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Reblogged: Babbitt - Sinclair Lewis

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Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt" is a middle-aged, middle-class, real-estate broker, who votes Republican, goes to church, and belongs to the right club. Babbitt is not a fountainhead of evil; he is not particularly zealous about his values; he is even open to toying "in theory" with alternatives in morality and politics. We sense the author's sympathy -- perhaps pity -- for his protagonist. Here is a man who has chosen values which are about average for his background, not  quite happy with his choices, theoretically open to alternatives, practically going to stay put in his comfort zone.

But, why not? The alternatives presented by the author are hardly inspiring. Should Babbitt move to the backwoods and get in touch with nature, or should he mingle with the bohemians in the city, or should he aspire to move into the upper classes? The author gives us a brief look into each of these, and what we see is not inspiring. Each of these is simply another type of life, not better, but just as routine in its own way The message seems to be that we have some choice, but -- in essence -- it does not make much difference. The differences are only cosmetic; we are born into a social class, or we work our way into it, and then we adopt its customs, which are no better or worse than the others.

Lewis's book is naturalism at its best. The actors introspect, and make choices, and direct their lives... and yet, in the end this agency and action is essentially futile... we still end up "choosing" some type of routine, boring conformity. The characters are not inexorably carried along with the average trend; but, not do they battle against it either. The actors are not born with some inherent flaw that they cannot will away; yet, we find them constrained by their own values and choices, unable to radically change the choices they have made.

Clearly not inspiring fiction, but it is worth reading a few such books. I think this type of naturalism has didactic (and "cautionary tale") value. While the naturalism will leave the reader uninspired, the plot carries one along as if one were watching a real reality show. It could serve a purpose, in small doses.

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