The “he” in this instance is Dr. Pickerbaugh, the windbag public health official for whom Martin Arrowsmith now serves as assistant. Pickerbaugh never misses a chance to write a shockingly bad poem about tuberculosis for the paper, or to demand that the city fathers sponsor “Take Cold Showers Week” to spread the good news of his public health ideas (which seem mostly to amount to old wives’ tales with a thin layer of science spread atop). He is so thoroughly lampooned that it should seem obvious that Sinclair Lewis wants to draw contrasts for us—the pompous phonyism of Pickerbaugh with the cold medical realism of Arrowsmith; the unnecessarily restrictive morality and excessively judgmental behavior of Pickerbaugh with the sunny openness and air of freedom that surrounds Arrowsmith. But Martin once again proves able to elude any chance that I might form a high opinion of him.
You see, Pickerbaugh has eight daughters (all named after flowers, even the five year old twins, Arbuta and Gladiola), and the eldest, Orchid, is a charming little flirt, all of nineteen years old, with an eye for a dashing older man (married or not). And Martin proves as helpless at the wheel of his love life as he did in his college days (where, you may remember, he found himself engaged to two women at once…and decided the best thing to do was to tell them both at the same time over lunch).
It’s not that Martin proves increasingly unfaithful to Leora (without ever actually doing anything) that is really sickening. It’s that, even when he pulls back from his impulse to “make love” to Orchid (it should be noted that “making love” meant something rather different in the 1920s…more akin to “wooing” or “hitting on”, depending on one’s approach), he does so for thoroughly self-centered reasons. It’s not that he thinks it would be wrong to treat Leora in such cavalier fashion. It’s not even that he worries about how she’ll treat him if she finds out. He just thinks it would be degrading for a man like him to behave this way—essentially, it would damage his fine opinion of himself. And yes, at times, he thinks of how good and sweet Leora is, and it causes him to pull back from Orchid’s advances….but again, it’s motivated by selfishness. He thinks maybe he would rather have that first toy, after all, and not this bright new shiny thing. Martin is appallingly believable as the man who does all the things that make a person feel guilty, and who experiences none of the joys that ought to accompany such guilty actions—this is how Lewis puts it, and it’s fair. I’m not advocating (Heaven knows!) marital infidelity, but somehow it would be better for his character if he truly loved Orchid—if their furtive conversations and one illicit embrace were a sincere expression of love. His disloyalty to Leora would then at least march under the flag of passion, an emotion that turns somewhere outside himself. But Martin seems trapped in the gravity well of his massive (yet strangely fragile) ego.
I don’t know what to make of all this, other than that Lewis seems to want to bring down every aspect of the Midwestern society he describes, like Samson in the temple of the Philistines. He thinks the men who make up “high society” are ignorant fools, and the men who make up the professional classes are educated fools, and the rest are too vulgar to bother with. The religious are either frauds or fenced in by their own piety; the irreligious are soulless libertines or else aimless wanderers. The landscape grows excessively bleak, frankly–it’s being well-written and well realized, I think, but it’s harder and harder to enjoy. It’s hard to want a bad ending for Martin (who deserves one) but there isn’t much to Martin, if we’re going to have a “redemption” storyline. And the role of science in all this seems to serve less as a theme and more as a setting—certainly it’s not clear to me how the new science is affecting events, for good or ill, and that’s a shame, since an examination of science in the 1920s would be really intriguing to me. I’m trying not to blame the book for failing to be what I want out of it…but the book seems disinterested in being much of anything other than a chronicle of human frailty and childishness, and it’s hard not to blame such a book for failing to offer something more, whether an explanation, a justification (however weak), or a cure.