Study Guide

Babbitt

By Harry Sinclair Lewis

Babbitt Introduction

This is a book for the rebels, the slackers, the artists, the daredevils, and any kid who has fled (or is dying to flee) the 'burbs. It's about George Babbit, who has always done everything he's supposed to do and finds himself, as a result, super-duper miserable. 

Yup. Babbitt makes the American Dream look like the American Nightmare. It makes living in suburbia sound like living in prison. It makes doing the right thing and saying the right thing sound like… the wrong thing. If being bad feels pretty good, Babbitt shows us that being good can feel pretty freaking bad.

When Sinclair Lewis first published Babbitt in 1922, he became the subject of some good ol' fashioned controversy. After all, his novel was a scathing satire of the American Dream of making money, owning a big house, and having obedient children. In other words, Babbitt went after the kind of American life that you'll find in a TV show like Mad Men.

And to top it all off, Lewis criticized capitalism in general with this book, which didn't sit well in the 1920s, when most of America was afraid that communism might take over at any moment. On top of its critique of American culture, Babbitt also gives us insight into a type of mental condition that since Lewis' time has become known as a mid-life crisis.

George Babbitt's mid-life crisis hits him like a ton of bricks when he realizes that he doesn't like his job, his friends, his marriage, or, well, his life: he's done everything possible to live like a good citizen and not rock the boat, rather than crafting a life that has any sort of meaning. So what does he do? He changes politics, has an affair, and starts drinking like a fish. Not a recipe for everlasting happiness, guys.

But you know what it is a recipe for? A brilliant novel. Sinclair Lewis, with his signature snark and white-hot wit, shows us a bleak and unrelenting view of middle-American malaise. This book helped launch other chronicles of middle-aged suburban depression, like Death of A Salesman, Revolutionary Road, and Rabbit, Run.

It also helped Sinclair Lewis become the first American writer to get a Nobel Prize (USA! USA!), and is included on a slew of best novels ever lists.

So whether you're a teen aching to get out of the 'burbs and into the real world, an adult looking to shake up your life and remember your priorities, or just a lover of great literature (and of chuckling at the mishaps of unfortunate salesman), Babbitt will deliver the goods.

What is Babbitt About and Why Should I Care?

You know George Babbitt's type—he's the white-collar suburban family man who's totally dead inside. He's Lester Burnham. He's Peter Gibbons. He's Frank Wheeler. He's square, buttoned-down, and conventional. Shucks, he's a dang stereotype (a stereotype who probably uses the word "shucks").

Wouldn't it be nice if there were a term to describe this particular kind of sadsack? One neat, easy little term that would sum up all his attributes: his hatred of any sort of change, his mild love of golf, his unironic World's Greatest Dad mug, his raging mid-life crisis, his hollow feeling that everything is meaningless?

Lucky for you Shmoopeople, there is. The term is "Babbitt," and it refers directly to George F. Babbitt, the hapless protagonist of Sinclair Lewis' novel Babbitt.

"Ugh, I don't care about this," we hear some of you say. "I'm not middle-aged. C'mon, Shmoop, give me a term I can use to insult people my own age." You're in luck, Shmoopsters: you can still whip out the term Babbitt when confronted with an over-eager (but totally passionless) straight-A student, or someone who follows other people's lead like a well-behaved terrier.

Because "Babbitts" don't suddenly appear one day in middle age. They're created. They spend their lives playing by The Rules, only to wake up one morning and realize that The Rules didn't ever make them happy. They spend their lives criticizing outcasts for being different, only to realize, in their forties, that maybe the outcasts had the right idea all along.

Is Babbitt depressing? Heck yes. But only if you're blindly following orders without passion or interest. If you're someone who George F. Babbitt would criticize—if you're an outcast or an artist or a rebel or a free-thinker, or interested in changing the world, or living according to your own standards—Babbitt is both vindicating and hilarious.

Read Babbitt and you'll have not a handy insult to lob at anyone who tries to tell you to play by The Rules, but a sneak-peak into the life of a man who always did what everyone told him to and ended up miserable.

And, if

  • anyone at the Thanksgiving table asks you whether you really think that Music Theory is a responsible thing to be majoring in, or
  • you tell someone you want to volunteer in Brazil instead of doing a summer internship and they say, "Oh? Interesting...," or
  • you get dirty looks in the halls because you bought a weird purple velvet vintage jacket (because you know you look awesome in it, thankyouverymuch)…

…you can smile and think to yourself "You, Mr./Ms. Conservative, will end up like George Babbitt. I, on the other hand, will not."

Babbitt 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.

Sinclair Lewis' Novels for Download
As the warning says, make sure you know your country's copyright laws before deciding which books to download.

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

Babbitt (Film, 1924)
Good luck finding a copy of this old silent film nowadays. But here's a link to a review from 1924 that totally pans it.

Babbitt (Film, 1934)
This version got released only ten years after the first, probably figuring that it could do better. The jury's still out on whether it succeeded.

Articles and Interviews

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

"American Dreams": Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
Here's an excellent article talking about the satire of Lewis' novel and whether or not modern readers (or even 1920s readers) are in on the joke.

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

Video

Sinclair Lewis Short Flick
If you're tired from working so hard on Sinclair Lewis, why not sit back and watch this quick movie about him?

Main Street in Sauk Centre
This brief movie delves into the role that Sinclair Lewis' rural hometown played in shaping his writing, along with the writing of many Americans for years to come.

The Hometown Faithful
Meet three folks from Sauk Centre who are ready to give their impressions on Lewis and what his work has meant to them, to their town, and to America.

Audio

Babbitt Audiobook
When your eyes are tired, let your ears pick up the slack.

The Innocents
Here's another great story by Lewis that's also known as "A Story for Lovers." Once you're done with Babbitt, make sure to run a warm bath, light some candles, and throw it on.

Student's Lewis Project
Here, you'll find a handy little project on Lewis made by a student.

Images

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

Young Lewis
Here's a picture of Lewis in his younger years. We can't understand why the kids in his school ridiculed him so much for his looks when he was younger.

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