Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sinclair Lewis--ARROWSMITH

I had read Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt and Main Street, so I fully expected him to sharpen up his pen and go after the medical profession in this novel. I wasn't disappointed. It is a pointed and painful depiction of the medical field, ranging from small town practitioners to large urban medical facilities to research organizations. The various characters that Martin Arrowsmith meets verge on the Dickensian at times.

Lewis was also prophetic in that the large research institution he depicted has become the norm for today. Most research now comes from large, well-funded institutions, such as universities and drug companies, because the costs of the necessary equipment and supplies have become too expensive in many cases for any but a very wealthy individual.

I had two problems with the novel, something I hadn't encountered in Lewis' other works that I read. One was Martin Arrowsmith, the protagonist, whom we follow over the course of several decades as he attempts to make his way through the world of Sinclair Lewis. There is a saying that goes something like this: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!"

Well, Arrowsmith doesn't get fooled just once or twice but at least four times and possibly five. He just doesn't learn. At the end, he ends up probably where he should have been all along, but it isn't because of some blinding insight on his part. It is the only course left for him, as he's tried and failed at everything else.

Part of his problem was the structure of the novel--which is the second problem I came across. It is highly repetitive. The pattern begins when Arrowsmith moves into a new situation. He is ecstatic; this is Edenic. He admires the people with whom he will be working and intends to model himself after them. After six months or so, he is disillusioned. He intensely dislikes those around him, many of whom he has no respect for any more, and they resent him as much, if not more. He alienates important people, and the only question is whether he will move on before he gets terminated.

He luckily finds a better position in which he is once again highly impressed by the quality of the people and the environment. Then, six months or a year later, he once more finds himself at odds with others around him, and eventually he moves on.

This pattern appears at least four times throughout the novel, and I lost interest in the novel because of this predictability. Ultimately, Arrowsmith comes across as a puppet who marches through various scenarios as his Master pulls the highly visible strings. This is not a novel about the trials and tribulations of Martin Arrowsmith, but an exposure of a particular environment, the medical field in this case.

I would recommend it for Lewis' perspective on the medical field of his day, for both the situations and the various characters. It is as sardonic as his view of the middle class and small town Americans.

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