Study Guide

Babbitt Marriage

By Harry Sinclair Lewis

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From the bedroom beside the sleeping-porch, his wife's detestably cheerful "Time to get up, Georgie boy," and the itchy sound, the brisk and scratchy sound, of combing hairs out of a stiff brush. (1.3.2).

There are times when Babbitt has a hard time tolerating his wife Myra, especially those times when she's waking him up for work in the morning. You can tell by the words like "itchy," "scratchy," and "stiff" that Babbitt is annoyed by almost everything Myra does. Which is a shame, really, because none of it's her fault.

She had become so dully habituated to married life that in her full matronliness she was as sexless as an anemic nun. (1.4.1)

Okay, so now the narrator is getting really harsh. Comparing Myra to an anemic nun is a not-so-nice way of saying that she has grown old and gained weight, and that Babbitt no longer has a shred of sexual attraction to her. If he were interested in anything else about women, he might have an easier time growing old. But since he's pretty shallow in this regard, he thinks his only other option is to have an affair.

In twenty-three years of married life he had peered uneasily at every graceful ankle, every soft shoulder; in thought he had treasured them; but not once had he hazarded respectability by adventuring. (3.3.22)

Babbitt has always had a wandering eye when it comes to looking at attractive young women. But he has never, never made a move on any of them. After all, he's more interested in being respectable than pursuing his sexual urges, at least at the beginning of the book. As the novel unfolds, his priorities change and he does start to act on these urges, though.

"You couldn't hire her to divorce me, no, nor desert me. She's too fond of her three squares and a few pounds a nut-center chocolates in between." (5.3.39)

Paul Riesling knows that he has no chance of ever getting a divorce from his wife Zilla. It's not like Zilla even loves him that much. It's that she loves the lifestyle that Paul is able to provide for her with all his hard work. According to Paul, that is.

"But rats, you know what Zilla is. How she nags—nags—nags. How she wants everything I can buy her, and a lot that I can't, and how absolutely unreasonable she is." (5.3.41)

Paul honestly doesn't now what he's going to do. He knows that he's trapped in his marriage with Zilla, but at the same time, he knows that he'll never be able to survive the rest of his life without getting away from her. This puts Paul between a rock and a hard place, and it seems that the only way he can see out of it is to murder Zilla.

"If a man is bored by his wife, do you seriously mean he has a right to chuck her and take a sneak, or even kill himself?" (5.3.53)

Babbitt quickly becomes uncomfortable when Paul muses about killing himself in order to get away from his wife Zilla. Even though he wants to be supportive, Babbitt can't just sit back and let Paul say these things. He reminds Paul that he has a social responsibility to play the hand he's dealt and to keep pushing on, no matter how tough life gets.

Often, in the month after, he got near to telling her, but it was pleasant to have a girl in his arms, and less and less could he insult her by blurting that he didn't love her. (6.4.21)

When Babbitt first met Myra, he wasn't all that into her. But one night after drinking, he kissed her and she took this as meaning that they were officially engaged. As you can imagine, Babbitt got freaked out. But over time, he decided that it was easier to just go with the flow and marry Myra instead of taking the effort to break things off. How's that for romance?

Each morning they lay abed till the breakfast-bell, pleasantly conscious that there were no efficient wives to rouse them. (11.4.1)

No doubt about it: Paul and Babbitt love their time away from their wives. One of the best perks is being able to sleep in without their wives bugging them to get up. But at the end of the day, this is only a temporary satisfaction. Both men know that they'll eventually have to go back to their normal lives.

"Riesling absolutely refuses to have any testimony reflecting on his wife. He insists on pleading guilty." (22.1.36)

Even though he has always blamed Zilla for pushing him over the edge of sanity, Paul refuses to say anything about her when the time comes to defend himself at his trial. Maybe the guy has finally learned to take responsibility for his own problems instead of blaming everything on his wife.

As he began to drift away he also began to see her as a human being, to like and dislike her instead of accepting her as a comparatively movable part of the furniture, and he compassionated that husband-and-wife relation which, in twenty-five years of married life, had become a separate and real entity. (30.2.2)

In an ironic twist, it's only by growing apart from his wife that Babbitt can truly learn to see her as a human being. Before, he was only aware of her as someone he had to put up with. But as they drift apart, he realizes that Myra is her own person with her own desires. You'd like to think that a guy could figure that sort of thing out before marrying someone.

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