The History of Business in America
The book by Sinclair Lewis revolves around the life of George F. Babbitt, a forty-six-year-old man, involved in the real estate business in the city of Zenith. The book begins with Babbitt dreaming about his fairly girl until he is awakened by his alarm clock, which takes him back to the reality of his life. Babbitt is married to Myra, and they have three children called Verona, Ted, and Tinka (Lewis 1). He tells about his family’s digestive health and his business, which he hopes will keep flourishing. Babbitt has a good friend called Paul who has lost the meaning of marriage and the business class, who later goes to jail for shooting his wife. Without his friend around, Babbitt begins to question the Republican and capitalist values that are embraced by his other friends. However, this puts his business in trouble, and he loses most of his business associates. To save his marriage and business, he goes back to his old self, hoping that it will provide him financial security. Babbitt is happy that his son chooses his own path in life and marries a neighborhood girl, which is seen as a new hope.
George Babbitt lives in Zenith. Interestingly, the city has numerous churches and citadels, which are referred to as the symbols of the traditional world. The plot of this book unfolds in 1920, so Zenith seems to have developed earlier than other cities. “The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods” (Lewis 1). This description of the city makes it difficult to differentiate it from the modern American cities. The author also tells that the city is filled with beautiful office buildings, which is also a major characteristic of the modern cities. Contrary to the popular belief that the older cities in 1920’s had landmarks of churches and citadels, the most important landmarks of Zenith are its concrete towers. All this seems to be an example of some form of prosperity that emerged in this region after World War One, when the city becomes filled with factories, skyscrapers, and such automobiles as the milk truck.
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Despite the development of this city portrayed by the writer, it is clear that most of the households in this novel represent the middle-class individuals, such as Babbitt himself. The people of this period are seen to be in high competition for wealth and social class as one can note when Babbitt and Myra start experiencing marital problems due to a decrease in their social status. The nature of free market capitalism depicted in this novel seems to be guided by hypocrisy as seen from the behavior of Babbitt and his attitude to the work. The aspect of hypocrisy depicted in the life of Babbitt symbolizes the contradictory thoughts that can be associated with the followers of free market capitalism. Babbitt insists on moral uprightness regarding conducting business, but instead, he cheats people out of their money. It seems as it is normal for him to be dishonest, but he is not pleased with any of the people that he suspects of being dishonest. The novel does not insist that people should embrace socialism, but rather tries to enlighten people about the flaws that are associated with free market capitalism.
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Through the history of this city, Lewis shows that it is filled with conformity and ignorance similar to the kind that can be noted in today’s typical American cities, and the image of the middle-class society presented in Lewis’s work seems similar to the kind that is characteristic of the American families today. People allow themselves to conform to this world, in which every individual has to behave in the same manner as the rest of the people to protect one from being considered an outcast. This is what a reader can note in the twenty-third chapter where Babbitt questions the capitalist and Republican values that his friends cherish. When he changes his behavior and has an affair with Tanis Judique, his real estate client, his friends become angry with him. During the time when he defends a socialist lawyer, the society seems to forsake him; no one wants to be associated with him. This is when he loses most of his business associates, and his business starts declining.
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Sinclair Lewis depicts a society in which people cannot think for themselves and hopelessly follow any ideas that help them achieve a higher social status. People do not think of anything else apart from competing with one another regarding their appearance and the attainment of a higher social class. The desire for wealth seems to be the key motivating factor in this society, in which the community members treat everything as a business enterprise. Comparing this aspect to the middle-class individuals it the society today, the only difference seems to be in the fact that the middle class in the society contains the followers of capitalism and socialism. Additionally, the middle-class citizens today have the ability to think for themselves and follow ideas that they think will be of benefit, not just in matters of wealth, but also concerning the overall well-being of an individual. The lives of individuals in the book are portrayed as empty, making it seem like the individuals lacked something that make life meaningful today. It seems that Babbitt might look for some thrill, which his boring life lacks, when he starts flirting with women, and eventually gets into an affair with one of the women. Additionally, Babbitt may not be satisfied with the life that the capitalist society offers him. He blames his wife for the dissatisfaction he has been experiencing. “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 quite the whole game” (Lewis 45).
Survival in the Zenith community can only be ensured if one chooses to follow the capitalist way of life. This is very different from today’s community where every individual chooses what to believe in and the way of life that they should follow. The American society today allows every individual to believe in the socialist or capitalist way of life as long as it increases their wealth and brings satisfaction in their lives. In Zenith, to survive, one had to follow the capitalist way of life strictly. Lewis incorporates this issue in his book to show how much the individuals in the 1920’s believed that only one specific way of life would bring prosperity and peace in their household. When Myra has acute appendicitis, Babbitt has to start being the old self. Despite the fact that he is now fully aware of the flaws of the capitalist society, he has no option but to behave again as a capitalist to save his wife’s life and to boost his business. When he accepts that he should be living as other individuals in the middle-class society, he manages to have his friends back, and once again his business starts to boom. He has to continue with his love for money or else things will not get better. “He serenely believed that one purpose of the real-estate business was to make money for George F. Babbitt” (Lewis 20).
It seems that people in the capitalism society do not have an opportunity to make their decisions in matters regarding their way of life. They have to follow what the entire society believes in, whether they like it or not. People in Zenith have to live as everyone else. This explains the reason as to why Babbitt’s neighbors are disappointed when Ted leaves school and elopes with a neighborhood girl. However, his father is pleased with him and fully supports him in this decision because he is sure that the son will become fully independents. Babbitt believes that such behavior as demonstrated by his son is a new hope for the future generations, which will be able to make their own decisions as compared to Babbitt’s generation.
In conclusion, this paper sheds light on the historical aspects of Zenith as it relates to the life of Babbitt. It shows that Zenith achieved modernization in the 1920’s, but most people remained the middle class. Prosperity in this city is determined by the acceptance of the middle class together with the belief in capitalism. People are prevented from turning off this way of life by being neglected by the entire society. The way of life in Zenith also seems to suppress the voice of the people since they are not allowed to express publicly their liking for socialism. However, there seems to be a new hope for this city when rebellion starts and the young choose to make their decision regardless of the opposition from the rest of the community.