I often find myself comparing Lewis to Theodore Dreiser, mostly because I once heard that both were considered for the Nobel Prize, but Lewis prevailed. Dreiser has always been one of my favorite writers, and I defend him whenever anyone mutters something snarky about the "quality of his prose" or the "plainness" of his ideas. After all, while he may not have been the most accomplished stylist, Dreiser wrote with a deep sympathy and curiosity, producing works of fiction in an effort to understand people and promote tolerance. Lewis I know much less about (having not yet read any biographies of him, and only three of his novels so far), but I see him at times as Dreiser's polar opposite, interested in exposing, rather than understanding, the people around him.
At other times, though, I come across paragraphs in Lewis's books of such lyrical expressiveness that I forget my previous belief in his coldness and detachment. Main Street I read many years ago, so I don't remember any particulars; Arrowsmith had its sparks here and there; but Babbitt, despite its unevenness and patchwork quality, deserves its place as Lewis's best-known novel and one of the greatest of the 20th century.
The Babbitt narrative (roughly) resembles a bell curve- beginning with George F. Babbitt's enjoyment of his status as a Good, Upstanding, Right-Thinking, Right-Dealing Fella; peaking during his period of existential doubt and questioning; and ending back where he started, albeit with a touch more sensibility and self-analysis. In Babbitt, Lewis created a character who accepted all of the platitudes and cliches of the conservative 1920s businessman in small-town America, intent on "boosterism," patriotism, and capitalism, come hell or high water.
And then, of course, Lewis introduced the element of doubt and started the ball rolling, until Babbitt started questioning everything in his life in an effort to understand why he was unhappy. Ultimately, he realizes that everyone, himself included, has been trying to play a specific role for which they never quite learned the lines. Babbitt's wife and children say the "usual things," his business associates are all mostly honest but always trying to one-up one another, and any straying from the status quo is seen by the town as an affront. Only Babbitt's friend Paul refuses to blend in to Zenith life, and it's Paul, with his silences and thoughtfulness and ultimate nervous breakdown, who prompts Babbitt to recoil at the hollowness of his own life.
Babbitt's subsequent bingeing and partying might look like a so-called mid-life crisis, but it ultimately reveals the futility of being anyone other than George F. Babbitt. He can either be successful and agreeable, or shut-out and shunned. His fantasies of roaming the wilderness and fending for himself are unrealistic at best, but when he returns to playing the role that others expect of him, Babbitt retains a modicum of disillusionment. And it is that that allows him to finally tell his son to be whatever he wishes to be: mechanic, lawyer, businessman, or anything else. It's this understanding of life as a role or series of roles that finally brings Babbitt some peace.
So while you go read Babbitt (if you haven't already), I'll start reading a Lewis biography!