The Road to Hell Is Paved With Unwanted Ceramic Owls

An exercise in/of unfinished and unpolished fiction, with interspersed summary of Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis — a brilliant parody of “idealistic” middle class life from the perspective of one man’s (aka, everyman) delusional self-satisfaction arisen from self-perceptions of “superior social standing”, materialism, and delusions of grandeur as derived from comparison between oneself and others  — courtesy of sparknotes.

On April 20 1920, dawn breaks over Zenith, a Midwestern town bustling with new skyscrapers, automobiles, and factories. George F. Babbitt, a 46-year-old real estate broker, reluctantly awakens from a recurring dream about his fairy girl, a slim maiden who fulfills his fantasies of being a “gallant, romantic youth.” In reality, Babbitt is a middle-aged, rather pudgy family man. His home, replete with all the modern conveniences, is located in Floral Heights, the middle-class residential section of Zenith.

Petunia was in the parking lot of her boyfriend’s office building, waiting. It was a small and nondescript one story building in a suburb well outside the big city where he evidently made a lot of money, but she had little interest in money — a taste she would never acquire —  though she worked at the plush corporate headquarters of a purposely snooty worldwide women’s fashion retailer. Petunia’s responsibilities sometimes included making copies of the buyer’s sheets for clothing purchased in China and marked up, for example, from an $8 purchase price and sold through their catalogs and stores for an end price of 98$, to women of a certain self-satisfied confidence like that of the women executives at the retailer, who, according to their oddly loud conversations while in line at the cafeteria, would wear their new garments to garden parties on the expansive grounds of stately homes, or weddings in which the bride would carry pink roses and the place settings would be marked by monogrammed green golf tees. She often wondered if the green tees would ever make it to a gold course and why these women never smiled. Petunia did not aspire to this world. It did not seem like much fun. In fact, Petunia would never fail to be surprised upon encountering those who did aspire to this life, and this would become a lifelong series of such surprises from what she thought of as unlikely sources.

The morning newspaper calms his agitated nerves. He reads it aloud to Myra, but only the popular society column interests her. Babbitt grunts at the praise heaped on Charles McKelvey’s parties at his lavish home. Myra hesitantly ventures that she would like to see the inside of his home. Babbitt asserts that Myra is “a great old girl” and states that it is regrettable that he didn’t keep in touch with McKelvey after they graduated from college. Babbitt kisses her before leaving for work.

Grumbling to himself at Myra’s desire to associate with “this millionaire outfit,” Babbitt exits his home to start his beloved car. He wishes he could dispense with “the whole game.” He doesn’t mean to be irritable, but he constantly feels tired.

While waiting for her boyfriend, Fred, to exit the building, Petunia watched his co-workers parade past the car. Some seemed startled at the sight of her behind the wheel because she was definitely not Fred, yet she was in his unmistakably very bright red car, but then they kept walking.

Petunia liked her boyfriend’s sense of humor, as well as the fact that she had met him once as a child while camping in another New England state, the one he was from, which made him seem more down to earth and where he would register the red Porsche he’d be driving when they would meet again years down the road. The car she sat in now was also red, though not as expensive as the Porsche would be. This one was registered in the town he actually lived in, also outside the big city, which he shared with 2 other very aggressive salesmen. The term “salesman” made her think of Rotary Clubs, Fuller Brushes, and the novel, Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis, who also lived in that other New England state at one point.

Babbitt is first and foremost a parody of post-World War I middle-class American culture. The name of the town, Zenith, implies that Babbitt’s community views itself as the highest point of American civilization. Zenith worships the world of business: its skyscrapers, factories, and automobiles are symbols of rampant commercialism. Babbitt’s home is a miniature representation of the American middle class’s worship of material objects. It has all the modern conveniences, including an alarm clock blessed with all the latest technology.

One might think that Zenith’s gleaming, modern skyline and Babbitt’s slick, modern home imply that Zenith is indeed a wonderful, interesting place to live. However, Babbitt’s fantasy fairy girl reveals that Babbitt is dissatisfied with his life as a middle-class family man. The description of his house reveals that its sleek, modern appearance is just that–appearance. It is designed to show off the occupant’s wealth more than anything else. Lewis states that Babbitt’s house lacks the aura of a home, that it is as impersonal as a hotel room. He compares it to an ad in a magazine for “Cheerful Modern Houses for Medium Incomes,” further emphasizing Zenith’s empty commercialism. Lewis’s description of Babbitt’s house reveals the monotonous conformity of the American middle class. All of Babbitt’s modern household appliances are the “standard” possessions of his class. Babbitt’s house is simply a mass-produced, standardized symbol of middle class affluence. It is like every other prosperous middle-class house in Zenith and presumably like middle-class houses all over the country.

Petunia had the fancy red Saab because her Hyundai was in the shop, and Fred, her boyfriend of several months, had let her drop him off a work in the morning so she could drive to her own office. When she got to her office she’d not been able to get the key out of the ignition so she’d had to leave it unlocked while she ran to her desk to call his office. It turned out that Saab’s must be in reverse with the hand brake on in order to be able to remove the key. Everyone had a good laugh at that. When her boss saw the car she’d advised Petunia, “Marry that man”, but at 21 Petunia felt too young to get married.

[Babbitt’s wife’s] entire outlook on life is heavily influenced by the middle-class worship of material objects, as her argument with Ted about the family car further reveals. Like many other middle-class college graduates, she is more in love with the idea of liberalism than anything else. Ted is obsessed with nice clothing, cars, and girls like other middle-class sons. Again, Lewis emphasizes that the materialistic middle class favors appearance over substance.

Petunia “liked” liked Fred but his friends intimidated her as they were all of the aggressive salesperson type and all talk was of money and commissions. Petunia had convinced herself that Fred was different despite the book on his shelf titled, “How To Dress Rich”, which she thought somewhat hilarious, especially the part about wearing the oh-so-obvious cravat. Petunia’s dress was from the Dress Barn in the same town as her office, but she thought it looked good enough, given the compliments she’d received. It was not her size but it was cheap and flowey so she’d gotten it anyway. Fred had said he’d liked it the last time she wore it.

They’d gotten off to an odd start as weeks had passed since he’d first called her just two days after meeting her in a bar downtown and she’d had been unable to accept his offer of dinner due to firm plans to go to her hometown for her brother’s birthday. She’d then heard from Fred weeks later only because one of the friends she’d been with at the bar that night had been dating one of his co-workers and had suggested they all four go out. They laughed a lot.

Babbitt’s diatribe against Verona’s “liberal” opinions and his reaction to the morning paper clearly indicate that he has few original opinions. Rather, his entire belief system is based on the opinions of his community, often absorbed without question from the newspaper headlines. His middle-class hubris is revealed in his empty diatribe against giving the poor “notions above their class.”

A few minutes before Fred finally emerged from his office building, a woman had walked by and had made a point of staring at Petunia as she sat in the driver’s seat. The woman seemed older than Petunia by six or seven years with a somewhat dated yet preppy dressage and hair which had obviously been blown out straight and set on rollers; women still used hot rollers back then. The woman lingered longer than might be polite and Petunia had the odd feeling that her own hair and dress were somehow not acceptable to this woman. Petunia’s hair was not styled, nor straight.

When Fred, who was a year older than Petunia, had finally emerged from the nondescript one story building, he’d seemed troubled — a different person from the extremely happy guy of the night before and that very morning. Petunia made some small talk yet Fred remained distracted, troubled. Finally Petunia asked what was wrong, to which Fred replied, “Jennifer, our secretary, just said that she saw you in my car and that you “don’t look like my type.” Fred seemed disproportionately unnerved and in Petunia’s mind she saw the book on his shelf.

Years later at another downtown bar near her apartment Petunia and a friend would bump into Fred (after an embarrassingly unsuccessful attempt to escape through the back door, thwarted by a security guard), and he would regale them with stories of having been cleaned out in his divorce from a woman named Jennifer, joking that he’d gotten nothing but an unwanted ceramic owl received as a wedding gift, adding that he could not recall from whom it had been given.

When the bar closed they’d have drinks on his friend’s large boat docked nearby — named for the business scam by which it had been purchased, a scam not to be divulged yet to be hinted at repeatedly — and have non-conversations about material things. The next day they would take a ride in the bright red Porsche registered in the other New England state to save money, and when Petunia picked a long blond hair off the seat and remark that she must be shedding, Fred would laugh and say, “No, I am sure it was already in the car”, and Petunia would be glad to get home.

Petunia would remember this decades later when a friend would say, “So, Jane asked me the other day (imitating a falsetto-ish voice), “Oh, is Petunia your new best friend now?”

Although Babbitt is quick to demand that the poor stay in their assigned place, he and Myra harbor a desire to move into the elite circle of the McKelveys. Myra wants to be invited to their parties. Babbitt criticizes the McKelveys as snobbish highbrows, but it seems that his criticism is merely a means to salve his bruised ego at being excluded from their world. Lewis implies here that typical Americans, regardless of their class, are obsessed with excluding those less fortunate, as well as gaining the acceptance of those more fortunate…

…despite the pleasure he seems to take in his affluent lifestyle and its accompanying symbols, he seems rather dissatisfied. He mutters that he would like to dispense with the “whole game” as he leaves the house.

One Response to “The Road to Hell Is Paved With Unwanted Ceramic Owls”

  1. Mo, checkout the recent New Yorker for a piece by Sedaris on too many Owl chachkies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: