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Forms of humour in Sinclair Lewis' novels "Main Street" and "Babbitt"

Essay 1990 10 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


Table of Contents


Notes to introduction

1. Contrast as a satirical device

2. Invective

3. Caricature

4. Parody

5. Mimicry

6. Banter, Slang, Colloquialism

7. “Homely Metaphor”



Austin tentatively suggests in an essay entitled “Sinclair Lewis and Western Humor” that the novelist “was a humorist first and a satirist only secondarily”.1 The scholar confirms his view by pointing to the fact that the relationship between Carol and Will in Main Street and between father and son in Babbitt end in a conciliatory spirit and that the happy ending is a “convention in a comic novel”.2

Before we continue our discussion about whether Lewis could be considered primarily a humorist or a satirist, let us first consult Shipley`s Dictionary of World Literary Terms which provides a general definition of the term “humor”:

First applied to the subject of laughter in the 18th century to distinguish the genial and affirmative forms of comic writing, then greatly in vogue, from satire, mockery and ridicule. Now widely used as a generic term for everything that appeals to man`s disposition toward comic laughter. The change testifies to an increasing recognition, due largely to the influence of psychology and particularly the scientific observation of infants, that laughter is, in its simple biological form, genial and affirmative.3

However, we have already found out, that Lewis uses a certain form of irony in his opening passages of Main Street where the old clichés of “pioneering”, “lassies in sunbonnets”, and “bears killed with axes” are replaced by the new cliché of the “rebellious girl” who epitomizes the spirit of the Middlewest.

Now “irony … can extend in theory from pure compassion to pure denunciation, but in practice contains some measure, however slight, of both.”4 “Irony is not at all of one piece, but can register varying degrees of distance or severity, ranging from a satirical bitterness to a benevolent awareness of contradictory impulses…”5

Also three definitions of irony given in Collins Dictionary of the English Language may be taken into account.6

- “the humorous or mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.” e.g. “Main Street is the climax of civilization.” (Main Street, prologue)
- “an instance of this, used to draw attention to some incongruity or irrationality.” e.g. “The car was insultingly cheerful on the drive.” (Babbitt, ch. 7, 3)
- “incongruity between what is expected to be and what actually is, or a situation showing such incongruity.” e.g. “Ezra Stowbody was a troglodyte.” (Main Street, ch. 4, 4) or “Mrs. Bogart was not the acid type of Good Influence.” (Main Street, ch. 6, 71)

The authorial tone which is “the stance or attitude taken by an (implied) author towards his reader, and towards (parts of) his message”7 might be characterized as humorously detached, incongruent, and ironic as far as the prologue to Main Street is concerned. The distance between the (implied) author and his message is also increased because the prologue is “a gem of satiric exaggeration”.8

The term satire originated from Latin Cookery Language, perhaps from the collocation “lanx satura, a full dish, a platter of mixed fruits as an offering to a rural god.”9 Thus the basic sense of the term satire is that of medley or mixture.

In the prologue to Main Street a car occurs together with a general and a humanist; also it is strange and incongruous that the word of a village grocer is said to be respected in places as far away as London and Prague.

To sum up then, we might say that the authorial tone characteristic of Lewis' fiction is one showing an attitude of detachment which is achieved by the (implied) author with the help of satire, irony, or exaggeration reflecting a wide spectrum of tone ranging from bitter denunciation to more genial, benevolent forms of humor, or to an awareness of incongruous, contradictory impulses.

The implied reader, on the other hand, is expected to appreciate the stylistic values of authorial tone, distance and point of view.

In the following passages I would like to see what kind of satirical methods Lewis makes use of and show some examples taken from Main Street and Babbitt which reflect such forms of humor as satirical bitterness, ironical incongruity, and joking, playful language.

Notes to introduction

1 Austin, J.C.: Sinclair Lewis and Western Humor, in: Madden, D.: American Dreams, American Nightmares. Carbondale and Edwardsville 1970, p. 104.

2 ibid., p. 104.

3 Shipley, J.T. (ed.): Dictionary of World Literary Terms. Forms. Technique. Criticism. Boston 1970, pp. 150-151.

4 Leech, G. N.; Short, M. S.: Style in Fiction. London and New York (Longman) 1985, 4th impression, p. 283.

5 ibid., p. 283.

6 Dictionary of the English Language (Collins) 1979, pp. 771-772.

7 Leech; Short, op. cit., p. 280.

8 Austin, loc. Cit., p. 102.

9 Shipley (ed.), op. cit., p. 286.

1. Contrast as a satirical device

The novel Main Street, or at least the first 19 chapters of it, is regarded as a “devastating satire on the small town” 1 and a ´satirical problem novel`2 by literary critics. Also two scholars seem to agree on the evaluation that Main Street cannot be labelled realistic fiction.3

Satire as a generic term is defined by Collins Dictionary of the English Language as a novel, play, entertainment, etc., in which topical issues, folly, or evil are held up to scorn by means of ridicule and irony. (p. 1297)

Yoshida writes that Lewis

As a natural satirist … he exaggerates the follies of the townspeople, contrasts their shortcomings with the desirable strong points necessary for them to live up to the ideal standard cherished in the author´s mind, and as a result the person he portrays turns into a caricature.4

Correspondingly, the dreams of the protagonist, Carol, are so contrasted with the mentality and behaviour of the village population that she experiences disillusionment more than once. Dooley describes Carol as being ‘impulsive, undiplomatic, and ignorant of complications’5 Schorer characterizes her as being ‘naïve’, if not ‘downright silly’.6

When Carol tries to persuade the town millionaire Dawson to finance an ambitious building scheme, she learns that he flatly refuses to encourage her vague town improvement projects. Dawson’s answer shows that he is content with the status quo.

Why now, child, you’ve got a lot of notions. Besides, what’s the matter with the town? Looks good to me. I’ve had people that have travelled all over the world tell me time and again that Gopher Prairie is the prettiest place in the Middlewest.7

Dooley labels Carol ‘a caricature of a reformer, a take-off on the advanced young woman’.8

However naïve and young Carol may be, kindness and responsibility are her most pleasing traits because she looks after the Bjornstam family more lovingly and tenderly than any other representative of one of the local denominations.

Also, Carol is portrayed in such a lively and sympathetic way by Lewis that we as readers can only fully believe the statement made by Lewis’ wife Grace Hegger Lewis who confided that her husband ‘thought Carol’s Chinese party a very fine party indeed and one he would have enjoyed attending.’9

At the party Carol is trying hard to divert her guests as best she can by introducing new forms of entertainment in order to prevent the mechanical performance of rigid stunts.

Now we’re going to play an idiotic game which I learned in Chicago. You will have to take off your shoes, for a starter! After that you’ll probably break your knees and shoulder-blades.10

Later Will reveals to Carol that her guests laughed about her being dressed up as the Chinese Princess Poo and, as a result, Carol resents their poking fun at her. When the play that she directs and stages in Gopher Prairie fails to meet the expectations of the audience including Miles Bjornstam, her dream of improving the cultural affairs of the town are shattered once again. As a member of the town library-board Carol tries in vain to persuade the other members to contribute $ 15 each for the purchase of new books.

Whereas Yoshida describes Carol as “an archetype of a woman who tries to revolt against the archetype of the town and the people”11, Schorer labels the central characters in Main Street “familiar American types – the complacent husband of common sense and the discontented wife with romantic dreams.”12

Yoshida explains that apart from the device of contrast Lewis makes use of the methods of invective, caricature, parody, and mimicry.



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ISBN (Buch)
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Universität Bielefeld – Fakultät für Literaturwissenschaft
humor satire parody irony colloquialism banter authorial tone style in fiction implied author implied reader



Titel: Forms of humour in Sinclair Lewis' novels "Main Street" and "Babbitt"