Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth is another look at that fascinating figure in literature: the American Abroad, and this time it’s 50-year-old car manufacturer, Sam Dodsworth. In this novel which contrasts American and European values and manners, Dodsworth’s business sells to a larger competitor, and feeling at loose ends, he is persuaded to take an extended holiday to Europe by his wife, Fran. The book opens with a short chapter depicting Dodsworth as a young man courting Fran who has just returned from a year in Europe with a veneer of European sophistication. The first chapter is important as it lays a foundation for the story to come. When Sam’s business sells, Fran, leaps at the opportunity to travel. According to her, the small mid-western town of Zenith, a place they’ve “drained everything from,” offers nothing in comparison to the proposed delights of Europe.
Dodsworth, ambitious and driven, is an extremely successful, well-liked man and yet somehow, his wife always manages to diminish him. It’s clear that a trip to Europe will make Dodsworth, very much a home-body, feel like a fish out-of-water. And at first this seems to be true. Trouble begins for Dodsworth quite quickly in the novel when Fran begins a flirtation on board the liner sailing to London. The flirtation becomes one of a series of relationships Fran, a vain, shallow, selfish, pretentious woman, has with various European men.
Dodsworth and Fran, now in middle age (although Fran is quite a bit younger) are depicted as suffering their own crises. Dodsworth’s identity has long been tied to his automobile company, and so he’s cast adrift when he sells his business. Fran, on the other hand, is frantically trying to escape from her age. From almost the moment she raises the idea of a prolonged European sojourn, the desire is connected to the key, transparent revelation that European men admire older women and appreciate them. Then there’s the way she hides the fact that she’s a grandmother.
One theme in the novel is the topic of American snobbery (yes snobbery is alive and well in America!) We meet several ex-pat Americans, and it’s fashionable, possibly even essential in the company of these ex-pats to denigrate Americans and American culture. This is somehow part of the separation of ‘those’ Americans from other Americans who either want to, or imagine that they can blend in with the locals. Fran is insufferable. As the wife of a Zenith car manufacturer, she was a big fish in a small pond. She ruled the roost, and Sam was fine with that as she had a limited, constricted role. Unleashed in Europe, Fran’s snobbery embarrasses Sam repeatedly, and he discovers that in her new environment, Fran’s worst characteristics emerge. In the marital relationship, she’s in the wrong repeatedly, but with “a genius for keeping herself superior,” she flips the cards and turns herself into a victim who is always trying to ‘help’ Sam learn how to behave. It’s no surprise that genuinely nice people drop Fran so that ultimately she’s surrounded by European versions of her nasty self.
But really this is Dodsworth’s story and the tale of his growth as a human being. At first he doesn’t want to travel to Europe, but he goes along with Fran’s desires. Sam very quickly learns that he’s an unwanted presence at Fran’s side, but he opens himself to experience and all that Europe has to offer while Fran intrigues, flirts (possibly misreads signals), and plays the coy innocent with various men. Then when things with Fran become untenable, Sam returns to America. He toys with an ambition to become involved in building a community but when Fran’s telegrams (demanding more money) become alarming he returns to Europe–which, to his surprise, he liked more than he expected. The man who never wanted to leave Zenith discovers that while he still loves his country, the American way of life is different from the European way of life; the values are different.
Do you know, I had the feeling of leisure in France and England. I felt there as though people made their jobs work for them; they didn’t give up their lives to working for their jobs. And I felt as though there was such a devil of a lot to learn about the world that we’re too busy to learn here.
One striking aspect of Dodsworth is how prohibition looms prominently in the novel. On returning to New York in the Aquitania, Dodsworth can’t wait to set foot back on American soil, and he and fellow American passenger, Ross Ireland exchange comments about how much they missed and love America. Reality hits when Dodsworth is caught smuggling booze into the country and then, facing a dry evening, he decides to call his bootlegger. The hustle and bustle of American life, while it was longed for in Paris, soon grates on Dodsworth.
He realized that this capital, barbaric with gold and marble, provided every human necessity save a place, a cafe or a plaza or a not-too-lady-like tea-shop, in which he could sit and be human.
This is a slow, imperfect novel, and it took me quite a while to finish it–not to mention that it took me 28 years to pick it up and start reading it. Dodsworth isn’t exactly an exciting or witty fellow. There are some racial slurs and at one point, Dodsworth threatens to spank Fran–a threat that has not aged well. Sam and Fran’s inequitable relationship would have seemed a little unbelievable if not for the first chapter which sets the scene for Sam seen as socially inferior by Fran, but even so I had to remind myself of that first chapter from time to time. And Fran’s whole European trip as a teenager brings up the issue of European exposure as a sort of tainting experience since Fran comes home to Zenith with an inflated idea of herself and then more than 20 years later prances around Europe acting as if she knows everything and can speak French like a native. There are some marvellous, marvellous moments here–at one point, Sam’s friend Tubs comes to Paris with his plump wife, Matey, in tow and when Sam takes them to a posh restaurant, Tubs’ behaviour is horribly embarrassing. He calls the poor waiter a Frog and asks if he “sprechen Sie pretty good English.”
And here’s a final quote as an example why this novel is well worth reading in spite of its flaws 90 years after its first publication.
We boast of scientific investigation, and yet we’re the only supposedly civilized country in the world where thousands of supposedly sane citizens will listen to an illiterate clodhopping preacher or politician setting himself up as an authority on biology and attacking evolution.
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