Late in September, a major strike takes place in Zenith. It begins with a walkout of telephone company employees, and they are soon joined by truck drivers and dairy product workers. Many other unions act in sympathy with them and, before long, the city rings with talk of a general strike. Most business and industry in Zenith is almost at a standstill. Everyone in the city feels compelled to take sides in this dispute because the strike is bitter. There are many street demonstrations and fights between strikers and scabs. A fire in one of the closed factories is blamed on the workers. Seneca Doane is one of the few prominent citizens to stand up for the strikers, and he defends a number of them in court. Not surprisingly, all of Babbitt’s friends and associates angrily oppose the workers.
One Sunday, Dr. Drew delivers a sermon against the strike.
Babbitt questions the wisdom of the pastor’s outlook and arouses the suspicions of his friends. Later on, at the Athletic Club, Babbitt speaks out in behalf of an objective evaluation of the issues. His friends begin to grow alarmed.
Eventually, the National Guard is called out to maintain order. Since the officers and most of the enlisted men are from the conservative class, the strikers often receive harsh treatment. Babbitt protests this brutality, claiming that the striking workers are not bomb throwers or revolutionaries, and that they are entitled to their right to protest. Later on, Babbitt is seen attending a leftist street meeting. His cronies begin to fear that he is becoming a radical.
Myra and the children do not understand Babbitt’s political change. They are confused, and likewise, Babbitt himself is confused. He is not a socialist nor a traitor to his class. He is only trying to stand up for fair play and mutual understanding. He wishes he had someone to discuss his problems with.
One afternoon, Tanis Judique calls Babbitt’s office to inquire about some repairs to her apartment. Babbitt decides to take care of the matter personally, and so he goes to see her. When he gets there, they have a cup of tea and soon grow chummy. He tells her about some of his problems, including the scandal about Paul and Zilla and the continuing reaction of his friends to his attitude during the recent strike. Tanis is sympathetic and understanding; she admires his courage. Babbitt brags about his business and social achievements, and she appears impressed. Before long, they start to address each other by their first names and begin to grow affectionate. Babbitt telephones his wife and tells her that he has to work late; he is, of course, going to have dinner with Tanis and spend most of the evening in her apartment. In her presence, he feels serenity and a confidence that he has not felt in months.
Until now, Babbitt’s values have been tested only in relatively minor skirmishes; Verona and Ted’s behavior has put him on the defensive and certain important social dinner parties have turned out badly. Until Paul Riesling’s rash act, Babbitt has never faced such a dramatic moral crisis as Zenith’s labor population deciding to strike.
A year ago, Babbitt would have denounced the strike as traitorous socialism, but he can no longer respond with such an instant evaluation, Babbitt’s newfound liberalism has not matured sufficiently so that he can feel completely comfortable with it; yet, at the same time, he senses that his old “sound and sane” politics are selfish and hateful. Dr. Drew, for instance, whose phrases Babbitt used to repeat so glibly, is now dismissed by Babbitt. Suddenly, Babbitt realizes that Dr. Drew’s calling the strike an “untoward series of industrial dislocations” is nothing but pompous rot. Babbitt becomes so suspect that Chum Frink and Verg Gunch begin acting like secret police, watching Babbitt as carefully as the National Guardsmen are watching Zenith’s rioters.
One of Lewis’ ways of showing us Babbitt’s character is by showing us what or who impresses Babbitt. At present, Babbitt is impressed by Seneca Doane’s and Professor Brockbank’s participation in the workers’ march. When he is at the Athletic Club, Babbitt no longer gives instant lip service to the ultraconservative element that would like to annihilate any dissenting mob. Babbitt cannot see the strikers as abstractions or unpenned animals.
The psychologically exhausting dilemma of taking either the side of the workers or that of management makes Babbitt easy prey for Tanis Judique. Her name is exotic; she wears fluttering black chiffon, and she has an apartment with a view. She offers escape to Babbitt and he accepts her offer. Babbitt’s ego expands, and as the chapter closes, Babbitt is arranging the scene for his seduction of Tanis — a cottage fireplace and streaming rain outside — everything chosen as though it were taking place in a dream, a state of mind in which Babbitt is most at peace.