Study Guide

Babbitt Family

By Harry Sinclair Lewis

Family

He sulkily admitted now that there was no more escape, but he lay and detested the grin of the real-estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself for disliking them. (1.3.2)

Like many people with jobs, Babbitt isn't always thrilled about getting up to go to work. But not only does he dislike getting up to face his job—he dislikes getting up to face his family. He knows that deep down he should like them more. But this realization just makes him dislike himself for not being a better father. It's all just one big circle of frustration.

She was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save perhaps Tinka her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive. (1.4.1)

Myra Babbitt, as the narrator tells us, is a good woman. But hardly anyone in the house knows that she's alive. Her husband George isn't sexually attracted to her anymore, and it's a shame to think that without this sexual attraction, he's not all that interested in her as a person. The same goes for her children (except Tinka), who think of her as a servant who cooks meals and cleans the house. It's not exactly a recipe for a fulfilling life.

"I swear, I feel like going off some place where I can get a little peace. I do think after a man's spent his lifetime trying to give his kids a chance and a decent education, it's pretty discouraging to hear them all the time scrapping like a bunch of hyenas." (2.2.31)

Sometimes, George Babbitt just wishes he could get away from his annoying family. All they ever seem to do is bicker, and he thinks it's a shame that there's no proper way for him to ask for some time alone. If he wants to take a vacation, it's assumed that his family will go with him.

They had been classmates, roommates, in the State University, but always he thought of Paul Riesling, with his dark slimness, his precisely parted hair, his nose-glasses, his hesitant speech, his moodiness, his love of music, as a younger brother. (4.3.6)

Babbitt thinks of Paul Riesling as a younger brother whom he needs to protect and look out for. The problem is that Babbitt doesn't realize how much he relies on Paul to keep his own life together. The moment Paul goes to jail and disappears from his life, Babbitt falls to pieces because he no longer has anyone else to look out for. He needs to face himself, and he doesn't really like what he sees.

"What a family! I don't know how we all get to scrapping this way. Like to go off some place and be able to hear myself think…Paul…Maine…Wear old pants, and loaf, and cuss." (6.3.14)

When he looks at the chaos of his family life, Babbitt wishes he could just pick up and go off to Maine to be with Paul Riesling. Then he could just be himself, swearing and not caring about how he dressed. Basically, freedom is what the guy is looking for.

Ed Overbrook was a classmate of Babbitt who had been a failure. He had a large family and a feeble insurance business out in the suburb of Dorchester. (15.5.2)

Having a family is definitely a sign of a successful life in Babbitt. But having a family that's too large can be a symbol of poverty and ignorance, as we find with the case of Ed Overbrook. There's a reason, you see, why middle-class people like the Babbitts only have between one and three kids. It's because they want to make sure there's enough money to give all of their kids the biggest advantages in life. Having six to eight kids, though, makes doing this a lot harder.

Though he saw them twice daily, though he knew and amply discussed every detail of their expenditures, yet for weeks together Babbitt was no more conscious of his children than of the buttons on his coat-sleeves. (18.1.1)

When Babbitt's mind is on work, he doesn't notice much about the world around him. And this goes especially for his children. The only way he does know them, in fact, is by the amount of money they're spending. Which you have to admit isn't the best way to know your kids.

Babbitt was an average father. He was affectionate, bullying, opinionated, ignorant, and rather wistful. Like most parents, he enjoyed the game of waiting till the victim was clearly wrong, then virtuously pouncing. (18.1.11)

It's pretty late in the book for the narrator to be directly telling us what kind of guy Babbitt is. But oh well. Here, the narrator reminds us that Babbitt is pretty average as a dad. He really, really likes to be right, and he is always waiting for someone to make a clear mistake so he can pounce on it… which just seems super-cruel.

When Ted had returned to Zenith, Babbitt was lonely. (19.3.32)

Eventually, Babbitt realizes that he might find his life more meaningful if he makes more of an effort to connect with his son Ted. And this is exactly what seems to happen when he takes Ted on a trip to Chicago. Unfortunately, Ted needs to go home for school and Babbitt is left all alone again to face the emptiness inside himself.

"Oh honey, I love you more than anything in the world! I've kind of been worried by business and everything, but that's all over now, and I'm back again." (31.1.34)

When Myra gets sick and is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, Babbitt vows to stop rebelling and to become an upstanding, conservative citizen again. Maybe it's the fear of losing his wife, or maybe it's the shame of having cheated on her: it's your call. But it's clear that Myra's sickness is what provokes Babbitt to change suddenly back to his old ways.

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