It’s hard to know how to assess the book as a whole. It ends in a strange fashion—the final page, in particular, seems to make it clear that there are only two possible interpretations to the book. Either Sinclair Lewis intends us to think Martin a heroic figure in comparison with all around him, or else Martin is as deluded and incompetent as everyone else we’ve met. And Martin’s position, at the end of the novel, is so strange—he has so fully abdicated responsibility, behaved childishly, and gone off chasing the wildest of geese—that it’s hard to muster up much support for the first of those interpretations.
Which leaves me with the belief that the whole of the novel is designed to cut satirically at Americans, particularly scientists (and those who reject science), the upper class (and the rural hicks), overly masculine men (and overly feminine women…and overly feminine men and overly masculine women), the political movers-and-shakers (and the apathetic), and the excessively introverted (not to mention the excessively extroverted). There are perhaps some passes to hand out: I think, for instance, that Lewis genuinely cares about Leora Tozer Arrowsmith (though he certainly makes a fool of her at times), and possibly one or two of Martin’s scientist heroes (Gustav Sondelius and Max Gottlieb come closest, though both have real failings, especially Gottlieb, that make them ridiculous at times). It is hard to find yourself at the end of the novel, alone on a great height next to Sinclair Lewis, looking down on the whole of American society. He’s skillfully laid our foibles open to the world…but without offering hope, or a sense that there is a path forward. It is a lonely height.
I don’t want to give the sense that Lewis is a Tarkington in satirical clothing. He writes a more engaging story, he chooses a much more interesting central character, and he finds a good broad theme (modern science) to explore. There is some good dialogue, and some really vivid writing about setting in short bursts (specifically, the university at the beginning of the book, and the Caribbean island at the end). The book became a very slow read, but never a painful one. That’s the main credit and criticism I have to offer: Lewis provides a novel which consistently communicates to the reader his talent. But he also provides a novel that fails to engage, since there is no real plot—only a series of events that will allow him to reveal the blunders and weaknesses of everyone involved. He “ends” the novel, but there’s no reason for it to be an end…Martin has made a drastic decision, yes, but no more thoughtfully than any of his other drastic decisions, and there’s no reason to believe his chain-reaction train-wreck of a career will stop at this particular station. If Lewis wants me to think Martin has “grown” or “changed” in any significant way at the end of the book, I don’t think he’s done enough to convince me of the fact.
So, Sinclair Lewis is a writer with talent. He has all of the tools he ought to have, but he lacks creative purpose. Oh, there’s a destructive purpose at work here, no doubt—clearly he wanted to “have a go” at a lot of people, and he gets his way. But there is nothing about the book that provides a window to climb out of…a path that would have led us back out of the pit. Even his most admirable characters, Leora most notably, have no real advice to offer—they are as content with the wretched state of affairs as anyone else is, and almost as responsible for it. And I suppose this is the limit of his talent…he is not good enough to read for the beauty of his writing. I suppose the comments I’ve made above could all apply to his contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his famous novel, The Great Gatsby. And yet Fitzgerald’s art redeems itself by being beautiful…and more importantly, because Nick (the narrator) shows us truth in spite of himself, in spite of his own desperate faults. But no one in Arrowsmith is clear-sighted enough to do this for us…there is no larger world to explore, but only a never-ending sequence of petty bureaucrats and petty society folk and petty homesteading farmers, locked in a death spiral of selfishness that does not even descend rapidly enough to dazzle us.
I’ll certainly give Lewis credit for digging into his subject. I’d never thought much about life in the medical sciences at the moment that things like antibiotics were being discovered and tested—it’s a neat setting, and to the extent that Lewis describes it, it’s pretty interesting. Lewis shows a lot of the “corporatizing” of science, too, and that’s worthwhile. I think he gives the War and Prohibition too glancing a look, but no novel can encompass everything. And it’s certainly a good novel for getting into the head of these Roaring 20’s intellectuals who think they can look down on their entire society…Lewis isn’t Jay Gatsby, but it’s not impossible to see him at the edge of one of those parties, looking down his nose at everyone, sneering along with Owl Eyes at Gatsby’s remarkable commitment to being an authentic phony. I can get some worthwhile insight into the 1920s from this novel—not as much as I’d want, but enough to make it a strength of the book.
I give Arrowsmith the rating “Maybe, for those already interested”. If the basic description of the book—a satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis about a young doctor and scientist in the 1910s and 1920s—is interesting to you on the face of it, because you already have enjoyed one of Lewis’s novels, or because the setting is intriguing, I don’t think you’ll regret reading the book. It may struggle to hold your interest a bit, but then again, maybe not. But the book doesn’t transcend that brief description at all…unlike a novel such as Pride and Prejudice, whose charms powerfully reach many people who wouldn’t have thought they were interested in the romantic troubles of a family of girls in Regency England (count me among this crowd). And let’s emphasize that “maybe”, since I’d have told you I was interested in Arrowsmith based on that description, and in all honesty, I’m not sure I’m glad I read it. I got some good things out of this novel, but somehow it never felt like quite enough.
The Last Word:
As is customary, I allow Sinclair Lewis and his characters the parting shot—this moment at the end of the book involves a particularly intense conversation between Martin Arrowsmith and his wife. Martin’s thinking of going off to work in a laboratory his friend, Wickett, has built out in the woods, away from civilization. And his wife objects:
‘Look here, Mart. You feel so virtuous about wanting to go off and wear a flannel shirt, and be peculiar and very pure. Suppose everybody argued that way. Suppose every father deserted his children whenever his nice little soul ached? Just what would become of the world? Suppose I were poor, and you left me, and I had to support John by taking in washing–‘
‘It’d probably be fine for you but fierce on the washing! No! I beg your pardon. That was an obvious answer. But— I imagine it’s just that argument that’s kept almost everybody, all these centuries, from being anything but a machine for digestion and propagation and obedience. The answer is that very few ever do, under any condition, willingly leave a soft bed for a shanty bunk in order to be pure, as you very properly call it, and those of us that are pioneers— Oh, this debate could go on forever! We could prove that I’m a hero or a fool or a deserter or anything you like, but the fact is that I’ve suddenly seen I must go! I want my freedom to work, and I herewith quit whining about it and grab it. You’ve been generous to me. I’m grateful. But you’ve never been mine. Good-by.’