Study Guide

Babbitt Society and Class

By Harry Sinclair Lewis

Society and Class

"And now Myra is going to get pathetic on me because we don't train with this millionaire outfit. Oh, Lord, sometimes I'd like to quit the whole game." (2.2.45)

Sometimes, Babbitt blames his wife Myra for the fact that he's not as high in the social pecking order as he'd like to be. As we quickly find out from the book, though, this insecurity is Babbitt's issue, not Myra's. Babbitt likes to find relief in the fantasy of going out to live in the woods. But he never actually follows through on it.

He serenely believed that the one purpose of the real-estate business was to make money for George F. Babbitt. (4.4.2)

In Babbitt's mind, making money is a key aspect of becoming happy—at least at the beginning of this book. That all changes, though, as he begins to suspect that money won't bring him any fulfillment at all.

"Lord, if the Old Folks—they live in one of these hick towns up-state and they simply can't get onto the way a city fellow's mind works, and then, of course, they're Jews, and they'd lie right down and die if they knew Sid had anted up a hundred and twenty-six bones." (5.3.12)

Whenever you have discrimination about people's social class, racism usually isn't far behind. In this case, a guy named Sid Finklestein complains about how angry his Jewish parents would be at him if they knew how much money he spent on things that he didn't need. In his mind, though, these people are living in the stone age and aren't able to appreciate the finer things in life.

"Oh, you're a great little josher, Verg. But when it comes to kidding, how about this report that you stole the black marble steps off the post-office and sold 'em for high-grade coal!" (5.3.16)

The guys at Babbitt's social clubs like to have a good laugh now and then. And some of the things they like to laugh about are all the shady business deals they've pulled at the expense of the public. This is pretty much the upper classes at their worst. They cheat people out of money and then brag about it when they get together.

"Oh, I don't mean I haven't had a lot of fun out of the Game; out of putting it over on the labor unions, and seeing a big check coming in, and the business increasing. But what's the use of it?" (5.3.48)

Paul Riesling likes cheating the labor unions and making money as much as the next guy. The problem is that he wants to know where it all leads, and he can't really come up with a satisfying answer.

To-night he departed with feigned and apologetic liveliness. He was as afraid of his still-faced clerks—of the eyes focused on him […] as a parvenu before the bleak propriety of his butler. (6.2.10)

Deep down, Babbitt is afraid of his employees. The reason he's afraid is because he has a fragile ego and he wants everyone to like him. His insecurity here helps show us how in some ways, the lower classes still have the power to influence the upper classes.

[And] privately he meditated that it was agreeable to have it known throughout the neighborhood that he was so prosperous that this son never worked around the house. (6.3.1).

On the one hand, Babbitt wishes that his son Ted would pick up the slack and start doing more chores around the house. On the other hand, he likes having everyone know that he's well off enough to pay servants instead of making his son do anything. So yeah… he cares about what other people think.

"No, what I fight in Zenith is standardization of thought, and, of course, the traditions of competition. The real villains of the piece are the clean, kind, industrious Family Men who use every known brand of trickery and cruelty to insure the prosperity of their cubs." (7.5.6)

Seneca Doane might be a scary, scary socialist, but he's not trying to go around and ruin the world for everyone. In fact, the thing he objects to the most about Zenith's society is the way that all the people in the upper and middle classes have the exact same opinions on nearly everything. In his mind, it's impossible to have a good democracy when there's no one speaking out against the way things are.

"Just the same, you don't want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps 'em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness." (8.2.76)

Nearly all the men at Babbitt's social clubs agree that the prohibition of alcohol is an infringement on their personal freedoms. But at the same time, they think that it's a good thing the lower classes can't drink, since this will make them less productive in their work.

One evening a number of young men raided the Zenith Socialist Headquarters, burned its records, beat the office staff, and agreeably dumped desks out of the window." (34.1.6)

The upper classes of Zenith aren't very big fans of socialism, and they'll do pretty much whatever they can to discourage people from ever speaking their socialist views in public. That includes breaking into offices and beating people up. And when it comes time for the newspapers to report on this stuff, the rich also have a very strong voice in deciding how the news gets presented.

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