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The word "Babbitt" entered the English language as a "person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards".
After the social instability and sharp economic depression that followed World War I, many Americans in the 1920s saw business and city growth as foundations for stability. The civic boosters and self-made men of the middle-class represented particularly American depictions of success, at a time when the promotion of the American identity was crucial in the face of rising fears of Communism. At the same time, growing Midwestern cities, usually associated with mass production and the emergence of a consumer society, were also seen as emblems of American progress. George F. Babbitt, the novel's main character, was described by the 1930 Nobel Prize committee as "the ideal of an American popular hero of the middle-class. The relativity of business morals as well as private rules of conduct is for him an accepted article of faith, and without hesitation he considers it God's purpose that man should work, increase his income, and enjoy modern improvements."
Lewis has been both criticized and congratulated for his unorthodox writing style in Babbitt. One reviewer said "There is no plot whatever... Babbitt simply grows two years older as the tale unfolds." Lewis presents a chronological series of scenes in the life of his title character. After introducing George F. Babbitt as a middle-aged man, "nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay," Lewis presents a meticulously detailed description of Babbitt's morning routine. Each item Babbitt encounters is explained, from the high-tech alarm clock, which Babbitt sees as a marker of social status, to the rough camp blanket, a symbol of the freedom and heroism of the West. As he dresses for the day, Babbitt contemplates each article of his "Solid Citizen" uniform, the most important being his Booster's club button, which he wears with pride. The first seven chapters follow Babbitt's life over the course of a single day. Over breakfast Babbitt dotes on his ten-year-old daughter Tinka, tries to dissuade his 22-year-old daughter Verona from her newfound socialist leanings, and encourages his 17-year-old son Ted to try harder in school. At the office he dictates letters and discusses real estate advertising with his employees.
Babbitt is professionally successful as a realtor. Much of his energy in early chapters is spent on climbing the social ladder through booster functions, real estate sales, and making good with various dignitaries. According to Babbitt, any "decent" man in Zenith belonged to at least two or three "lodges" or booster clubs. They were good for potential business partnerships, getting time away from home and family life, and quite simply because "it was the thing to do." Babbitt admits that these clubs "stimulated him like brandy" and that he often finds work dull and nerve-wracking in comparison. Lewis also paints vivid scenes of Babbitt bartering for liquor (despite being a supporter of Prohibition) and hosting dinner parties. At his college class reunion, Babbitt reconnects with a former classmate, Charles McKelvey, whose success in the construction business has made him a millionaire. Seizing the opportunity to hobnob with someone from a wealthier class, Babbitt invites the McKelveys to a dinner party.