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Babbitt: Theme Analysis

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Dissatisfaction with life
Although Babbitt appears to be smug about his material successes, as the novel progresses, the readers glimpse his growing dissatisfaction with his supposed perfect life. This discontentment with the idealized bourgeois existence is the strongest theme of the novel and is the reason that Paul shoots Zilla, and is also why Babbitt rebels against the expectations placed on him.

He is initially unable to articulate why he is so unhappy and this is poignant as he fails to see that he is striving to conform to a mediocrity. He has believed the dominant ideology, which espouses that capitalism and the accumulation of material wealth are important. He has achieved a certain level of economic success, but this still fails to appease him and so he has to search for more and tries to climb higher on the social ladder. He has also tried to conform to the expectations of those around him, but this leaves him feeling in fear of appearing to be different. His rebellion springs from a sense of meaningless after Paul’s imprisonment as well a desire to do as he pleases (rather than continuing to conform to blandness).

Material wealth is the signifier of success in Babbitt’s world. This is a recognizable idea, of course, as this is inimical to the Western capitalist system (which is under attack here). From the first few chapters, the readers are given extended details of Babbitt’s materially comfortable lifestyle. Simultaneously, we are also prompted to view such wealth as only representative of a high income. The possessions are temporary balms and do not bring complete happiness. This is reflected when the family argue over which new car Babbitt should buy and Ted wishes he would buy one that  would be like those of wealthier people. The car has become a status symbol.

Babbitt is wholly aware of technological progress and is ambivalent in its appreciation of such changes. The apparently positive descriptions of Zenith city centre and its new tower blocks are also ironic in that they imply this is a place without spirit. The name, Zenith, should be taken into account when considering the extent to which the narrative condemns the nation’s unquestioning embrace of all things modern.

The car is also a symbol of the twentieth century, as well as a signifier of status and wealth. The earlier chapters make many references to Babbitt’s reliance on the car and this adds to the modernity of the novel as a whole.

Before Babbitt decides to become his own man and commit adultery, he is keenly aware that he is expected to live a moral life. The readers are informed that up to the time of his rebellion he has been faithful to Myra for 23 years. He conflates morality with monogamy, as does the Bible, and it is this sense of having to conform that leads him to feel restricted. In this sense, morality is questioned in the narrative as it is depicted as a form of policing. It has become a form of control in Babbitt’s society rather than a code to avoid deceiving or harming others.

Even before he commits adultery, when he still claims to be virtuous and moral, he has few qualms about performing unethical or immoral business dealings. Morality in this world is characterized by hypocrisy and fear of acting differently from the standardized norm.


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