Babbitt: Novel Summary: Chapters 1 & 2

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Summary

The first chapter begins with a description of Zenith where the towers, ‘aspired above the morning mist …’.  This city appears to have been built ‘for giants’. There is a shift of focus to the eponymous hero, George F. Babbitt, who has been asleep on the sleeping-porch and is described as such: ‘There was nothing of the giant in the aspect of the man.’ It is April 1920 and he is 46 years old. He lives in the Floral Heights district of Zenith (a middle-class suburb) and he sells houses for a living. His physical description is also given and is depicted as having a large pink head, with thin and dry brown hair.

He has been dreaming of the fairy child again: ‘When others saw but Georgie Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth’. He escapes from reality until the alarm clock goes off; once awake he has no excitement for the forthcoming day as he did as a boy.

His alarm clock is described as it would be in an advertisement. His children Verona, Ted and Tinka are then introduced and his God is described as ‘Modern Appliances’. His wife, Myra, is portrayed as ‘dully habituated to married life’ and the consequence is that she has become as ‘sexless as an anaemic nun’. His father-in-law and business partner, Henry T. Thompson is also briefly mentioned.

The narrative proceeds to follow Babbitt’s morning ablutions and dressing for work. He puts on his elk’s tooth (which is on a chain), which symbolizes his membership of the Order of the Elks, and his Boosters’ Club button, which makes him feel ‘loyal and important’.

Babbitt talks about looking after himself and tells Myra she should serve prunes for breakfast. She corrects him for saying ‘tux’ instead of dinner jacket. After saying her father does not even call it a ‘tux’ (Thompson calls it a ‘bobtail jacket for a ringtail monkey’), he goes on to fret about Ted and Verona. Verona has finished college and Ted is due to go. Babbitt is worried that neither knows what they want to do for a career.

This first chapter ends with Babbitt looking at Zenith and the Second National Tower: ‘He beheld the tower as a temple-spire of the religion of business, a faith passionate, exalted, surpassing common men; ….’
 
Chapter Two begins with a description of the Babbitt bedroom and the articles in it. There is a book on the bedside table that has never been opened. The impersonality of the room is emphasized and it is compared to a room in ‘a very good hotel’. We are told that the only thing wrong with the house is that it is not a home.

The scene shifts to the breakfast table and the three children are described in a little more detail. Verona is 22 and has just finished at Bryn Mawr; she is also ‘dumpy brown-haired’ and is working as a filing clerk. However, she wants to do something ‘worth while’ for charity. Babbitt is against the idea of charity as he believes it stops a man looking for work. Ted is 17 and his full name is Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt. Tinka’s actual name is Katherine and she is aged 10.

Ted and Verona begin to argue about which of them will have the car that night and Ted says he should have one of his own. He also relates how the fathers of two of his classmates are millionaires and these boys have their own car.

As Babbitt reads snippets of the newspaper to his wife he reveals his anti-socialist values in more detail. We are told he is ‘a Republican, a Presbytarian, an Elk’. He goes on to read about Charles McKelvey who is now a millionaire, but was not when Babbitt was at college with him. Myra says she would like to see inside his home and Babbitt suggests they invite the McKelveys to dinner one evening. This second chapter ends with Babbitt muttering to himself that he would ‘like to quit the whole game’ and regrets being ‘cranky’ with his wife and children.

 

Analysis
These first two chapters give a brief introduction to the home life and political beliefs of the eponymous hero, Babbitt. His house, rather than home, is described as materially ideal, yet it is also clear that it is not personal in any sense. The book on the bedside table remains unread and this is a signal that culture (as symbolized by a book) is redundant in this type of lifestyle. Babbitt is an everyman representative of the burgeoning middle-classes and for this he is satirized.

The tone used in these initial chapters is typical of that used throughout the novel. The idealized middle-class life, where the house is beautiful yet characterless, is critiqued with irony and satire. This ironic perspective is evident in the first sentence when we are told the city is called Zenith. Babbitt’s desire to be thought of as ‘important’ is explained and ridiculed by the decision to wear his Boosters’ button. His family’s value of material wealth is exemplified in Myra’s wish to see the McKelvey home and in his suggestion to invite the McKelveys to dinner. Ted’s hope to have his own car is a further demonstration of their aspirations for status as well as wealth. The critique of this type of individualistic understanding of happiness is emphasized in the description of Babbitt’s politics, which are right-wing and entirely based on an adherence to capitalism.

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