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In his 1992 book, "Babbitt," the author Sinclair Lewis portrayed a character, Babbitt, who was used to show life in a conformist society. The activities are taking place in the Zenith, a midsize manufacturing area, home to the enterprising American businessman. The satirical novel shows the reader as the main hero whose acts were mostly focused on what society thinks of him. As a result, all Babbitt's reasons for actions in the novel include social climbing, desire, and influence. Thus, Babbitt's decisions are heavily determined by his social, economic and political climate, and his free will plays only a small part in deciding his choices. Social forces are the main influence on Babbitt's character. He always wanted to be associated with rich people so as to gain a higher social class from his peers and people around him. For instance, he derives a sense of accomplishment from close association with the prominent newspaper poet, T. Cholmondeley and other high ranking individuals who "composed a club within the club, and merrily called themselves "The Roughnecks" who also note that Babbit is “getting awful darn exclusive” (Lewis 65). He also joins all civic association which accepts him, such as the Zenith Boosters Club. His choice to court prominence is clear in the observation that even among the International Association of Boosters Club, “none of these is more ardent than the Zenith Boosters Club” (249). He does not get much involved in religion matters and even does not join the Anti-Birth Control Union. He always liked to do things based on how they will look to others. He also wants his son, Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt to go to university, even though he confesses to having a hostile attitude towards college. He states, "There s a lot of smart college professors and tea-guzzling slobs in this burg that say I m a roughneck and a never- wuzzer and my knowledge of history is not-yet. Oh, there s a gang of woolly-whiskered book-lice that think they know more than Almighty God, and prefer a lot of Hun science and smutty German criticism to the straight and simple Word of God” (102). He only seeks the prestige of the state university.
Babbit is a prisoner of the prestige attached to higher social classes and the attendant mannerisms to which he aspires. Whenever a chance to mix with the upper class arose, his relationships with the rich became profound. As a matter of fact, “Babbitt s democratic love for titles became a rich relish” (Lewis 189). For instance, when Sir Gerald Doak of Manchester was in Zenith he did not notice Babbitt's existence. Due to the long monotonous business trip to Chicago, Doake opted to have fun with Babbitt. At the movies, Babbitt, “in silent bliss sat beside him, trying not to be too enthusiastic, lest the knight despise his adoration of six- shooters and broncos” (Lewis 237). To Babbitt, a long life friendship had begun.
Babbitt’s worship of the high society and their ideals, which contrasted with of his own, made him come across a hypocrite who acts only for the sake of propriety but without any conviction. He advocated but did not practice prohibition of alcohol. He saw himself as a romantic hero. He lived in a closed small world of his own. His house included very expensive materials which do not match with middle-class persons. For instance, his bedroom was decorated by “one of the best standard designs of the decorator who " did the interiors" for most of the speculative builders' houses in Zenith” (23). Very expensive furniture and mattresses were contained in his house. He did all this for recognition by his friends.
Babbitt’s actions were often influenced by economic forces that defined the revolution of their time and which divided society into classes, as he strived to be rich. To Babbitt, business was the sole purpose of living. He desired wealth by all means. Babbitt sees himself as part of the new wave of America. He describes the new “urbanites” with whom he wanted to be associated, as a “wise and beautiful and amusing; they were Bohemians and urbanites, accustomed to all the luxuries of Zenith: dance-halls, picture-theatres, and roadside inns” (Lewis 320). He does not want to be the average middle-class man but a very wealthy man recognized in America. He always compares himself with rich people he knew and those he met.
The political forces such as pertinent public issues often swayed Babbitt’s opinion and influenced his habit, even when this was against his own interests. Babbitt chooses to rebel the society of conformity, but unfortunately, the means of rebellion were poorly chosen. He changes his political outlook. After that, he joins the Doane’s political movement. He supports workers strike and joins liberal politics. This disappointed his friends in the Boosters club. He even has the courage to voice his criticism about the perspectives of a conservative congressman before Dr. Dilling, a prominent club member. His bravado attracts the interest of three very prominent individuals, Dr. Dilling, Charles McKelvey and Colonel Rutherford. They pay him a visit in his office to try and sway his political opinion:
We’ve come from the Good Citizens League. We've decided we want you to join. Vergil Gunch says you don t care to, but I think we can show you a new light. The League is going to combine with the Chamber of Commerce in a campaign for the Open Shop, so it is time for you to put your name down (Lewis 352).
Babbitt is reluctant to join the league because of their difference in political opinion and he sticks his head out for what he has been made to believe is right. He becomes the victim of political sabotage from the group as his associates ignore him and his business declines with his employees seeking employment elsewhere (360).
Babbitt’s character has a minimal influence on his choices as opposed to the social political and economic forces, creating the picture of a man who does not have a stable character or principles. When he is alone, he seems incapable of making consistent choices or exercising good judgment. When Babbitt realizes that the life he lives is confined to the society, he is dissatisfied with this issue and tries to find ways of refreshing himself from this stress. He plans to go on a trip to Maine with his close friend and college roommate, Paul Reisling, who is also dissatisfied with his job and family. Later, he regretfully reminisces while considering an escape from home that “it would not take any more nerve than for Paul to go to jail” (Lewis 283). The same poor judgment leads him to have an extramarital affair with an attractive widow, Tanis Judique and to get involved in liberal politics both of which end in regret. He is discouraged from exercising his will on account of the misfortunes that accompany it.
In conclusion, Babbitt is a slave to his beliefs about the society. He lives to the expectations of the society and disregards his desires. At the end of the story, Babbitt seems to have realized that his conformity is a setback, but he is not ready for the change. Although he confesses that he has never done anything he wanted in life and gives his son Ted a chance to lead his life, he remains a slave to his society (43). His son seems to understand the necessity of independence in the determination of one’s fate and fulfillment in life.
Lewis, Sinclair. Babbitt. New York: Sheba Blake Publishing, 2013.
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