George F. Babbitt, the main character in the Sinclair Lewis novel, represents the typical middle-class conformist in the American Midwest. He operates a real estate business with his father-in-law, has a faithful wife named Myra, and raises a son and a daughter. He also attends church regularly, opposes any radical viewpoints, and socializes with pals at his country club.
His best pal is Paul Reisling, whom he has known since his school days. The two take vacations together with their families and constantly tease one another. They seem to share the same viewpoints on politics, religion, sports, and every other issue.
When Babbitt sees Paul with another woman, this fraternal bond is threatened. George confronts his friend, who explains that his marriage is no longer endurable. He claims his wife, Zilla, is bitterly unhappy and is constantly nagging him. Babbitt cannot forgive his friend, even after meeting the other woman, May Arnold.
Several weeks later Babbitt is stunned by a phone call. He learns that Paul has been arrested for attempted murder. When Babbitt goes to visit him in prison, Reisling admits that he shot Zilla during an argument with the intention of killing her. Even after a three year prison sentence, Reisling tells Babbitt that he is not sorry for the crime.
Babbitt then starts to question his own marriage and values, the ones he thought Paul had also shared. He spends more time with the town’s radical politician, Seneca Doane, who attended college with Babbitt. The conformist starts publicly agreeing with some of Doane’s radical political views, which disconcerts most of his buddies at the club.
Then Babbitt himself begins an extramarital affair. He sleeps with Tanis Judique, a woman who rents a room in one of his buildings. He also becomes attached to her group of reformists that he lovingly refers to as “The Bunch.” His association with this group causes Babbitt to become alienated from his conformist circle, including his business partner/father-in-law.
Babbitt terminates the affair when his wife Myra becomes ill. He quickly returns to his conformist life and cuts all ties with Seneca Doane and “The Bunch.” The novel ends with George F. Babbitt at his club giving a patriotic speech, espousing all the middle-class values of his set. Nevertheless, Babbitt finds the conformist life even more unfulfilling than he had before his brief rebellion.
Their brief affairs have different results for each character. Babbitt appears outwardly unchanged by his tryst, having returned to his old set of friends and values. He must never again deviate from their rules. Paul Reisling does not have that choice after his release from prison. He is stripped of, or at last free of, the inflexible conformists. He no longer has to endure his unhappy marriage and the monotony of his job. His time in prison, in a sense, freed him. His crime-free friend Babbitt, however, must continue to serve his sentence.