Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Company
Released: January 1, 1922
Babbitt is set in the modern (1921) Midwestern city of Zenith. George F. Babbitt, a 46- year-old real estate broker, enjoys all the modern conveniences available to a prosperous middle-class businessman, yet he is dissatisfied with his life. When the novel opens, Babbitt has begun to regularly indulge in fantasies about a fairy girl who makes him feel like a gallant youth.
Babbitt's closest friend Paul Riesling is even more dissatisfied with his life. He is also more vocal about it. Riesling and Babbitt try to ameliorate their dissatisfaction by taking a vacation in Maine together, but their enjoyment at their newfound freedom is short-lived. They eventually have to return to their lives as middle-aged married men. Both men experience a growing impulse to rebel against social conventions.
Blindly delving into old classics is always kind of interesting: has it aged well? What makes it a classic? Babbit started out really promising: very funny in an old fashioned, observational humour kind of way. I knew I had some sort of meaningful story ahead of me (it’s a classic, after all), and having read the first chapter I really looked forward to reading a timeless story delivered in an entertaining manner. Unfortunately a lot of the humour dabbed off rather quickly, leaving “only” a good story.
And there can be no doubt, the story is inarguably very good. It’s about a man, Mr. Babbit, who is relatively rich, and has a relatively high standing in society. Most of his life consists of hustling to become richer and achieve an even higher standing. The motivation behind him living this way isn’t entirely clear: is he doing what he wants to do, or is he just doing what society expects of him? How badly does he want society to approve of him? Even if it does lead to esteem, money, power, and positions, does that make it worth living your life after a template, following the path everyone expects you to follow? Do you have a choice?
Thoughts like these had never really occurred to Mr. Babbit until a few events leads to him down a path where he has to face up to a few of these questions.
For me the book is at its best when we see Babbit struggling with these questions, and the ways in which he confronts them feels believable. The story also feels like it ended up where the characters made it end up, rather than being a pre-determined chain of events in which the characters were just… well, characters.
Having said all of the above, there is quite a bit of fluff around everything. The fluff wasn’t all that interesting to me, and there also seemed to be a “the role of the man in society”-thread that, while I could appreciate, I couldn’t really relate to. Some of the fluff is rather good satire, and most of it serves a purpose. Still, there is a little too much of it, and unfortunately the story does drag along at times.
It’s still an interesting book, and it is easy to see why it is significant. As always, it is also fun to see how some things never change (“the youth today” were as hopeless in 1922 as they are now), and while Babbit is not a page-turner, nor especially exciting, it’s worth the time spent reading it.