Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Each according to their means

Current book: Babbitt
Pages read: 257-378 (end)

It would have behooved (Does that word make anyone else think it means "to bestow hooves upon"? Or is that just me? Not a whole lot of use for a word like that, I have to admit, but you could work it into conversation from time to time. "How's your llama sculpture coming along? Quite well. I behooved him yesterday." Ok, I can't think of any other possibilities, but give me time.) me to check the publication date on this book before I hung all my hopes on Babbitt's psychotic stock-crash-induced break. But I foolishly didn't do that, and so I spent all that time waiting in vain for financial disaster to reveal his character in. It's ok, because domestic violence stepped in neatly to take its place, but still. A little economic ruin would have been nice. Not to mention topical. Ahem.

Anyway, after Paul's crime and incarceration, Babbitt feels pretty lost. The guy was his best friend, after all, so it makes sense that he'd take it a bit hard. He expresses this feeling, however, by increased dissatisfaction with his routine, which eventually results in his determination to have an affair. He actually sets out to have one; it's not as though he just happens upon some girl he feels attracted to, but rather that he actively searches. Eventually he finds one, a widow named Tanis (which, forgive me for being a complete dork, is a name I'm unable to mentally divorce from the Dragonlance books, and therefore made the whole thing seem extra ridiculous because I kept thinking Babbitt was having a homosexual tryst with a half-elven ranger), and proceeds to make time with her. Not only does he see her regularly, but eventually he also begins spending time with her friends, a group that seems mostly to drink and sleep around with each other. He gets rougher and rougher, drinking and smoking more and more, and at the same time becomes more and more "liberal," which in this case means professing his sympathy with the socialist agenda and the labor unions.

The men of the Booster club and other like-minded individuals are disturbed by this trend in Babbitt and others, and after a while get up an organization called the Good Citizens' League. (Ever noticed how clubs that need to tell you they're made up of good citizens or right-thinking people or that they're focused on family usually want to destroy most of the things they insist they represent? Lovely people.) For a while he refuses to join and actually stands up for the right of one his friends to speak out on whatever political agenda he deems fit, but after he's shunned by most of the community and his wife develops appendicitis (I realize that seems random. It did in the book, too.), he's scared back into conforming to the Zenith ideal. He reforms himself with due alacrity and once again agrees with everything he's supposed to and is never again seen in the wrong company. At the close of the novel, Babbitt's son, who's finally gone to college, elopes with his girlfriend. (Still the tarty Eunice; she stuck around. Perhaps I misjudged her. She is named Eunice, though.) Her family is very upset, but the last scene of the book consists of Babbitt telling his son that he should quit college and be a mechanic, if that's what he wants to do, that his impulsive marriage was a good thing because he followed his heart, and that Babbitt hopes that his son's choices will make his son happier than Babbitt has been.

Huh. Well, I liked it, that's definite, but it's hard for me to say why. I guess, as I've said before, the characterization was superb. I suppose that, overall, I don't like Babbitt as a person; he doesn't have much going for him, really. He isn't smart or honest or upstanding or even particularly interesting. As a character, however, he's fascinating and intricate in the extreme. He yearns for freedom but when he gets it he doesn't know what to do with it. He resolves over and over again to change something in his life, to rebel against his society and the status quo, and yet he never succeeds - not because he's crushed by the enormity of the task or has moral qualms, but rather because he forgets or finds it inconvenient.

Lewis's illustration of modern life, especially that of a businessman in a small, dull city, is cutting and critical. I think, in the end, he was showing us the old quiet desperation, but also that there are ways out. Lewis never breaks out into actual sermonizing, but he certainly paints a vivid picture. It's so well done that he has no need to point at it and say, "Look! Don't do this! You have so much more that you can do and be! Let Babbitt be a warning to you!" The message makes itself plain in all of Babbitt's actions and in his eventual concession that he wishes it had all, somehow, been different.

Tomorrow, The French Lieutenant's Woman. Scandal and perversion on the English coast!

(Oh, I thought of one! "Circe, have you been behooving sailors again?" Ok, it may only apply to Odysseus, but it's a perfectly acceptable usage. Shut up.)

1 comment:

  1. Love behoove. Use it all the time in teacher mode: It would behoove you to do the assigned reading for tomorrow. Enjoying your posts. Your Dad sent me the link. Have no idea how you have time or energy to do all this reading/posting, ahhh youth.



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