The word satire derives from the Latin word, Satura, meaning “medley”. This literary form derives in large part from Greek and Roman literature. A satire, either in prose or in poetic form, holds prevailing vices or follies up to ridicule. It employs humour and wit to criticize human institutions or humanity itself, in order that they might be remodelid or improved. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon. Thrall says,” Satire is a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humour and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved. The true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man’s devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling”1.
The novel Babbitt is basically about how American society saps the potential out of human beings because they must have a certain measure of courage to be able to fulfill their individual potential in the face of an often hostile and indifferent environment. In Babbitt, Lewis looks at not only one man but an entire society as well. He exposes the hypocrisy and mechanization of American society in the 1920’s. The protagonist, Babbitt is a businessman with lofty aims and a desire to climb the ladder of the social class. Lewis uses the literary effects of irony and satire to clear the reality of the age.
George F. Babbitt lives in a society that prevents creativity at the cost of wealth but grants only supposed happiness. Every aspect of his life has been influenced by the pressure of conformity. Success in relationships, family, social life and business, all are based on his ability to confirm to Zenith’s preset standards of thought and action. He is repeatedly found talking about modern technology, material comforts and social status as ways to measure the worth of an individual.
Babbitt is a satire on the hypocrisy and ignorance endemic to the American middle- class. Through Babbitt’s attitude Lewis was trying to show the materialism and shallow attitudes of the middle – class of America in 1920’s. Lewis blatantly criticizes,” He had not any satisfaction on the new water cooler! And it was the very best of water coolers, up to date, scientific and right thinking. It had cost of great deal of money”2. This quote shows that Babbitt’s morals and values are full of holes.
All of Babbitt’s actions and thoughts are controlled by the materialistic standards around him. He does not act because it was what he is inspired to do, he acts for the acceptance of the rest of Zenith. He does every thing expected of him by others because he hopes to maintain his social status. By doing this he moves quickly up the rungs on the ladder of success, feeling hollow happiness as he accomplishes the social goal of getting richer and richer. Dooley says,” His speech, compounded on the clichés and prejudices of his group, is not the expression of a sentient, rationale human being. His symbols of truth and beauty are the mechanical devices which surrounded him, even though he understands nothing of their workings. Success for him means conformity to the pattern of living delineated by the one true American art, advertising”.3
For a brief moment in his existence, the feelings of dissatisfaction with his life are strong enough to urge Babbitt to look for excitement. He begins to feel a yearning for his real dreams such as nature and adventure. He tries to achieve the real satisfaction in his life but feels unable to make a change.
Babbitt’s friend Paul is the extreme example of the stifling conformity in Zenith. He can see Zenith for what it really is. Babbitt’s brief period of rebellion starts when Paul kills his wife and is sent to prison. He changes his political outlook and joins the political crusade of Seneca Doane. He supports the telephone girls and linemen in a strike. Rebelling against society, he starts an affair with Tanis Judique. All his attempts leaves his friends frowning upon him and talking behind his back.
The most powerful satire is complicated by Babbitt’s response when his wife Myra becomes sick. In returning to the middle – class world whose faults he can now clearly see, Babbitt accepts responsibility for his choices. He discovers that he has not the courage to start a fight against society. H. L. Mencken is quick to point out that one of Babbitt’s biggest flaws is not that he has adopted the mob or herd norms and thinking all about but it is his inability to be strong enough to resist them. He says,” The salient thing about him, in truth, is his complete lack of originality and that is precisely the salient mark of every American of his class. What he feels and thinks is what it is currently proper to feel and think”.4 Satiric tone of Babbitt can also be seen when Babbitt admits to his son that he has wasted his life. He hopes that the next generation can lead their own lives, the way they choose to. He says to Ted, ‘Take your factory job if you want to. Do not be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I have been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours” (Babbitt, pp. 326.)
The end of the story leaves Babbitt wallowing through the helpless mire of routine in which we found him. The only difference is that there is no way for him to be happy in Zenith. He becomes just another miserable member of conformist society.
1.Thrall, William, Addison Hibbard and C. Hugh Holmn, eds., A Handbook to Literature. NewYork,. OdysseyPress, 1960 pp. 436.
2. Lewis S. Babbitt. New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1950 pp31. All quotations of Babbitt are from this edition and have been incorporated in the text.
3. Dooley, D. J., ed. The Art of Sinclair Lewis. Nebraska, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1967 p83.
4. Mencken, H. L., Portrait of an American Citizen. Ohio, Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1971 pp. 25-27.
Smt. Archana Sharma
V. V. Inter College, Shamli, U. P.