A Case of the Babbitts: How Modern Workplace Satire Takes Inspiration from Babbitt
The evolving workplace of 1920s America presented industries and businesses with an innovative new standard of operation: work smarter, not harder. These innovations included the popularization of the assembly line, the right for women to vote (and, thereafter, the quest for the right to equal pay), and the invention and mass production of the automobile. It seemed as though all aspects of the American workforce were accelerating towards progress, but the practices were not so wholly appreciated by the American public. Once the Great Depression rattled the country, work became so much more than just a day at the office; it proved that any day could be an employee’s last, and that in order to keep your job safe, you would have to toe the line at all times. Such a dire situation may reinstate the country’s depression into the people, but for authors like Sinclair Lewis, an injection of cynicism and self-deprecation is therapeutic to the ills of the time.
In Lewis’ Babbitt, the eponymous protagonist is a well-to-do Middle American real estate agent with the most mediocre and unambitious ambitions possible, and his existence is evidence of the way that the relationship between work and worker had radically shifted. Babbitt is also partially motivated by the politics of the time, emphasizing centrist moderation and condemning “extreme” left-or-right wing political views, something George Babbitt particularly resents in “the long-haired gentry who call themselves ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ and ‘non-partisan’ and ‘intelligentsia’ and God only knows how many other trick names” (Lewis XV). In fact, a quick symbolic reading of Babbitt presents readers with the absolute state of 1920s America: always roaring anywhere but where you are. Anyone living where Babbitt is, by virtue of location or state of mind, must roar on their own accord to make a “normal” life interesting. The satire of Babbitt plays on the expectations of the average worker of the time, making light of the workforce’s shift from individual meritocratic focus to nearly-faceless collaboration. Babbitt still holds on to the belief that his efforts will be recognized, even though he spends most of the time being particularly unexceptional. Babbitt’s rebellious fantasies of “kicking over a couple of mountains” is unattainable when he struggles to ascend the molehill that is his conformist nature (XIII).
Since Babbitt’s publication, times have changed. Forward was the battlecry of business as America went to war for a second time. GDP spending on defense and technological advances went up to forty percent, increasing from the usual one to two percent, setting the precedent for technological research and development at the forefront of American industry. To competently operate in this field, America needed as much help as it could get. Lawmakers passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, making it illegal for a woman to be paid less than a man for the same amount of work at the same position. Also at this time, the Civil Rights movement had reached a decisive victory as the 1964 Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate against a person due to their race, skin color, religion, or national origin. This great equalization staggeringly filled the workforce with able people. To wrangle all these new workers, designer Robert Propst invented the “action office” compartment, the forerunner of the cubicle. Once thought to be a more personalized office, Propst’s creation was manipulated by businesses to fit more people into smaller workspaces as a cost-saving maneuver. As if these workers did not already feel downsized enough, the 21st century brought in computers and AI which automatized a fair amount of labor, making some jobs and careers obsolete. The 1920s workplace had much more mobility and personalization than the modern cubicle could ever dream to have. Babbitt’s idea of average, like office space with elbow room and a job that has “the class of poetry,” seem luxurious in these modern times (VIII). In a setting so isolationist and unfeeling, it is no wonder that writers and directors have continued lampooning “the nine-to-five grind” in the form of biting work and office comedies.
The years after Babbitt saw many major releases of content centered around the everyman or everywoman flipping the proverbial script on their cruel bosses or horrible positions. Films like Nine to Five (1980), where a trio of secretaries kidnap their tyrannical boss and run the business themselves, or shows like The Office (2005 – 2013), which displays the outlandish antics of a middling paper company run and employed by American caricatures, are important due to their relatability. Just as Babbitt points out the insanity of striving to be mediocre, office satires like these use comedic relatability to make something fun out of the mundane. However, few works share the aspects which make Babbitt as poignant as it is funny. With respect to the power of Babbitt as a true examination of American sloth, wrath, and pride in the work environment, Mike Judge’s 1999 film Office Space seems the closest to displaying all the key aspects of the most important piece of workplace satire of the 20th century. Office Space reflects the satirical elements of Babbitt in many ways, but to truly prove the undying influence of Lewis’ work, it is important to examine the specific aspects of low aim, rebellion, and regret to better communicate the ideas instilled from the 1920’s. Office Space is set in mid-1990s Texas, inspired by a short animation Judge had made called “Milton,” a muttering office worker that became increasingly frustrated at his situation. The film follows the life of Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) as he suffers at the hands of a software company called Initech. Gibbons’ job is to rewrite code in anticipation of “the 2000s switch,” which involves him changing thousands of lines of code to be four digits instead of two. As if the monotony isn’t enough, Gibbons’ desk is directly across from the shrill receptionist Nina, and he must endure the same vocal assault of “corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking, just a moment” every other second of the day. Gibbons has eight different bosses (“eight, Bob”) who do not care about him, as evidenced by the droning delivery of Bill Lumbergh, the ringleader of the bosses. Every day of his life is constant criticism, annoyance, and uniformity of suffering, and one day it pushes him over the edge and into action against his employers.
Peter’s only means escape from this daily torture are his office friends Samir and Michael, his next-door neighbor Lawrence, and a waitress named Joanna, seemingly the only characters that empathize with him. Peter, like Babbitt, cannot physically overpower the unfair and arbitrary rules of the office environment to get ahead without being disciplined by his supervisors. Peter’s inability to buck the system reflects Babbitt’s sole holdout on acting against the agency, which is the possibility that “the folks on Floral Heights will sit up and take notice…to little old Georgie” (XIII). For the both of them to escape the banality of it all, they entertain themselves with aggrandized fantasies. Babbitt, who sees his average stock automobile as “poetry” and a “perilous excursion ashore,” valued his standard car to the degree that a Rolls-Royce or Pierce Arrow of the time would normally have (III). He also pursues a “fairy” in his mind, a beautiful white and “eager” young thing which stole his attention away from the present moment (I). Peter Gibbons has his “fairy,” and it too reflects the lowly desires of the working man. In a conversation with Lawrence after a long day at work, Peter poses a question asked around the office: “what would you do with a million dollars?” Lawrence is quick to answer, crudely proposing that he’s always wanted to do “two chicks at the same time.” Peter laughs at this sentiment, but Lawrence is dead serious. Lawrence believes that having the million dollars will make him more desirable, to the point where he doesn’t even have to spend it in order to attain this ideal form. When the question inevitably turns to Peter, he posits that with a million dollars, “I would relax, sit on my ass all day, and do nothing.” Peter’s fairy is the idea of doing nothing, and like Babbitt’s fairy, it represents a fleeting escapist ideal that is impossible given their current work environment. Babbitt would love nothing more than to chase the fairy all day, while Peter would be thrilled by the idea of doing nothing all day. As Lawrence later says, “you don’t need a million dollars to do nothing,” a quote that spurs an idea in Peter that leads to the next related point.
After a time, Peter breaks away from the monotony of his situation by deciding to rebel against the system that had imprisoned him. The first phase of this is taking the day off of work and sleeping in unannounced, which draws phone calls from the always-unenthused Bill Lumbergh. When Peter realizes how ineffectual this form of rebellion is, he deliberately shows up to work in casual clothes, knocks down the walls of his cubicle, takes time off to go out on dates with the waitress that he’s just met, and throws fish guts on his T.P.S report cover sheets. All this deviation has gotten the office’s attention, as well as the performance reviewers coming to do the layoffs. As the rest of the company gets nervous for their performance reviews, Peter does not have a fearful feeling in his body, because he has armed himself with “the truth” about his work and is not afraid of what the reviewers think. He confesses about his multitude of bosses, the fact that he does “fifteen minutes of actual work a day,” and that he “doesn’t care” about his job. The last confession dumbfounds the reviewers, who ask him to clarify. Peter obliges, saying that there’s no motivation for him to do well as he does not see any gains from actually working hard. The reviewers meet with two of Peter’s bosses and claim that he has “upper management” qualifications, which his bosses (who are clearly upset with his debauchery) vehemently refuse to believe. Babbitt goes through a similarly remarkable experience involving his own realization of the banality of his average life. When he is introduced to Tanis and “the Bunch,” he realizes just what rebellion may look like, and happily accepts their company. The Bunch were known to drink excessively (something that would not be acceptable in Prohibition times) and let loose on formalities in conversations. Babbitt realizes just how tightly wound the working world is, and sincerely enjoys this “busting loose for a change” (XIII). His desire for rebellion grows, and soon he transfers his lust for Tanis into an illegitimate relationship, going behind the back of his own wife Myra to do so.
Babbitt raises the stakes on his own rebellion in order to feel like an individual, and soon finds himself consumed in contrarianism for the sake of standing out. Not even his own company, which greatly respects him after delivering a speech for the S.A.R.E.B chairs, is safe from his rampage. During a required course on the importance of immigrants, which causes coworkers like Finkelstein to ape for its overly-sensitive approach, Babbitt becomes infuriated and makes a scene to subvert these anti-immigrant sentiments. Despite how easy and popular it is to downsize immigrants in the workforce, and despite Babbitt’s own past views on the subject, the rush of rebellion overcomes him as he remarks, “‘Four-flusher! Bunch of hot air! And what’s the matter with the immigrants? Gosh, they aren’t all ignorant, and I got a hunch we’re all descended from immigrants ourselves’” (XXXII). George figures that this sentiment will make people view him differently, but it gets an unexpected result because his coworkers admire his particular honesty. Babbitt is even approached by the Good Citizen’s League, who request that he join their group. On the tailwind of his rebellion, Babbitt tells them off, and the narrator cites the fact that, “something black and unfamiliar and ferocious spoke from Babbitt: ‘Now, you look here, Charley! I’m damned if I’m going to be bullied into joining anything, not even by you plutes!’” (XXXII). While they attempt to coax him into joining, Babbitt has an internal realization that he may have carried this contrarianism too far, but also realizes “that if he yielded in this he would yield in everything” (XXXII). Between the two scenes from Office Space and Babbitt, the emphasis on rebellion by subverting the expectations of the worker and its appreciation by other people displays the power of “the Truth” which the office drones in Office Space must hide to keep their jobs secure, and the agents in Babbitt must ignore in order to keep their reputation consistent. Both acts of the main characters standing out reflects the archetype of a hero telling things as they are, and being rewarded for their honesty (even when it’s not the intended effect.) Yet at the height of the rebellion of the two characters, something goes awry. Some aspect requires them to “yield everything” that has occurred in them, and that aspect is usually involving a friend or a loved one. This is key to the aspect of the satirization, because just as things were starting to improve for the character, some outside force makes it impossible for them to continue on this heroic path. This brutality should make the readers angry, because they realize just how close the character was to reaching their goals of making their lives interesting and individualistic.
The step that takes Babbitt out of the contrarian game occurs when he realizes that Tanis is becoming just what Myra had been, “an emotional drain” (XXXI). Eventually, Babbitt returns to his wife Myra, and at a coincidental and consequential time where she is suffering from appendicitis. Babbitt calls the doctors (despite her fear of doctors) and they wish to operate on her before things get worse. Myra is panicked, but Babbitt throws off the exterior of rebellion to confess that “‘I love you more than anything in the world! I’ve kind of been worried by business and everything, but that’s all over now, and I’m back again,’” (XXIII). Babbitt stays with her through the ambulance ride and through the hospital stay, despite his desire to not be cramped up and burnt by the radiator in the ambulance every so often. Babbitt has matured here, and cast off the “tell it like it is” Truth for his own personal truth. Babbitt’s regret, as stated earlier, is a key aspect of the satire, because it shows just how close Babbitt was to being an individual like he had previously desired, but he instead chose to be a better person for his wife’s sake. Peter’s regretful rebellion has taken a turn for the worst. Peter’s ultimate act comes after his recommendation of promotion from the supervisors, meaning that his friends Samir and Michael will be fired in order to compensate. Peter and his friends concoct a nefarious plan to ensure that they are in good hands upon their firing (after taking their anger out on a faulty fax machine) by creating a program that siphons off company profits “by fractions of cents.” This way, an unnoticeable portion of the profits goes to them and they can have a hold on Initech without ever having to work there again. The code goes awry, however, as the friends discover that the program had used commas instead of decimal points, thereby taking huge chunks of profit from the company (to the tune of $30,000 an hour.) Peter begins to see that, like Babbitt, he has officially taken this campaign against Initech too far when he realizes that this may land him and his friends in federal prison.
Peter wants to rectify the situation, giving up any hope he had of getting back at Initech in favor of not getting him and his friends in trouble. After much deliberation, he realizes that the truth must come out again, and he must show the program to the Initech bosses to ensure that only he takes the fall. It is “yielding everything,” just like Babbitt had proposed, but it is for the safety of others that he confesses like this. As he pulls into the Initech office for this fateful moment, he notices something different about the office: it is engulfed in flames, and all the coworkers have left. It turns out that the office had been set on fire by none other than the mumbling basement-dwelling Milton, who has had it with Initech’s mistreatment and had a rebellion of his own. Milton’s arson has burned the records of the transactions, expunging Peter and his friends of their crimes. Peter’s drive to do the right thing has been rectified by Milton’s actions, allowing him to escape scot-free and find more satisfying work in joining Lawrence in the construction field. Their first order of business: demolishing the burned husk of the Initech. The film ends Peter’s story here, as he has escaped the rebellious lifestyle and has been put back to work in a field that, for now, isn’t so bad. Both pieces invoke the key elements that Lewis had established as the precedent for workplace satire, with the low aim of the average American worker, the attempts at standing out against the system, and lastly the regret over how far things have gone and the return to normalcy serving the main arc of the plot. Both Babbitt and Peter lead unextraordinary lives in their lines of work, and face off against their judgemental higher-ups and peers. A crucial event determines “the last straw” on living in this unsatisfying life, and the two pursue purposeful (and oftentimes ludicrous) forms of debauchery to set themselves apart from the other drones in their lives. At some point, their rebellions gain the attention of those in the workplace, and they receive both expected and unexpected praise for their efforts. The characters both carry it too far, and realize that they’ve taken the their normal “boring” lives for granted. They attempt to rectify what they have created, opting to remove any transgressiveness from their vocabulary and own up to being an average worker to secure their jobs again. As previously stated, this may draw the ire of readers, as the characters are just so close to being this “individual” that they’ve desired to be, but return to the comfort of their workspace.
As Claire Eby’s framework for discussing Babbitt claims, the readers have a hard time relating to Babbitt as a character because of his hypocrisy and his inability to see the dramatic irony of his situation. Eby confirms that readers should be moved “from resistance to recognition…often students acknowledge without any prodding from me that these problems persist in their own world.” When watching Office Space, it is far easier to draw relatability from the characters (not just Peter Gibbons) because they reflect modern sensibilities. Peter’s hypocrisy of wanting to get back at Initech for all the years he’s had to take it juxtaposed with his desire to not let things go too far is relatable because his horrifyingly dull and tedious workspace is given life by its imagery. For Babbitt, it’s hard to truly complain about his situation, and readers are more liable to seek blame in the character. Eby’s assertion that students resist Babbitt for this reason is correct, and is rectified by asking the classroom, “do you know anyone like Babbitt? Have you ever felt this sort of pressure?” This proves how deeply ingrained Babbitt’s worker mindset is in American students: they feel as though they would do something differently or more correctly, but they haven’t made the steps to sort out their own hypocrisies and clean their own rooms. This is why the two satires succeed in being more than just funny: it proves that underachievement and regretful rebellion are key aspects in the American everyday workforce, and not just a “case of the Mondays,” no matter how much we may want it to be.
Eby, Clare V. Teaching Sinclair Lewis From Resentment to Recognition: Babbitt in the Classroom. english.illinoisstate.edu/sinclairlewis/teaching/documents/Spring1994Babbitt.pdf.Judge, Mike, Michael Rotenberg, Daniel Rappaport, Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, Stephen Root, Gary Cole, John C. McGinley, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Diedrich Bader, Michael McShane, Richard Riehle, Alexandra Wentworth, and John Frizzell. Office Space. Beverly Hills, Calif: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2005.Lewis, S. (1947). Babbitt. London: Albatross.Taube, Aaron. “The Man Who Invented The Cubicle Went To His Grave Hating What His Creation Had Become.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 7 Oct. 2014, www.businessinsider.com/cubicle-inventor-propst-hated-creation-2014-10.“What is the Total US Defense Spending?” US Government Defense Spending History with Charts – a www.Usgovernmentspending.com briefing, www.usgovernmentspending.com/defense_spending.
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