Main Street (1920) and
Babbitt (1922) by Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951, Nobel Prize 1930)
The “false self” in question is that of Sinclair Lewis, who in both of his most famous novels, is reacting to, in the words of critic Frank Magill: “the smug complacency, narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, and resistance to change of the small-town mentality.” The problem in the America of the 1920’s when Main Street was first published, had nothing to do with American small towns. As we know, the problem was universal and timeless and had everything to do with what was going on within the mind of Sinclair Lewis and his fellow citizens. Lewis may have called the problem conformity to mediocrity, but the real underlying problem was the collective unconscious rife with fear.
Lewis, in both the novels cited, chooses to project his own interior struggle onto the “form” of small town sociology and culture. He creates a protagonist to embody his own crusade against the evils that he imagines are the source of what is wrong with small-town America. As we follow the story of Lewis’ heroine, Carol Kennicott in Main Street, we experience the evolution of the author’s consciousness as he exhibits a deeper understanding and growing compassion for the inhabitants of Main Street.
Like any P-B environment, Main Street is replete with illusions. Carol (Lewis) begins as the idealist who is going to transform Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, replacing ugliness with beauty [truth]. Her superiority to these country bumkins is an expression of both her power and control and her sensation (status and self esteem) false self energy centers. She has a university education and knows what’s best for what she perceives as a backward culture. “To her, it is an ugly, gossipy, narrow-minded village, sunk in dullness and self-satisfaction.”
Predictably, she fails and flees the town and her husband for the glamour of the big city. No surprise, she finds the people there remarkably similar to those she left. They are, in fact, in all fundamental aspects, exactly like the people she fled. With her tail between her legs, so to speak, she returns, wiser and more tolerant. We can feel the change in Lewis himself, who seemed to abandon his initial, biting sarcasm and condescension as he gets more in touch with his own True self.
“She would go on asking questions—she could never stop herself from doing that—but her questions now would be asked with sympathy rather than with sarcasm. For the first time, she felt serene. In Gopher Prairie, she felt at last that she was wanted. Her neighbors had missed her. For the first time, Carol felt that Gopher Prairie was her home.” Carol was expressing Lewis’s own arrival at the most satisfying of human expressions, that of compassion.
Turning now to George Babbitt, we have a full expression of the false self. He is materialistic, pursues pleasure with gusto and has a highly exaggerated sense of his own power and influence. He is everything that Carol Kennicott would have turned away from in disgust. “He is the standardized product of modern American civilization, a member of the Booster’s Club, hypnotized by all the slogans of success, enthralled by material possessions, envious of those who have more, patronizing toward those who have less, yet dimly aware that his life is unsatisfactory.”
Babbitt, unlike his fellow citizens, briefly revolts against the tyranny of the false self and tries to express a different, alternative George Babbitt who doesn’t conform; but this desperate and final revolt fails and he returns, like Carol Kennicott, chastened but wiser willing to be his old self. He once again submits to the dominant value in the town of Zenith where: “A man is measured by his income and his possessions.”
Sinclair Lewis has portrayed a universal character in George Babbitt, but also a universal human dilemma as true today as it was in 1920. “In addition to being an expose` of shallowness, the novel is the chronicle of one man’s feeble and half-conscious attempt to break out of a meaningless and sterile existence.” Babbitt has no chance of succeeding in his revolt against his false self because he is unable to attain the prerequisite paradigm shift that would support such a change in worldview and identity. “The attempt fails because he lacks the inner strength to be independent [self-reliant], and his revolt is ultimately little more than a teapot tempest.”
We can expect that Lewis, like Carol Kennicott and Babbitt was experiencing at least a relative change in consciousness as a result of writing these two significant novels. “By the close of the novel he [Babbitt] has grown in awareness, even if he has proven himself incapable of essentially changing his life.” We will all end up like Lewis and his characters if in all of our searching and revolting, we are unable to choose Simple Reality and create a new identity that does not conform to the demands of the false self. If not, we will continue to project all of our problems onto the other and remain victims of life’s disappointing events and circumstances.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.