Study Guide

Babbitt Setting

By Harry Sinclair Lewis

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From the beginning (and we mean the very beginning) of Babbitt, you can tell that setting will play a major role in this story. The very first lines read,

The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings. (1.1.1)

These lines remind us that any symbols of the old world, like citadels or churches, are not part of this setting. The world of Zenith is a world of frank, modern business. Period. Zenith doesn't have time for old architecture. Zenith thinks office buildings are beautiful (seriously?!) and its towers are "aspir(ational)."

Now with that said, the fact that Zenith doesn't have many old buildings also means that it's very difficult to tell it apart from any other mid-sized, modern American city. As the narrator notes,

A stranger suddenly dropped into the business-center of Zenith could not have told whether he was in a city of Oregon or Georgia, Ohio or Maine, Oklahoma or Manitoba. (5.2.2)

Yikes. Wonder if that's on the promotional tourism pamphlets?

But we also learn that "to Babbitt every inch (of Zenith) was individual and stirring" (5.2.2). One of the interesting things here is that even though there's not much to distinguish Zenith on its surface, Babbitt has a blind faith that his town is the best town in the world.

The everyday, nondescript aspects of Zenith don't end with the skyline, but carry on inside Babbitt's house. As we find out early on,

Though there was nothing in the room that was interesting, there was nothing that was offensive. It was as neat, and as negative, as a block of artificial ice. (7.1.6)

These settings tell us some very important things about Babbitt, the main point being that his surroundings (like his personality. Ooooh, burn.) are very boring. They're governed more by a sense of what people should do rather than what they want to do.

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