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Capitalist in 1984: Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)Did George Orwell plagiarize from Sinclair Lewis? Despite the latter receiving a Nobel Prize, I feel fairly certain in saying that Orwell was the better writer. Surely the stronger would not swipe plot points from the weaker. But I cannot get the thought out of my mind as I read Babbitt. In the closing pages, as George Babbitt reconciles himself to a totalizing social order, I expect to read that poignant line: “He loved Big Brother.”

Obviously 1984 and Babbitt have enormous differences, but the similarities are quite apparent. George Babbitt exists on the lower rungs of the upper ladder of society. He can be elected as an officer in this civic organization or deliver impassioned speeches on what needs doing in the real estate business, but he will never be completely accepted as one of the topmost members of the order. Similarly, Winston Smith enjoys the privileges of existing at the bottom of the party’s pecking order.

Neither Smith nor Babbitt is exceptionally bright. Their emotions get the better of them. Both are isolated, alienated men, Smith due to the strategies of the party and Babbitt due to his own personality. Their rebellions are, in the end, meaningless. Both of these men find a form of love in a forbidden and rather tawdry manner.

In both of these novels, we see a rather impotent individual attempting to chart his own course against the profound headwinds of an overwhelming social construct. George Babbitt is hardly an heroic figure because his rebellion is so meaningless. This is not William Wilberforce sacrificing his larger political ambitions, his opportunity to be Prime Minister, on the higher altar of the abolition of slavery. One asks what Babbitt will achieve or receive if he succeeds in his rebellion. Perhaps he will manage to maintain a good real estate business, earning his $8,000 a year, while spending time with Tanis Judique and her “Bunch.” This is hardly the stuff of heroism.

The evil of the Party in 1984 is hard to miss, even as one sees the futility of Winston Smith’s resistance. But is the established order of the town of Zenith really worthy of Babbitt’s rebellion? Although they hardly constitute angels, the city fathers promote growth and the expansion of streetcar lines. They are, it seems, benevolent dictators. While Lewis seems clearly to take issue with this party, I cannot help but wonder if the real fool in this novel is not Lewis.

The individual, I would argue, must surrender to something. Babbitt did not choose a path of individuality against the oppression of a capitalist establishment. Instead, he chose to surrender his will and his ideals to “The Bunch,” Tanis Judique, and the leftist politics of Seneca Doane. One force that Babbitt never seems to consider a worthy object of surrender is God. Babbitt’s brief spurt of churchy interest does not reflect piety but an attempt to apply his ideas of civic and commercial boosterism to the Sunday School.

In the end of the book, faced with his wife’s illness, Babbitt has made his choice and surrendered to the order in something akin to a prayer.

He shut the door with haste. It may be that his frightened repentance of the night and morning had not eaten in, but this dehumanizing interment of her who had been so pathetically human shook him utterly, and as he crouched again on the high stool in the laboratory he swore faith to his wife . . . to Zenith . . . to business efficiency . . . to the Boosters’ Club . . . to every faith of the Clan of Good Fellows.

His minor transgression on the last pages, tolerating his son’s (accomplished) marriage and desire to go into a less prestigious field of work seems nearly meaningless in the grand scheme.

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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