Babbitt: Essay Q&A

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1. Analyze Babbitt’s characterization and what this says about the middle-classes.

Babbitt is typified by a mixture of conceit and anxiety based on not belonging to the pack. His pack is made up of other middle-class people and his life before his rebellion (when he takes up adultery and flirts with the idea of a ‘bohemian’ lifestyle) depends on appearing to be the same as his neighbors and acquaintances. The expectations of those in his milieu are tied to material possessions and income. They defend the capitalist society and see his divergence from this way of thinking as a threat. This narrow view is heavily satirized throughout the novel. The fear of socialism is, for example, inherent in Babbitt’s social realm and pre-dates McCarthyism.

From the beginning, and before his rebellion, the narrative is always critical of the grasping materialism of the successful middle-class citizen. Babbitt’s belief in the value of bourgeois conformity unravels as the novel progresses, but his characterization mainly revolves around his desire for social acceptance and to climb the social ladder. His successes and failures in this bid for social progress mark Babbitt as being confined by the opinion of others, which are the opinions of the middle and upper classes.

2. Consider how this novel negotiates the concept of morality.

The definition of what it is to live a moral life comes from Babbitt’s perspective in the early part of this novel. It involves fidelity to one’s spouse and living according to the rules of convention of Floral Heights.  He questions Paul when Paul tells him of his discontentment with his work and his wife, Zilla, and Babbitt argues initially that he should be faithful to her. Morality is depicted as a form of control that stops Paul from achieving happiness.

As his closest friend, it does not take Babbitt too long to see Paul’s perspective and this is enhanced after Paul is sent to prison for shooting Zilla. Babbitt’s short-lived rebellion from the ‘moral life’ begins from this point and comes to an end when Myra becomes ill.

3. Consider the depictions of Myra and Zilla, and how these compare to the narrative’s treatment of Babbitt and Paul.

This novel is mainly concerned with the male rather than the female mid-life crisis. Although Babbitt is a satirical figure who constantly misinterprets and overvalues his own worth, it is his and Paul’s discontentment that is given the most space and, over all, the majority of the sympathetic treatment.

 However, even though Myra and Zilla are relatively sidelined in terms of the space they occupy in the text, it is through these characters that the readers glimpse the selfishness of Babbitt and Paul from a wife’s perspective. These women are also important figures because of their relationships with their husbands. The institution of marriage is questioned through the depiction of their (understandable) unhappiness.

4. How is materialism criticized?

Predominantly, materialism is criticized through the satirical attacks on Babbitt’s lifestyle and beliefs. Babbitt represents a stereotypical bourgeois who is concerned with acquisitions and status.

The initial descriptions of Babbitt’s house, which is luxurious even by today’s standards, are then deflated when we are told explicitly that this is not a home. It is modern and clean, but it is also impersonal and sterile. Through these descriptions, it is explained to the readers that material possessions do not necessarily bring contentment. Underneath the surface pleasantness, it is exposed that there is emptiness. Materialism is criticized as superficial, mediocre and soulless.

It is pointed out that Babbitt’s God is ‘modern appliances’ and his understanding of the world around him, including culture, is drawn only from his local newspaper (and this includes reading the comic strip). The emptiness of the lifestyle which is only concerned with material possessions is also emphasized in the critique of those who see culture as just another marketable product. Frink, who is regarded as a poet by the others but is in fact more concerned with advertising, sells the idea of a Zenith Symphony Orchestra by extolling the virtues of how many visitors this will bring to the city. Culture is never allowed just to be, to be appreciated for itself, it has to be measured and marketed along with everything else.

5. To what extent is bourgeois happiness shown to be a myth?

Because this novel traces Babbitt’s, and Paul’s, increasing disenchantment with the bourgeois lifestyle, it is fair to argue that this novel offers an attack on the notion of the possibility of their finding happiness. The depiction of Paul, rather than Babbitt, shows this more clearly as his feelings of entrapment are only relieved (temporarily) by shooting his wife. His stay in prison demonstrates figuratively that he will never be free of his misery.

The bourgeois lifestyle is satirized throughout and the readers are constantly warned that the adherence to such a soulless existence can only ever bring pleasure at the expense of others. Babbitt, for example, manages to allay his dissatisfaction only when he climbs another rank in the hierarchy, or when he deceives someone in business and makes a profit.

As well as being a satire, this work is also a cautionary tale that advises against the pursuit of happiness through engaging with the capitalist system. It also challenges the institution of marriage, particularly with Paul’s breakdown but also in Babbitt’s decision to become adulterous.

The myth of bourgeois happiness is also exposed when, at the end of the novel, Babbitt tells Ted he has never done anything he has wanted to do. He has always restricted himself to the opinions of others. This is a final poignant moment as he supports his son in his marriage and in his decision to become a mechanic rather than a university graduate. Babbitt has accepted that his son should be independent of bourgeois aspirations, and in this way he may find happiness.

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