Sinclair Lewis


Sinclair Lewis

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Arrowsmith Summary

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Arrowsmith is a 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature for the novel in 1926, Lewis declined it with a scathing written response. He was critical that the “prize shall be given 'for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood,'” writing that “This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.” It is also rumored that his refusal of the award was an act of spite over his early work, Main Street, being snubbed by the award committee five years earlier.

Arrowsmith takes place in the fictional town of Elk Mills, Winnemac – the same fictional town and state that figure in several of Lewis's other novels. It follows the life of Martin Arrowsmith, who spends his early life reading medical books, and eventually, unsurprisingly, enrolls as a medical student at the University of Winnemac. At the university, Martin meets the brilliant Dr. Max Gottlieb, who, as his mentor, instills in Martin a dedication to lab research and scientific methodology – as opposed to the purportedly “commercial” interests of the practicing physician. During this period of his life, Martin dates Madeleine Fox, a literature student he later becomes engaged to; however, she is only the first of a very long string of women to whom he will become attached during the novel. Martin leaves Madeleine for a very different woman, Leora Tozer, a nursing student, after having an affair with her.

After graduating from Winnemac, Martin and Leora, now married, move together to the small town of Wheatsylvania; Martin reluctantly leaves research to become a physician because he feels obligated to support Leora. Martin's practice fails to thrive, and Leora has a miscarriage. Soured on small-town life, the couple decides to move to the city of Nautilus, where Martin again becomes a practicing physician. Nautilus, too, turns out to be a disappointment, and the couple ends up in Chicago, where Martin works as a pathologist at Rouncefield Clinic. Even Rouncefield fails to live up to Martin's standards, though; the doctors are unethical and greedy. However, Martin soon hears from his former mentor, Dr. Gottlieb, who is working at a well-known research institute in New York. Gottlieb invites Martin to join his team, and Martin is excited by the opportunity to again practice what he considers science in its purest, truest form.

Things go well in New York for a time. Soon, Martin feels the pressure to publish, and the institute begins to lose some of its initial glamour. Martin makes a major scientific breakthrough, isolating a “bacteriophage” that appears to have the power to wipe out pneumonia and the plague. The finding is exciting, but it turns out that much of Martin's discovery had already been made by another scientist, who published his findings first. Dismayed, but undeterred, Martin continues his research.

After word spreads that bubonic plague has broken out on the fictional Caribbean island of St. Hubert's, Martin is asked to relocate there to do more research and develop a treatment. His wife and several people from the institute relocate there with him. Martin doesn't believe there's been enough research to justify using the bacteriophage without prior testing; it is not in alignment with his interpretation of scientific values. However, after the plague takes his wife and coworkers, and lacking other options, he begins to use the bacteriophage, which seems to work. During his time on the island, he meets the wealthy heiress Joyce Lanyon, whom he later marries and impregnates.

Returning to New York, Martin is hailed as a hero, promoted, and is eventually offered the directorship of the McGurk Institute. Nevertheless, Martin, who feels that he has betrayed his principles, refuses the post. Further, he is not happy with his extravagant new wife. Leaving her and his young child, he travels into the woods of Vermont, where he meets up with his former institute coworker Terry Wickett. Martin and Terry plan to turn Terry's woodland home into a laboratory where they can conduct research free of the pressures and distractions of the outside world. Martin's abandoned wife begs him to allow her to come to him and bring their child, but he refuses her, ultimately sacrificing everything to his goal to become a model scientist.

Arrowsmith is considered an excellent example of a scientific novel – not science fiction, although the novel does involve the fictional element of the plague-eating bacteriophage – but rather a work that concerns itself deeply with the culture, ideology, and unique struggles of the scientific community. Martin Arrowsmith is an interesting protagonist: his obsession with moral purity in the practice of medical research is starkly contrasted, throughout the novel, with his egotism and frequent philandering. Ultimately, his moral ambivalence is the crux of the novel.
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