In the satirical novel Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt goes through life under the assumption that the only way to achieve happiness is through conforming in society. He looks towards wealth and material possessions to provide him with that happiness and social status. Once he becomes aware of his ignorance, he makes an effort to change his ways. However, Babbitt’s way of thought, filled with hypocrisy, is too far gone. Throughout most of the novel, Babbitt is ignorant with regard to how much conformity has conditioned him.
He is oblivious to how much society has changed his way of thinking. All of Babbitt’s thoughts regarding relationships, business, family, and social life are based upon his ability to conform to Zenith’s standard of thought. In the beginning, Babbitt is content to abide by the standards of Zenith aware of the flaws that reside in this hopelessly complacent community. He is since he has no real understanding of the flaws in society and how “soul- destroying intellectual conformity leads to a pervasive and inescapable dullness” due to his obsession of materialism and wealth (Hilfer).
Babbitt is blinded by the illusion of happiness esiding in his climb up the social ladder. He is not only ignorant in his understanding of the effects of conformity, he further goes on to reinforce values of the middle class in an attempt to overlook the fact that his life is not satisfying. In a speech he praises Zenith, saying it is the “finest example of American life and prosperity to be found anywhere” (Lewis 164). This reveals how little Babbitt knows of his own town since he is expressing hope that his current form of society will spread when he should be telling the world how corrupt Zenith truly is.
Zenith, unable to hink for itself, is merely concerned with the appearance and social status it acquires. Its corruption derives from its dependency on money and power rather than democratic ideals. Babbitt is praised for speaking highly of Zenith even though he knows he is not receiving his status through honest work but through the corruption of such values. However, Babbitt soon grasps the ignorance evident in the middle class’s way of living and begins to yearn for his true aspirations.
He realizes that his society’s ideals stem from competition and reaching a certain social status when it should be based on orality. Even though Babbitt manages to realize that society should be based on morality, his thoughts when it comes to moral are hypocritical. He claims to be “a member of the Presbyterian Church.. [who] serve[s] [his] fellow men, honor[s] [his] brother as [himself], and does [his] bit to make life happier for one and all” when all he does is cheat people out of money and call others out he suspects of being dishonest (Lewis 199).
Babbitt is not even able to explain his own religious beliefs and is completely unfamiliar with the Bible. The only thing that he truly worships is science and technology. His relationship with the church is merely commercial just like all his other attributes. Babbitt lies about his core beliefs to hide his character flaws and to be accepted in society. He is afraid of becoming an outcast who is rejected and left with no social status. Another instance in which Babbitt reveals a double standard is when he preaches about business ethics. Even though he finds “ethics confusing in nature. he persists to preach his political opinions (Lewis 48).
In one situation, Babbitt disapproves of the working class’s attempts to organize labor unions in order to protect their own nterests, yet he has no objections with the numerous amount of organizations that protect the business community’s interests. This shows how his political opinions are hypocritical when it comes to the middle class versus the working class. Babbitt claims that he wants to expose the hypocrisy and emptiness underlying middle-class life when he is part of the problem as well.
Like the rest of society, he drinks, parties, and dances in order to temporarily escape from all the troubles and anxiety of modern life. However, once the false emotions provided by these escapes wear off, Babbitt is able to see how ull and conventional he and his friends lives are. But nevertheless, he continues to proceed in these actions. This shows that Babbitt is unable to escape the temptations of conformity. Babbitt and the rest of society live a hypocritical lifestyle in order to gain the happiness that supposedly comes with it.
In Babbitt’s society, material wealth is the symbol for high status and so called happiness. Babbitt represents the typical middle class man only concerned with how others see him. From the beginning, his life style showed his need for material possessions starting with his luxurious home. It had all the modern conveniences, including the “best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm clocks, with all the modern attachments (Lewis 5). However, the description of the house reveals that its sleek modern appearance is just that- appearance.
All Babbitt gets from his material possessions is the praise and jealousy of others. He receives no true happiness from them. Zenith uses this constant need of material objects as a distraction. People in society will not focus on the corruption resulting from the immense amount of conformity when all they trive for is being higher in status. The middle classes favor appearance over substance since their entire outlook on life is influenced by their worship of material objects.
One instance of this worship is with Babbitt’s car. He cares so much for his car that he tells his son that he needs to get a “car of [his] own, like lots of the fellows” rather than just letting his son use his (Lewis 26). This shows the middle classes’ obsession with material objects. For Babbitt, his car represents “poetry and tragedy, love and heroism” since his life lacks all these characteristics (Lewis 31). His lifestyle is filled with emptiness and his material possessions will never bring him contentment.
Material possessions and status measure the worth of an individual in Babbitt’s society. According to Mark Schorer, “since the publication of Babbitt, everyone has learned that conformity is the great price that our predominantly commercial culture exacts of American life. ” (Schorer) This shows that even in modern society, materialism can lead to or prevent the stop of conformity. Throughout the novel, Babbitt struggles to escape conformity. Due to his ignorance, he is more than happy to onform to the standards set for him by the rest of society.
However, as he becomes more and more aware of the corruption in Zenith, he becomes less content with its ideals. But due to the resounding amount of hypocrisy found in the middle class, Babbitt tends to resort back to those ideals. He continues to worship material possessions even though they bring him no happiness. He tries to rebel and seek individualism but the rejection from society was too hard for him to take. He knew that his time was up and the only way the middle class can change is through the future generations.
This is where the idea of hope comes into the novel. When Ted decides to marry Eunice Littlefield in secret after deciding not to go to college and to work as a mechanic instead, he is condemned by everyone except Babbitt. He realizes that Ted has developed qualities that he has never obtained including individuality, courage, and independence. In Zenith these qualities are frowned upon since they do not fit in with the conformity in society. However, Babbitt encourages Ted to follow his dreams since he wants his son to live a more fulfilling life then he did.