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  • From Quest to Cure:The Transformation of Dodsworth
  • Bridget Puzon (bio)

Dodsworth is a pivotal book in Sinclair Lewis' career. James Lundquist calls Lewis "master of the popular novel" and points to him as a landmark in the development of the novel in America (85). The critical as well as popular success of his novels made him a phenomenon in his time. Lewis, according to Lundquist, found a formula that had direct and broad appeal for readers and critics in the 1920s: controversial topics, jazzy language, a satiric view of the American experience, and contemporaneity of setting (82-85). Written after successes such as Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry had established Lewis, Dodsworth both contains elements of Lewis' formula and departs from them. The links between Lewis' personal life and the fortunes of Sam Dodsworth, detailed in Schorer's biography (486-490, 516-519), may in fact hold the key to understanding the waning of the satiric gusto in the novel; the personal overwhelms the emblematic to make Sam Dodsworth not the object of ridicule but a feeling protagonist. Lewis' marriage to Dorothy Thompson occurred as he finished the draft of Dodsworth; the Nobel Prize in 1930 had [End Page 573] a significant effect on his later writing (Schorer 556-557).

Characterization, particularly through dialogue, and theme in Dodsworth begin according to expectations created by the earlier novels. The stereotypical American businessman, executive level in contrast to Babbitt, is the central character blustering into action. But unlike his earlier heroes, Lewis focuses on Sam Dodsworth after his career has reached a pinnacle and addresses the more novel question, "what then?" Dodsworth begins a quest analogous to heroes in the bildungsroman of middle life, leaving behind the life of accomplishment to travel an unknown trajectory (Puzon 5-6). In "Sinclair Lewis's Plot Paradigms," Stephen S. Conroy identifies a motif of "setting—escape—return" as the basic design. He regards Dodsworth as a linear journey used as a transforming experience "revealing Lewis's fundamental way of looking at life and society" (5). The explicit structure of the novel, according to Conroy, is the metaphor of travel to carry the story in which "the opportunity of making himself over . . . into an autonomous American" is told (5). However, a closer reading of the novel reveals that Lewis did not complete this pattern or consistently maintain the satiric tone established in the earlier part of the narrative. And it may well be that the personal resonances that Dodsworth's quest had for Lewis account for the deviation both from the expected pattern and from the integrity of the genre.

Dodsworth's quest begins as do many such narratives in the bildungsroman of midlife tradition, in a dark city where the straight way is lost. The quest creates an expectation of adventures in which the hero will overcome external and internal obstacles to arrive at his goal. In fact Dodsworth does complete a search, thereby appearing to complete the projected pattern, but the journey metaphor with its narrative requirements is dropped in a transition to another metaphor, one of sickness and healing, radically altering the narrative drive and affecting the consequences of the narrative method.

A pioneer in the automotive industry, Sam Dodsworth has achieved success and stature, not only in Zenith, but nationally. He is a person of consequence in Babbitt's city. The narrative begins with a choice thrust upon him by the sale of his company, whether to enjoy leisure or to continue work. The latter alternative would place him in a subordinate position within a vast corporation. [End Page 274] His wife's desire to travel tips the scale toward leisure, a time to turn his pioneer spirit into a personal journey. It also apparently leaves him in charge. His interior monologue sums it up: "I've been doing what people expected me to, all my life. Football in college, when I'd as soon've stuck in the physics laboratory. Make money and play golf and be a good Republican ever since. Human cash-register!" (26).

By choosing leisure and a trip to Europe, he uncovers the prejudices in popular American assumptions about Europe; his friend Pearson says...


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pp. 573-580
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