The book takes its name from the principal character, George F. Babbitt, a middle-aged partner, with his father-in-law, in a real-estate firm. When the story begins, in April 1920, Babbitt is 46 years old. He has a wife, Myra; three children; and a well-appointed house in the prosperous Floral Heights neighborhood of “Zenith,” a fictitious city in the equally fictitious state of “Winnemac,” which is adjacent to Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. When Babbitt was published, newspapers in Cincinnati; Duluth; Kansas City; Milwaukee; and Minneapolis each claimed that their city was the model for Sinclair's Zenith.
The novel is divided roughly into thirds. The first seven chapters follow Babbitt closely through a typical workday, from his restless dreaming before he awakens in the morning to his struggle to fall asleep that night. The middle third of the novel reveals Babbitt in various settings: on vacation, attending a business convention, campaigning for the conservative mayoral candidate, giving dinner parties, giving speeches, attempting (in vain) to climb socially, serving as a member of the Sunday School Advisory Committee of the Chatham Road Presbyterian Church, and so on. This section of the novel has drawn criticism about the thread of the plot becoming lost; critics have argued that Lewis seems to move aimlessly from one set-piece to another. The final third of the novel reprises the pattern of Babbitt's midlife crisis: He rebels, is “punished,” and “repents (conforms),” but, toward the end of the story, the possibility of redemptive change is implied in the rebelliousness of Babbitt's son.
Though written well before the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II, and the post-war economic boom, Lewis's comic novel has remained popular into the 21st century. Critics have posed reasons for the book's continuing accessibility to include Lewis's seeming success in identifying and portraying emotions, challenges, and concerns that remain relatively viable over time, and with which modern readers — especially white-collar workers and professionals, dissatisfied housewives, and middle-aged representatives of middle-class America — seem to still easily identify. By the 1920s, the United States was already concluding the process described by historian Olivier Zunz as “making America corporate.” Thus, if the continued popularity of Lewis's characters is any indication, despite the many intervening, superficial advances and changes in technology, in Babbitt's fictional world one can still recognize much of today's, non-fiction one.
In the characterization of the work Babbitt does for a living, Lewis implies a critique of capitalism. In the novel's opening chapter, we are told that Babbitt makes “nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry,” but that he is “nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.” Likewise, while he is home sick in bed, Babbitt, too, reflects on his career; he exclaims to himself that his work is “mechanical business — a brisk selling of badly built houses.”