Middle-Class Criticism and Babbitt's Transformation

United States
May 2, 2007 7:50pm CST
Middle-Class Criticism and Babbitt's Transformation By sigriet ferrer Middle-Class Criticism and Babbitt's Transformation Lewis' Babbitt genuinely portrays the prevalent 1920s themes of: the middle- class, the American Dream, and escapism. The novel's main character Babbitt undergoes a complete transformation where he is no longer a shallow and intolerant conservative, but an understanding and free-thinking liberal. "In the end one discovers he is only weak-not malicious, illiberal, ungenerous, and fascistic, but sentimental and basically decent." (Hoffman 413). Babbitt, a member of the middle-class is blinded by greed for material desires, and his true happiness remains unfulfilled despite him having achieved the goal of the American Dream. Babbitt lives in a capitalistic state of superficial bliss where success is determined by the property one owns and the money one makes. Ultimately, Babbitt is able to rise against his bourgeois surroundings, combat his weaknesses, and become a stronger, and more fulfilled being. Babbitt and other Zenithites are too concerned with earning a lot of money, owning property, while lacking humanist desires to help the poor. Narcissistic and greedy, the Zenithites only care to inflate their wallets and their egos. Little value, if any, is given to the lower-class, and social programs are viewed with contempt by the middle- class. When Verona explains to her father that she would like to work for charities and do meaningful work, her father quickly dismisses those ideals as absurd and communist-like. "Now you look here! The first thing you got to understand is that all this uplift and flipflop and settlement-work and recreation is nothing in God's world but the entering wedge for socialism." (Lewis 14) Business is fully embraced, while philanthropy and the welfare of others is rejected. Babbitt has attained the much desired American Dream; through his successful business endeavors he was attained a great amount of wealth, but even with all the material wealth, he cannot find true happiness. Babbitt is caught in a monotonous and superficial lifestyle where he acknowledges that he is missing something of value in his life, in spite of all his wealth. In a conversation with Paul Riesling, Babbitt explains that he's done positive things with his life and has gained monetary success, yet he is unhappy. "I've kind of felt down in the mouth all day long..Ever feel that way, Paul? Kind of comes over me: here I've pretty much done all the things I ought to; supported my family, and got a good house and a six cylinder car, and built up a nice little business." (Lewis 53). All the things Babbitt listed are only of material value, and what he fails to realize at first is that material things are temporary and not spiritually enriching. They provide only a superficial form of happiness, which is temporary and never long-lasting. The American Dream was the goal for most living in the 1920's, everyone desired to have a high paying job, and be successful in economic terms, but the reality was that money could not buy happiness. Similarly to the characters in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Babbitt and other Zenithites use wealth as a form of escapism; a way to deal with or escape their troubles. Gatsby and Babbitt, both true to use material things as a filler for the void they feel in their lives. Gatsby believes wealth will win him Daisy, his dream girl, and Babbitt believes wealth will bring him joy and social acceptance. Gatsby throws luxurious parties, buys countless expensive shirts, and adorns his bathroom with gold, but despite him trying to escape his problems, they still remain and cannot be solved with money. Despite their great attempts to escape their inconsequential lives, the characters in Babbitt can only find a fleeting and shallow sense of contentment and escape from their daily lives. When Babbitt buys the car cigarette lighter, he feels special since he can afford it and this gives him a shallow sense of self worth. But soon afterwards he is thinking about buying a car, meaning his want of material things to fill his spiritual void is a constant and demanding cycle. Characters are misleadingly led to believe that acquiring material things help them escape their problems. "To maintain his morale he has to buy more things, whether he needs them or not: their 'thinginess,' quite apart from need or practicality, sustains him." (Hoffman 409). Although Babbitt and other characters present a "mask" to the world, they are inwardly lacking joy in their life, and are unhappy despite how they appear in public. After a dinner party when everything seemed to have go well, Myra cries softly to herself. In a speech Babbitt gives he reads a piece his friend Chum Frink wrote for the newspaper, and it details how when you're feeling down the best remedy for the illness is to indulge yourself in things of material value."But when I get that lonely spell, I simply seek the best hotel...If I should stand a lengthy spell in front of that first class hotel, that to the drummers loves to cater, across from some big theayter; if I should look around and buzz, and wonder what town I was, I swear that I could never tell." (Lewis 165)Babbitt holds his friend's poem close to the heart, because he uses material wealth to cope with problems.In the 1920s, after the traumatic after effect of WWI, many people searched for a way to make their lives meaningful after having lived through such a difficult time, and many turned to material things because they believed it would bring them happiness. This belief is widely accepted by Babbitt, and other Zenithites. Fortunately Babbitt realizes that the only way to find true happiness is not to conform, but to do what makes one happy. Babbitt thought if he conformed and accepted the widely accepted beliefs of his friends, then he would live a content and successful life. But it is only when Babbitt begins to question his belief system, and accept the fact that business is corrupt and dishonest, he begins to see for himself who much more fulfilling and meaningful life is when one listens to one self and does not conform simply to please others. Paul Riesling's being sent to prison prompts Babbitt to transform and leave his old superficial self behind and begin anew. Babbitt who is unwavering in his ultra conservative mindset, begins to rebel and undergoes a complete change of self. Babbitt begins to understand the liberal and compassionate mindset of Seneca Doane, begins to see the flaws with his social class and their tendencies, and ultimately rebels against his social class. Babbitt was stuck in an unhappy marriage with Myra, someone he married out of pity, but has an affair with Tanis Judique; affairs being highly taboo and unacceptable in the 1920s, especially within conservatives. Furthermore, Babbit stays out late drinking with Tanis and her bohemian friends, despite his original condemnation of drinking . Babbitt rebels and realizes how unfulfilled and lacking his life was prior to his change. Even though Babbitt desired his son Ted become a lawyer, he is understanding when his son tells him he will drop out to become a mechanic. Ted also marries Eunice Littlefield, the Littlefields having been a family Babbitt despised and could not understand. Babbitt ultimately and most significantly comes to the realization that he was living his life wrong all along. He was suppressing his innermost desires simply to follow convention, and what society deemed was correct. The entire neighborhood is shocked by Ted's decision, yet Babbitt is finally able to see that it's not worth sacrificing one's wishes simply to please others or do what society deems acceptable. Babbitt regrets not knowing this any sooner, and tells his son to follow his dreams and not make the same mistakes he made. "I've never done a single thing I've wanted to do in my whole life! I don't know's I've accomplished anything except just get along...Well these folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell 'em to go to the devil. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don't be scared of the family. Nor all of Zenith." (Lewis 355) Lewis' Babbitt genuinely portrays the prevalent 1920s themes of: the middle- class, the American Dream, and escapism. Babbitt completely changes from a shallow and corrupt conformist business man to a rebellious and humanistic liberal. "Lewis touched upon every critical image applied to the middle class in the 1920s. Mencken's image of an inverted business mythology..the liberal humanistic position of Seneca Doane, which in Babbitt's brief flirtation with ideas, is drawn into the range of a possible middle-class criticism. But all of this is dominated throughout by the great middle-class tribal fantasy, to which the extremes of standardization of thought, ownership, and belief contribute." (Hoffman 413-414)
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