Conforming to the Standard
Conformity is one of the most prominent themes of the satirical novel Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. The main character, George F. Babbitt, is middle-aged, middle-class, and lives in middle America in the 1920s. World War I has just ended and the nation, including Babbitt’s town of Zenith, is focused on progress and development. The post-war boom in white-collar jobs seems, according to the context of the novel, to breed a certain type of individual, of which Babbitt is a perfect example. These people are so-called “standardized Americans” who share similar values and characteristics. They are white, Republican, social club-joining, church-going, family-loving, business men. In certain respects these men represent the American Dream of happiness and prosperity. Yet in this context, Lewis shows that despite attaining the levels of conformity so desperately sought after, the American Dream is just a dream after all. Though Babbitt catches a glimpse of what life is like outside his standardized bubble of existence, this life will remain a dream for him because he has already succumbed to the conformist lifestyle and it is too late to backpedal. Lewis conveys to the reader a dismal and sometimes terrifying idea of early 1900s America in which strict class conformity is the rule and lack of adherence is absolutely unacceptable. This standardization and the consequences of not meeting the social norm can be seen in the people of Zenith, and Babbitt in particular, through their possessions, their conversation, and even their thoughts.Judging by the pride Babbitt takes in what he owns, it is obvious that material possessions are crucial to his status. Not only are the possessions important, they must fit the exact standards of what is expected from a man of his status. In an almost comical manner, Lewis has Babbitt take inventory of his living room—“A blue velvet davenport faced the fireplace, and behind it was a cherrywood table and a tall piano-lamp with a shade of golden silk. (Two out of every three houses in Floral Heights had before the fireplace a davenport, a mahogany table real or imitation, and a piano-lamp or a reading lamp with a shade of yellow or rose silk.)” (88) This examination continues with Babbitt concluding that his living room is in compliance with all the standards of a “decent” Floral Heights living room. His excruciating detail with respect to the objects as well as attention to his standings in relation to his neighbors is clearly satirical on the part of the author. Lewis does this to indicate how completely ridiculous and mind-numbing that kind of behavior can be but also to show the preoccupations of the “standardized American.” Lewis continues his critique with Babbitt admiring the “standard advertised wares” around him that are “his symbols and proofs of excellence; at first the signs, then the substitutes, for joy and passion and wisdom.” (92) Lewis clearly believes that material conformity will undoubtedly lead to vacant unhappiness. This belief actually foreshadows Babbitt’s ultimate realization of the sad and empty bed he has made for himself by aspiring to and achieving this level of conformity. Before (and even after) reaching this epiphany, Babbitt judges people’s worth based on their material possessions. For example, Babbitt and Mrs. Babbitt’s disdain at going to a dinner at the home of an acquaintance of a lower status is obvious in the description of their surroundings—“The Overbrook house was depressing. It was the second story of a wooden two-family dwelling; a place of baby carriages, old hats hung in the hall, cabbage-smell, and a Family Bible on the parlor table.” (193) This illustration stands in sharp contrast with the proud and boastful account of Babbitt’s own house. Not surprisingly, Babbitt and his wife consider the Overbrooks to be just as dull and uninspiring as their possessions. Lewis includes this to draw attention to the importance of material conformity in Babbitt’s social relationships.Conversation may have been strained with the Overbrooks, but it is only because Babbitt is used to conversing with his own social set. Chief among his social equals are the Roughnecks, as they refer to themselves, a group of business men who meet at the Athletic Club and engage in a standardized sort of conversation consisting of a lot of joking, boasting, and meaningless conversation. It’s remarkable how much of the novel Lewis manages to fill with this type of trivial banter. It seems he wants to show that there is a standardized script that is followed among people of the same social class. For example, upon entering the Club, Babbitt begins fraternizing with his peers. This involves name-calling—“How’s the old Bolsheviki?”, teasing—“Hope you haven’t forgotten I took the last cute little jack-pot!”, political commentary—“Say, juh notice in the paper the way the New York Assembly stood up to the reds?”, affirmation and weather—“You bet I did. That was fine, eh? Nice day today.” (53) and ending with a long discussion about business that consists of petting each other’s egos. In virtually every situation that involves interaction between Babbitt and other men of his social status (with the exception of Paul Riesling), they engage in the same formulated conversation that really doesn’t say anything. Lewis shows Babbitt engaging in this type of banter numerous times to emphasize the emptiness of it. The people Babbitt calls his friends are all just cookie cutters of each other and none of them would dare to stray from the narrow confines of “acceptable” conversation. Paul makes this mistake when he and Babbitt are on their way to Maine in the smoking car of the train. They pass a scene that Paul exclaims is “beautiful” and “picturesque.” By doing this “he committed an offense against the holy law of the Clan of Good Fellows. He became highbrow.” (138) Though this error in social conduct is taken very seriously by his peers, Paul’s blunder doesn’t seem so extraordinary. Lewis includes it to set Paul apart from the rest of the men in order to foreshadow his ultimate act of non-conformity—shooting his wife. It also draws attention to just how narrow the conversation is and that any deviance is considered unacceptable. Babbitt learns this the hard way when he is nearly exiled from his peers by making sympathetic remarks about the labor unions and calling himself liberal. Lewis uses this scenario to show the possible repercussions of non-conformity.Except for his brief flirtation with non-conformity, throughout most of the novel Babbitt doesn’t voice an original opinion. For example, he tries to respond to his wife about the phenomenon of a preacher being elected mayor, but he only “searched for an attitude, but neither as a Republican, a Presbyterian, an Elk, nor a real-estate broker did he have any doctrine about preacher-mayors laid down for him, so he grunted and went on.” (20) He has been so trained to be the “standardized American” that he lacks the ability to come up with a thought of his own. Most of his opinions come from what he reads in the newspaper. For example, when discussing the merits of Shakespeare with his son, “he wasn’t really an authority: Neither the Advocate-Times, the Evening Advocate, nor the bulletin of the Zenith Chamber of Commerce had ever had an editorial on the matter, and until one of them had spoken he found it hard to form an original opinion.” (73) This makes Babbitt seem not only pathetic but also a little scary, especially if his peers form their opinions the same way. Often when Babbitt has a particularly important sounding borrowed opinion, he will not hesitate to spout it off to every person he sees. He tells almost everyone he meets how all the government needs is a “business administration” even though he never goes on to explain what he means by it. Babbitt is a puppet who regurgitates any information he is fed. Lewis includes examples of this time and time again throughout the novel. He is exposing the danger that seemingly innocent conformity can culminate in. It can lead to such extremist organizations as the Good Citizens’ League. Formed near the end of the novel, its members include the most prominent members of Zenith and together they have sufficient influence to impose their extreme conservativism upon whomever they choose. Fittingly, they choose to wield strong control over the newspapers in order to maintain their conformity to the League’s values. The idea of the Good Citizens’ League seems to be Lewis’s terrifying vision of the consequences of a standardized nation.Through his portrayal of the characters’ possessions, conversation, and thoughts, Lewis was able to convey a sense of standardization and conformity within a certain social class in the town of Zenith. People’s possessions determine their status and their self-worth. There are strict material requirements to be considered a “decent” household in Babbitt’s neighborhood. Conversation is kept within the narrow boundaries of what is “acceptable.” The jovial chatter heard at the Athletic Club is empty and indicative of every conversation between the men of Babbitt’s social class. For the most part, Babbitt’s thoughts are only borrowed opinions from the editorial column in the newspaper. His glimmer of self-awareness is short-lived as he realizes that he is already too far gone in the confines of conformity to become a new man. Lewis shows that in Babbitt’s world, sometimes it is too late to attempt to turn one’s back on the standardized world that has bred them.
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.
George F. Babbitt and Women: A Vicious Cycle of Dissatisfaction
In his book Babbitt (1922), Sinclair Lewis presents George F. Babbitt, a tormented man anchored in the Roaring Twenties. Firstly described as an active citizen who is pleased with his job, his Club and all the thriving technological developments of his time, the protagonist of the story quickly appears nonetheless as an unhappy man discontent with his life. Although it comes from various aspects of his world, Babbitt’s relationships with women play a major role in this dissatisfaction. Whether it is with his wife, his mistress or his feminine acquaintances in whom he is interested, Babbitt never seems to reach a complete state of content in his relations, as his expectations always turn into disappointment. In addition, America undergoes revolutionary changes in the 1920’s which cause destabilisation in several domains, particularly gender roles. Indeed, with the progressive emancipation of women since the nineteenth century and the apparition of the national women’s suffrage in 1920, many men find themselves in a situation of confusion regarding the gender balance that had prevailed until then. The purpose of this paper is thus to demonstrate that George F. Babbitt is continuously dissatisfied with his relationships with women because of two main factors. On the one hand, Babbitt undergoes the consequences of the imbalance between the genders taking place in America at that time which lead him to adopt a misogynist attitude towards women and, on the other hand, he restlessly looks for an ideal woman that cannot possibly exist.
The first possible explanation for Babbitt’s discontent with his relationships with women is linked to the context in which he is immersed. Afraid of the emancipation of women, Babbitt adopts a hyper-masculine behaviour that prevents him from having a satisfying relationship with a woman, as he restlessly denigrates them. For the sake of contextual setting, it is necessary to remind that the transition between the nineteenth and twentieth century in America is a period of radical improvements that touches either the technological, industrial and societal fields. Regarding this last category and especially the part involving gender roles, an imbalance appears. With the apparition of the “New Woman”, a movement that will result in the right to vote for both sexes in the United States, women actually take an important step towards their emancipation. Conscious that it is only the beginning of a period which will tend to impose gender equality, men are torn by mixed feelings of confusion and fear of what is about to happen to their masculinity. In her work Babbitt as Veblenian Critique of Manliness, Clare Virginia Eby explains that, as a consequence of women’s suffrage, America witnesses a “crisis of masculinity” (Eby 6), leading men to adopt an “hypermasculine behavior” (7). According to the Collins English Dictionary, hypermasculinity can be defined as “an exaggeration of traditionally masculine traits or behaviour ». George F. Babbitt is not immune to the crisis American men get through and Eby explains that “Babbitt . . . thinks he is in revolt against the pressures imposed by women” (8). Thus, as a response to women’s emancipation, Babbitt’s hyper-masculine behaviour, which is translated through the use of gender stereotypes and misogynist discourse as it will be demonstrated below, prevents him from having any satisfying relationship with a woman, as he denigrates them over and over.
Babbitt’s derogatory attitudes towards women appears throughout the book through various processes but are mostly to be seen through gender stereotypes and misogynist discourse. Indeed, stereotyping women is a way for Babbitt to enhance men and fight his fear of women’s emancipation by belittling them. For instance, one striking example of Babbitt’s genders stereotype is when he welcomes the wives of his friends at his dinner party, explaining that there were “six wives, more or less – it was hard to tell, so early in the evening, as at first glance they all looked alike, and as they all said, “Oh isn’t this nice!” in the same tone of his determines liveliness” (Lewis 114). In this example, Babbitt reproaches women to act in the same superficial and exaggerated way. On a more physical aspect, while washing his forearms, Babbitt claims “Damn soft hands – like a woman’s. Aah!” (258). This is a typical hyper-masculine comment from the protagonist which aims at denigrating women’s sensitivity. Of course, having soft hands is not something negative but in this context, Babbitt probably links it with an expression of weakness, something that his manliness prohibits. Regarding attitudes, he repeatedly critics several female behaviours, such as when he asserts that “That’s the trouble with women . . . they haven’t any sense of diplomacy” (91), or that the “Trouble with women is, they never have sense enough to form regular habits” (97). He also complains that “these women . . . get you all tied up in complications!” (333), “They always exaggerate so.” (335) and that “[they] never can understand the different definitions of a word” (303). Thus, usually aiming at one woman in particular, Babbitt stereotypes her, which means that he extends his critic to all women. The effect of such habit is that by belittling them, Babbitt enhances their male counterparts.
Also preventing him from having any successful relationship with a woman because of constantly denigrating them, Babbitt tends to hold a misogynist discourse throughout the story. Further than just stereotyping genders, the protagonist tries to assert men’s superiority through various comments. For instance, he reproaches women’s lack of gratitude towards men, such as when he notices that “his wife was too busy to be impressed by that moral indignation with which males rule the world” (112) or when he gets angry regarding the fact that women think that “a man doesn’t do a darn thing but sit on his chair and have lovey-dovey conferences with a lot of classy dames and give ‘em the glad eyes” (337). Through these two comments, Babbitt stands up for the image of the man as a pillar of an efficient world which traduces one more time his fear of what is about to happen to his masculinity. Other hyper-masculine comments occur when he refers to places aiming at men only, such as when he asserts that “They were free, in a man’s world” (139), when he addresses Joe by offering to “[get] away from these darn soft summerites and these women and all” (285) or finally when he “[wants] to flee out to a hard, sure, unemotional man-world” (348). All these locations free from women are therefore depicted as quiet, genuine and far from any useless superficiality. The separation between men and a women’s worlds, as well as the glorification of male places, are one more way for Babbitt to enhance men and fight against his fear of women’s emancipation. This is what Eby confirms when she asserts that these kinds of manly comments are “anxieties of this transition from macho to domesticated man: George Babbitt runs from . . . women in a frenzied search for a separate men’s culture that would help him to prove his manhood” (Eby 8). Consequently, if Babbitt is not entirely satisfied with any of his relationships, it is, in a first instance, because he reacts to women’s emancipation through a hyper-masculine behaviour that prevents him from having a successful relationship with a woman, as he constantly belittles them.
The second possible explanation for Babbitt’s discontent with his loving relationships is that he is looking for an ideal woman that cannot possibly exist in real life. Babbitt always had a firm belief that “[h]e was hunted by the ancient thought that somewhere must exist the not impossible she who would understand him, value him, and make him happy” (Lewis 281). Indeed, the protagonist is on a quest to find the perfect partner who possesses all the requirements necessary to satisfy him and allow him to be finally entirely content. The idealistic girl Babbitt longed for appears recurrently throughout the story but mostly in his dreams as she is a figment of his imagination. The fairy child, as the protagonist calls her, possesses a set of characteristics that responds to the perfection Babbitt looks for. First, what emerges from Babbitt’s recurrent description of this fairy creature is a mix of youth, beauty and sexual attraction when, for instance, he dreams that “[s]he was so slim, so white, so eager” (12). The fairy child also owns a gift for understanding Babbitt, what other women do not. For instance, in one of his dreams when he finds himself surrounded by strangers laughing at him, he escapes by catching up with her (105). As for when the fairy girl “cries that he was gay and valiant [and] that she would wait for him” (12), it procures to the protagonist a feeling of being admired, another sensation that he expects to find in his ideal woman. Finally, as Graham Thompson asserts, “the closest reading of the fairy child in Babbitt has suggested that this imaginary character acts as a way for Babbitt to express his desire to escape from his wife and his friends and the world to which he belongs” (Thompson 53). Therefore, in addition to youth, beauty, sexual attraction, understanding and admiration, what completes the archetype of the ideal woman is the aspect of escape and freedom that she procures to Babbitt. Although it seems that some of these characteristics can be found in each of his feminine acquaintances, none of them own them all and, consequently, the insatiable expectations created by the fairy child are another way to explain Babbitt’s dissatisfaction with women.
At first sight, the woman that appears to be the most opposed to the fairy child is Myra, with whom Babbitt is unhappily married from the beginning of their relationship. Indeed, Mrs. Babbitt does not possess any of the requirements that Babbitt expects from his ideal partner and therefore, this is evidence of the impossibility for the protagonist to find satisfaction in his married life. First of all, Myra fails Babbitt’s first expectation of the perfect woman, composed of youth and attractiveness. In her introductive description already, Mrs. Babbitt is reproached for not maintaining her physical appearance when it is said that she is “definitely mature” and “as sexless as an anaemic nun” (16). This distaste for Myra’s physique has existed since Babbitt met her as even then, young Myra appeared to his eyes as “a Nice Girl – one didn’t kiss her, one didn’t ‘think about her that way at all’ unless one was going to marry her.” (93). This reflection from Babbitt, in addition of being ironic as he ended up marrying her, demonstrates very well that he never saw her as potentially appealing. When Myra is not discredited for her physical appearance, she is simply described by her function as “a Good Wife” (93) but she is never associated with flattering terms regarding either her age or her physical appearance. Understanding is also not part of Myra’s qualities according to Babbitt. He points it out several times in the story, such as when he claims that “And Myra, useless to expect her to understand” (361) or when he talks about politics and complains about the fact that she does not get his point (304). As for admiration, the reader cannot contest that Myra is supportive towards her husband. Either when he scribbles in an exercise-book (158) or when he gives public speeches (176), Mrs. Babbitt never misses an occasion to praise Babbitt. However, it seems that the latter only notices the couple of times when her wife remains silent, such as when he comes back home after a ride in his car and feels like “to Mrs. Babbitt he was a William Washington Eathorne, but she did not notice it.” (213) or when he reproaches her to be “too busy to be impressed by the moral indignation with which males rule the world” (112). Regarding freedom, Babbitt seems to undergo the opposite effect from his wife than the one he looks for. Indeed, when Myra has to leave, Babbitt “[is] glad that his wife was away. He admitted it without justifying it.” (269) and when he has to pick her up at the station, he simply does not want her to be back (281-82). As for when she is absent, Babbitt cannot help but enjoy his freedom by acting childishly and doing things usually prohibited by Myra, such as raiding the refrigerator. The fact that he calls that latter action “one of the major household crimes” (263) shows his irritation at Myra’s rules and highlights even more his enjoyment of freedom when she is not there. Finally, it can be sum up by acknowledging that if Babbitt lives an unhappy married life, it can be explained, at least partially, by the fact that his wife does not possess any of the qualities he looks for in a woman.
Babbitt mentions many of his feminine acquaintances throughout the story but the female being who resembles the most the fairy child because of the similitude in their characteristics is Tanis Judique according to him. Indeed, Tanis fulfils all Babbitt’s expectations except one and if he does not succeed in having a satisfying relationship with her, it is probably because of this only missing feature. Babbitt first met Tanis as one of his client at the real estate agency and he quickly finds in her the youth, beauty and attraction that he seeks. Babbitt actually immediately focuses on her age, thinking that “[s]he must have been forty or forty-two, but he thought her younger” (269) and he continues her description regarding her body and face in an enhancing tone (269-70), implying that Tanis fulfils Babbitt’s first requirement of the ideal woman. Beyond her physical appearance, Tanis also offers to Babbitt the understanding he longed for. When they spend an evening together, they keep agreeing on every topic: the weather, the prohibition, art, modern young girls and so on (308). Tanis makes up for the comprehension Myra does not provide to Babbitt and he realizes it once Tanis is gone when he says: “I thought I was so smart and independent, cutting Tanis out, and I need her, Lord how I need her! . . . Myra simply can’t understand. All she sees in life is getting along by being just like other folks. But Tanis, she’d tell me I was all right.” (358). Furthermore, the admiration Babbitt expects from the ideal woman is also part of Tanis’s qualities. Since they first met, she never skimped on compliments towards Babbitt, either regarding his questionable skills in driving and dancing (270-71), his knowledge in tinkering (307) and so forth. Overall, Tanis’s personality and look seem to resemble greatly the fairy child’s and consequently, the ideal woman that Babbitt is looking for. This is what he believes when he claims: “I’ve found her! I’ve dreamed of her all these years and now I’ve found her!” (316). However, as an irresolute man, Babbitt is still not satisfied with his relationship with Tanis. Indeed, later in the story when she phones him at his office, he realizes that he is annoyed by such demand of attention and begins to feel trapped in their relationship and he finally puts an end to their relationship after many contradictory thoughts and once it is done, even if he is not completely convinced of letting her go, he is grabbed by a feeling of relief and freedom (349). Thus, despite all her characteristics resembling the fairy child’s, Tanis cannot provide an entire satisfaction to Babbitt as she lacks the ability to offer Babbitt the freedom he expects from his ideal woman.
Babbitt also fails in building any successful relationship with other women because of his way of behaving. Indeed, because of Tanis and Myra’s inability to satisfy Babbitt’s need of freedom, the protagonist desperately starts some sort of sentimental rebellion. This loving revolt is illustrated throughout the book when he tries, in vain, to seduce or impress some of his feminine acquaintances. What prevents Babbitt from having a successful relationship here is not some lack of expected qualities but his own behaviour towards women. A similar process actually applies to each of his attempt to seduce a woman. First, either it is with Miss McGoun, Louetta Swanson or the manicure girl Ida Putiak, Babbitt finds in each of these women a particularity that does not leave him indifferent. For instance, he mentions Ida Putiak as “[t]he girl who especially disturbed him” (273) or he even associates Miss McGoun and Louetta Swanson with the fairy child, his ultimate ideal. Then, he tries to seduce the girl in question and as she does not respond positively to his advances, he usually becomes too insistent, fails badly and finally, accumulate frustration. With Miss McGoun, Babbitt tries several times to get more private with her, but each time the conversation turns back to the professional level. Disappointed, he convinces himself that he “knew there was nothing doing” (265) but his detachment is betrayed when he recognizes that he misses her when she is absent (357). As for Louetta Swanson, at Babbitt’s dinner party, while sitting next to her, the protagonist starts with a flattering description of her (126). He then addresses her a compliment on her look and continues by openly flirting with her in front of his friends and wife. Later in the story, when he is invited at the Swanson’s, he insists on helping Louetta, holds her hand, sits next to her and even has “the conviction that they had always had a romantic attraction for each other” (266). He keeps flirting with her until she rejects him. At that moment, Babbitt changes his attitude and, filled with frustration, asserts that he never wanted anything of her and childishly avoids her for the rest of the night (268). The same process applies repeatedly to the other women he makes sexual advances to, such as Ida Putiak. Although Babbitt criticizes the men who “get fresh with [her]” (276) he does exactly the same by inviting her to dinner only a few minutes after knowing her name (277-78) and when going back home in a cab after their evening together, he becomes too insistent towards Ida with his “hungry hands”, begging her not to stop their kissing (279). Babbitt ends up one more time “cold with failure” (280) and once again, filled with frustration. It is without any great surprise that Babbitt is displeased with his relationships as the same doomed process applies repeatedly. As long as he keeps behaving the same way, by getting over thrilled and therefore too insistent towards his addressee, he will never succeed in building a successful and satisfying relationship.
George F. Babbitt appears throughout the story as an unhappy man who struggles in his relationships with women and this can be explained by two main factors. Firstly, Babbitt is anchored in a period and place where the gender roles is being re-evaluated with the apparition of nation women’s suffrage in the United States. This imbalance generally brings to men insecurities regarding their masculinity and they express it through a hyper-masculine attitude which, in the case of Babbitt, is confirmed with his habit to stereotype women and hold a misogynist discourse. By constantly denigrating women through these processes, Babbitt cannot possibly find satisfaction with a relationship with someone he is revolted against. Nevertheless, Babbitt never gives up the idea to find the perfect partner and repeatedly dreams of the fairy child, an ideal woman who has all the features he expects from a woman in the real life. The problem is that he looks for a utopic number of qualities that none of his feminine acquaintances have all at once: beauty, youth, sexual attraction, understanding, admiration and of course, freedom. To conclude, unless Babbitt realizes that his hunt for the perfect woman is utopic or that a new balance between the gender sets in America, Babbitt is trapped in a vicious circle of dissatisfaction with his relationships with women.
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