confusion. At first, he totally worships one professor who tells good stories and entertains his classes. Later in his first year, though, Martin looks for mentorship from an old bat named Max Gottlieb, who never seems to leave his laboratory.
Martin dreams about working in the lab with Gottlieb and making all kinds of great scientific discoveries. Unfortunately, Gottlieb turns him away when Martin asks to enter his class early. Gottlieb says that Martin is too immature and that he'll have to wait until the next year. And that's exactly what Martin does, like a good little boy.
The vast majority of this book tracks Martin's frustration as he struggles to find a place for himself in the world during medical school and afterward. While in school, he feels completely suffocated by the superficial, money-hungry students around him. He criticizes them for being "commercialist" and for not caring about true science, but they just shrug him off as being a crankypants.
It doesn't help that most of Martin's career as both a student and doctor is marked by a series of failures. He gets suspended from medical school and has to come crawling back to finish, he gets run out of town in his first job as a doctor, and he gets pushed out of his second job and forced to call up an old acquaintance in New York to bail him out.
The simple fact is that the world isn't very accommodating to Martin's strict values when it comes to the search for—say it in a booming voiceover voice—Scientific Truth. People are much more interested in scientific utility: both gross stuff like politics and personal gain, and good stuff like patents and cures.
Just when Martin gets a good job at the McGurk Institute, things go horribly wrong. For starters, he volunteers to travel to a plague-stricken Caribbean island to test whether a new vaccine will work.
And the vaccine does work, but not before Martin's close friend Gustaf Sondelius dies from the disease. Then Martin's wife Leora dies of plague while Martin is in another village. His wife's death is too much to bear and Martin basically loses his mind with guilt. He goes on a bender, and then ends up curing most of the survivors on the island. By the time he returns to New York he's no longer the same dude.
Martin is such a zombie when he returns to America that he marries a young woman named Joyce, even though he doesn't love her. All Joyce wants him to do, though, is go golfing with important people and schmooze at parties. It takes Martin a little while, but he soon realizes that this is not the life he wants.
Thrilling Escape and Return
After a big fight with his new wife Joyce, Martin decides to pack his bags and go live with his buddy Terry in Vermont and pursue Scientific Truth out in the woods. Joyce comes after him and reminds him that he has a responsibility to her and to the son they've had together.
But Martin basically says sorrynotsorry and tells her to leave. The novel finishes with Martin hanging out with his buddy Terry in a rowboat and laughing about how much he loves science.