Book Review – Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis

Rare authors have possessed the capability to portray American society with a unique combination of both wit and disdain. Even fewer have shown the requisite proficiency in the craft of writing to do so while utilizing a setting mostly outside of America’s borders. Sinclair Lewis managed to accomplish all three of these feats, not just in the course of a single career, but in the span on one novel. Dodsworth demonstrated the epitome of the artist’s craft while at the same time, presenting sarcasm on par with that of Johnathan Swift.

No Sinclair Lewis novel would be complete without his use of irony and sardonic humor. Dodsworth fulfilled this expectation. The attached description of a British aristocrat demonstrated how.

Lady Ouston was a beautiful woman and very commanding. She had a high, quick, passionate voice and many resolute opinions. She was firm and even a little belligerent about the preferability of Jay’s to Poiret in the matter of frocks, about the treachery of the Labor (sic) Party, about the desirability (entirely on behalf of the country) of Sir Francis becoming Prime Minister, about the heinousness of beer-drinking among the working classes, about the scoundrelism of roast chicken without a proper bread sauce, and particularly about the bad manners, illiteracy, and money-grubbing of the United States of America.

She had been born—and her father and mother before her—in Nashville, Tennessee. (Location 1556)

Lewis wrote Dodsworth, as he did most of his best novels, during Prohibition. Like his other work during the time frame, he colorfully worked his views on the subject into his tale.

Judge Turpin—an eye-glassed sparrow of a man who seemed to admire Sam, and showed his reverence for the law by taking illicit drink for drink with him. (Location 486)

In the event readers missed the point. Lewis included the following several sentences later.

Tub jabbed at Judge Turpin for sentencing bootleggers while he himself enjoyed his whiskey as thoroughly as anyone in Zenith. (Location 520)

While I enjoyed reading Lewis’ “zingers” on American mores, the disintegration of Dodworth’s marriage served as the central theme. Supposedly, Lewis based the novel on his own marital issues with Dorothy Thompson. Dodworth’s marital woes weren’t spared from the author’s acerbic pen. I supposed that’s why Dodsworth’s emotions and thoughts regarding his wife Fran seemed so genuine, as in the following passage.

…he had suddenly grasped something which he had never completely formulated in their twenty-three years of marriage: that she was not in the least a mature and responsible woman, mother and wife and administrator, but simply a clever child with a child’s confused self-dramatizations. (Location 3907)

This passage represented only one view of Dodsworth’s wife. Not all of Lewis’ prose described her so favorably.   

Another element that made this novel so believable to me was the way Dodsworth perceived himself. The quotation below shows Dodsworth’s reaction to his wife’s suggestion they travel through Europe after his retirement.

I’ve learned that Life is real and Life is earnest and the presidency of a corporation is its goal. What would I be doing with anything so degenerate as enjoying myself? (Location 632)

I recall a story that Ms. Thompson once wrote a letter to Lewis stating to the effect, “Either you’re working, drinking or recovering from drinking.” The above quote seemed a roundabout reference to that sentiment.

Later in the story Lewis presented Sam Dodsworth as the poor, helpless victim of an unfaithful partner.

But between blurred drowsinesses, he saw with clarity that he was utterly a man alone, that his work, his children, his friends, his habitual routine of life, and at last his wife, all the props and crutches with which he had been enabled to hobble through life as a Good Fellow, were gone, and that he had nothing upon which to depend except such solaces as he might find in his own brain. No one really needed him, and he was a man who had never been able to depend on any one to whom he could not give. (Location 6091)

What a requiem for a selfless altruist. Then towards the conclusion of the story (I should point out to readers that I’m shaking my head as I’m writing this) Dodsworth attempted to reconcile with his wife. After deep, difficult reflection he chose to return to his new girlfriend. The novel ended with the following line.

He was, indeed, so confidently happy that he completely forgot Fran and he did not again yearn over her, for almost two days. (Location 7171)

Without any firsthand knowledge of Lewis’ marriage to Ms. Parker, Dodsworth left me with the impression Lewis didn’t see himself as responsible in any way for the relationship’s decay.

I would call Dodsworth an absolute must-read for Sinclair Lewis fans. It possessed all the elements of a great novel by America’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature. Since it took place mainly in Europe, I’d recommend people unfamiliar with his work start out with books he set in the United States such as Elmer Gantry, Main Street or Babbitt. Dodsworth made a cameo appearance in the latter. The fact I read those books enabled me to appreciate the sharp jocularity of Dodsworth and its author even more.

 

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