George F. Babbitt, the forty-six-year-old realtor who gives the novel its title, is a figure so vivid he\'s come to represent the typical prosperous, middle-aged American businessman of the 1920s--conservative, uncultured, smug, conforming, and loud.
Babbitt has dozens of faults, and Lewis the satirist wants you to laugh at every one of them. Babbitt\'s a booster, loudly promoting his city even when he doesn\'t understand what he\'s promoting. He takes pride in being modern, but he knows nothing of the science and engineering he salutes. He praises business ethics, but he isn\'t above making shady deals with the Zenith Street Traction Company; he talks about leading a moral life but goes to a brothel and indulges in an adulterous affair. Music and art are threatening mysteries, great literature is a letter promoting cemetery plots, and education and religion are merely means of getting ahead in real estate.
And yet Lewis doesn\'t want us merely to sneer at Babbitt. In fact, as he wrote to a friend, he liked Babbitt--and he wants you to like Babbitt (at least a little) too. At his best, Babbitt is a sympathetic character. He may not understand his children, but he loves them. And his friendship with Paul Riesling is a genuine one.
Most important of all, Babbitt is able to see--though dimly--that his life has serious flaws and that he could be a better man than he is. Much of the book is devoted to showing Babbitt trying to become that man. He flees with Paul Riesling to the woods of Maine, which symbolize for him a masculine world, free and brave. He supports Seneca Doane\'s political crusade. Unfortunately, he isn\'t intelligent enough to choose really effective ways of rebelling. (When his attempt at politics fails, he enters into a rather foolish affair with the sophisticated Tanis Judique.) Nor is he strong enough to make his rebellion last.
Babbitt is a comic figure, and Lewis with his gift of parody will have you laughing at each of his absurd business letters, each of his boneheaded speeches. But at the end of the book Babbitt emerges as a pathetic figure as well. He\'s in the terrible bind of knowing that he needs to change but isn\'t courageous enough. Is he a more or less hapless victim of the Zenith mentality and morality? Or is he really responsible for his own plight, a man suffering only because he\'s now forced to follow the standards he demanded of everyone else? That\'s for you to decide. All Babbitt can hope for as his story ends is that the next generation, represented by his son, Ted, will somehow manage to lead a better life.